Voice assistants, Siri at Apple
Voice assistants are ready for prime time – but which should you be using?
Get assistance on the Mac desktopSiri - Free, apple.com
Siri has been part of macOS since Sierra. Just click its menu bar icon, or hold system button [spacebar]. On the latest MacBook Air/Pro and iMac Pro, you can also activate it by saying “Hey Siri”.Reverb - Free, reverb.ai
Reverb hooks into Amazon’s online Alexa API (application programming interface) to bring the assistant’s ‘lite’ version to your desktop. It’s a little awkward to use, but it works well.MacAssistant - Free, github.com/vanshg/MacAssistant
While it’s tricky to install, and you’ll need to sign up for a Google developer account and build the code from scratch, MacAssistant is a neat menu bar shortcut to Google Assistant.
While some of us are now used to conversing with Siri, is it the only choice for Apple users or, for that matter, the best? Using some interesting data from Loup Ventures’ Annual Smart Speaker IQ Test (loupventures.com) and hours upon hours with each assistant, we can tell you this: the answers are no, and maybe. The choice is a subjective one and will depend on the devices you already own and the way you like to use them. There’s nothing to stop you taking advantage of the assistants we feature here – you can even use them on the Mac desktop – and while we can make some suggestions, you’ll have to make your own decision in the end.
Let’s start with the obvious: as Apple users, we might naturally default to Siri. It’s baked directly into the Mac desktop, it’s ubiquitous in iOS,powers the smart features of the HomePod and, through these, a direct line to this assistant is available through AirPods and Apple Watch. In terms of ease of installation, it’s likely there’s nothing to install at all: you’re already using Siri, and if you’re not it’s a couple of clicks and taps away on whatever device you might be using – as long as it’s an Apple device. Behind the scenes, Siri has been working on its smarts, with its IQ test score rising significantly between 2017 and 2018 tests, particularly in terms of its ability to deal with navigational queries and local information. General knowledge has risen too: Loup’s latest tests, which survey 800 queries across the four major smart assistants, saw Siri rise from 52% of questions correctly answered to a much more impressive 75%. Unfortunately, there’s currently no official support for Siri outside of Apple’s own kit, and while it might have been the assistant which pulled voice interaction out of the realms of science fiction, we’re forced to admit Siri’s lack of integrations with other devices has hurt it. It’s not just a problem with hardware, either. Apple’s first-party services work perfectly through Siri, as you’d expect, but the same is not always true of third-party apps. Although we were promised (for example) Spotify control through Siri in iOS 12, that currently doesn’t extend beyond opening the app – something Apple claims is down to Spotify not yet buildingthe proper integrations. Whatever the reason, it’s not the handiest when you’re trying to put on some tunes while driving. AirPlay 2 does, at least technically, add more device support to Siri. While you’ll need to speak to a supported Apple device to do the controlling, Siri is happy enough to beam media to speakers that support it as long as they’ve been set up in the Home app. And if HomeKit is your smart home platform of choice – particularly if you’ve invested in HomeKit-only hardware – then Siri is your only choice.
Alexa, Echo, Compute
Siri, as we’ve said, is not the only robotic assistant fruit. You absolutely shouldn’t discount Apple’s assistant, but Amazon’s Alexa is the biggest name and (according to Loup) only slightly less knowledgable than Siri, by a mere 2%. There’s an obvious bias towards Amazonsales in some of its answers – ask Alexa about a product, and you’ll inevitably be offered the Amazon price and the option to buy it, rather than anything more useful – but it can at least deliver answers to most questions. Alexa is a big name, with a big range of first-party hardware to support it, and it’s fair to say that it’s the most widely supported smart assistant protocol on the market – Amazon claims that some 28,000 devices have some kind of Alexa integration within them. That said, the level of control Alexa gives you is sometimes overstated; device skills can get reasonably complex, but they’re usually limited to basic ‘do the thing’ commands. Contrasting Apple’s tight control over Siri, Amazon is much more open with Alexa. You can connect to it through a phone app, and the company has licensed the tech out to other manufacturers in order to create secondary devices – from smart speakers to in-car access to, er, smart routers in the case of Netgear’s slightly disappointing Orbi Voice. According to research firm eMarketer, Alexa currently controls 67% of the smart speaker market. The problem with this is that there are essentially two Alexas: the homegrown one, which offers Echo devices a host of interconnectivity features like announcements and inter-device calling, and the third-party edition, which doesn’t. Licensed Alexa is alwaysquite apologetic, mentioning that it can’t do those things ‘yet’, but quite when (or even if) everything will be on the same page is unclear.
It might be surprising to learn, but Loup’s IQ test marked Google Assistant as the smartest on the market today, with 100% of its queries understood (versus 99.6% for Siri and 99.0% for Alexa) and offering a correct answer a huge 88% of the time. That’s a big number, and Google’s commerce score is far and away the highest of all assistants, working out average prices and stockists without any of Alexa’s self-serving assumptions. Google, much like Amazon, is working on sending Assistant functionality far and wide, though we’d have to say its efforts have been slightly less successful thus far. Various devices, such as the Sonos One smart speaker, have promised to add Google Assistant functions, but integrating it – whether the fault of Google’s API or something else – seems to be more difficult than adding Alexa support. That’s not to say Google hasn’t made it happen at all. The range of kit that supports Assistant is wide and getting wider, there’s an expanding range of first-party devices, and the company is friendly enough with partners like Lenovo that third-party kit can even make use of its own Google Home Hub visual interface.There’s actually a roundabout way to access Google Assistant through Siri, if you install the iOS app. It integrates with Siri’s shortcuts, and a couple of taps gets you set up with an awkward ‘Hey Siri, OK Google’ combo that opens up the guest voice assistant through Apple’s own. We haven’t mentioned Microsoft’s Cortana thus far, and for good reason: it’s really not the best, its device and app support is limited, and it actually looks as if Microsoft is winding down its position as a competitor to the rest by enabling it as an Alexa skill and vice versa. So although big players in home automation, such as Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings and Nest, support Cortana, it wouldn’t be our choice. But what would? Honestly, without a hint of bias, our pick would be Siri, mainly because it’s both so tightly tied to our Apple devices and HomeKit, and because it’s useful as a conduit to the gigantic brain of Google Assistant when using it on mobile devices. But if we were building a smart home ecosystem from scratch, Alexa, at least today, has the upper hand.