Virtual Assistants: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

If you’ve used a smartphone recently, you probably know what a Virtual Assistant is. These digital butlers can do everything from calling up an address, to setting an appointment, to even ordering you a pizza. All three of the major mobile platforms (Apple, Android, and iOS) now have their own Virtual Assistant software, and each has their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we’ll discuss the three major platforms and what you can expect from each.

Apple’s Virtual Assistant: Siri

Siri is probably the most famous of the three virtual assistants we’ll discuss here. Originally added to iOS on the iPhone 4S in 2011, Apple’s take on the technology has been serving up search results and scheduling yoga sessions for quite some time now.

The Good

Siri has some big advantages that put it far ahead of the competition in some respects. For one thing, it’s extremely polished. The Siri interface blends perfectly with the rest of iOS, continuing the cohesive, one-piece look that Apple is famous for. While this doesn’t necessary do anything for the functionality, it certainly makes Siri easier to navigate, and nicer to look at. When it comes to actual function and language recognition, Siri has shown to be top of the line.

The Bad

The one thing that users consistently report as the most annoying thing about Siri is its constant need for an internet connection. This might seem like a no-brainer for things like fetching Google results or map data, but do you really need an internet connection to set your wake-up alarm, make a phone call, or schedule an appointment? We can see how this would get quite aggravating – especially if you’re trying to use your data sparingly.

The Ugly

So it looks pretty, can tell what you’re saying, and needs a constant data connection. Do any of these actually drastically affect the performance of Siri, though? Not really. What does become a huge problem, though, is the fact that Apple has always been very sketchy about how long they store your Siri searches. In fact, even deleting all of your search history, user data, and recent voice input data may not be enough to clear the cache Apple keeps on you. If you’re not super concerned about privacy this may not be a big deal, but it still comes off as a little creepy.

Google’s Virtual Assistant: Google Now

It’s hard not to think Google Now will be the best right out of the gate. After all, it is made by the #1 website in the world, has native support for all of Google’s products, and comes stock on the best phones on the market. However, take a closer look and you’ll see that while Google Now is pretty sweet, it’s far from perfect.

The Good

If Siri is well designed, Google Now is the Mona Lisa. Now, this is entirely subjective – but Google Now does an amazing job of giving off that Web 2.0 look and feel, while simultaneously being one of the most polished Android products out there. This is to be expected, of course, since it’s developed by Google itself and ships with the flagship Android devices. Not to be seen as just a pretty girl with nothing between her ears, however, Google Now packs a major punch in the functionality department. Using location data, Google Now can serve up reminders based on where you are. As in “Google, next time I’m at work, remind me to email my boss about Saturday’s meeting”. And boom, next time your phone detects that you’re at work, Google Now will remind you.

The Bad

The above features sound pretty awesome, but it’s important to hear the drawbacks as well. One major issue of Google Now is that it’s pretty rough on battery life. If you care about how long you have between charges (and come on now, who doesn’t?), Google Now may frustrate you at times. That same location-based feature we talked about above turns out to be a killer on your charge, so be mindful of it.

The Ugly

If you thought Siri was creepy when it came to retaining your searches, Google is Big Brother. Using Google Now means opting in to Google’s data collection – meaning that everything you search, everything you say to Google Now, all of your taste preferences – will be used to build a profile on you. The goal? Target ads at you, of course. Again, if privacy is a concern…well, if privacy is a concern you may be better off just staying off of the internet nowadays.

Microsoft’s Virtual Assistant: Cortana

Last but not least, we have Cortana. Microsoft’s contender in the virtual assistant ring has some pretty slick features, as well as some disappointing drawbacks. Let’s dive in and check it out.

The Good

Cortana has the distinct advantage of being developed by the heavyweights of the PC world: Microsoft. This is a big leg up right off the bat, since it means that Microsoft has the ability to create an ecosystem similar to the one Apple users love to brag about. They’re doing just that, too. With Windows 8.1, we’ve seen some pretty nifty integration going on with their mobile devices. If you have a Windows Live account  (and you have to, to use 8.1), Cortana will follow you across all of your devices. Things are going to get even cooler with Windows 10, too.

The Bad

The worst part about Cortana is that you have to use a Windows phone to use it. No, really – this isn’t meant to be a joke. Windows phones consistently get pretty abysmal ratings when compared to their competition. If you’re full-tilt in with the Windows ecosystem and are excited about Windows 10, it might be cool. If not, you might be better off sticking with a more widely accepted platform.

The Ugly

Using Cortana? We hope you love Bing. Cortana, being a Windows-native product, is built to work with Bing, the search engine that Microsoft just won’t let die. Despite being terrible at just about everything, Bing is still being forced down the throats of Windows users, so be prepared to see a lot of it if you’re using Cortana.

Conclusion

It’s hard to pick a favorite out of the three products we discussed here. Personally, I’m inclined to go with Google Now, mostly because I’m pretty happy with Android overall, and don’t have any desire to switch to Apple or Microsoft mobile products at the moment. What about you? Which virtual assistant do you like best?

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