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April 3, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 2:05pm

Cortana or Siri or Google Now?

Which is the best voice assistant?

By Joe Curtis

Microsoft unveiled Cortana, its own rival to Apple’s Siri, at Build 2014 yesterday.

The virtual personal assistant’s name may be familiar to the gamers among you – she is based on the AI that helps navigate the main character through the series of Halo games.

Fittingly then, the version of Cortana that’s made it into Microsoft’s latest Windows Phone 8.1 operating system is represented by a halo.

She replaces the search function on the OS, and actually speaks to you, which means Microsoft’s finally gotten around to introducing its own rival to Apple’s popular Siri, which dates back to 2011 with the release of the iPhone 4S.

Google Now, the search engine giant’s own Android voice assistant, is pretty clever too. It’s able to preempt your enquiries based on information you allow it to collect on you.

All are likely to benefit from extra attention after the iconic AI operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) that featured in Spike Jonze’s film Her, but they’re years away from being as intelligent.

However, they’re not bad – let’s see just how well all three compare.

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Intuitiveness

Cortana

Cortana

Microsoft’s voice assistant responded impressively to natural voice commands at Build 2014, as well as handling typed queries.
It’s designed to recognise context, meaning additional questions asked in follow-up to an initial query are likely to result in a decent answer. It does this by remembering past searches and – with a user’s permission – scanning emails.

Siri

Apple’s three-year-old offering has made a lot of progress since its initial rollout, and can handle most queries intelligently. Ask it to call someone, set up a calendar event, launch apps and find restaurants and it’ll comply with ease.

Google Now

The Android assistant will deal with everything Siri and Cortana will just as easily, finding the latest celebrity news and weather updates for you – powered by Google’s search engine, it’s possibly slightly ahead of Window’s Bing engine.

Personality

Cortana

Windows ensured Cortana contained her fair share of sass – she’s sharp and witty, and sounds less serenely robotic than Siri. While voice actress Jen Taylor brings Cortana to life, the downside is that she can’t become a he, unlike Siri. So if you want a male assistant, you’re kind of stuck.

Cortana Halo game

Cortana in the Halo game series – Wikipedia

Further upgrades over the years could even see Cortana get a face, just like she does in the Halo series of games.

Siri

Apple has spent three years toning down Siri’s cheeky nature since acquiring the voice assistant in 2011. But it’s still plenty sharp in its responses to some questions.

Google Now

Uncharacteristically for Google, a company famous for its friendly working environment and personal touch, Now is pretty much devoid of personality. Whether that will change in light of Cortana remains to be seen.

App integration

Cortana

Based on Bing, Cortana hooks into a whole range of third-party apps. Ask it where the nearest Chinese restaurant is and it’ll pull answers from Yelp. The Microsoft guys see it as a demonstration of Bing’s capabilities as the firm looks to turn Bing into a platform and services, rather than just a search engine.

It also lets you add stuff to your Hulu queue, and add calorie information on food to your calorie tracker, or ask it to take you to a friend’s Facebook feed.

Siri

Siri

Siri on iPad and iPhone – from the Apple site

While you can launch apps with Siri, you can’t access functions within third-party apps. However, it’s built-in to the operating system in order to link with Apple’s own impressive range of apps covering things like maps, calendar, stocks and iMessage, and can take answers from Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo and Bing, too.

Google Now

An update to the Android system in December 2013 upgraded its third-party app integration. Now when it comes up with search results, you have the option to "open in app" next to some, if you have the relevant app installed.

More integration will improve its offering, and Google plans to do just that, though details are vague at the moment.

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