MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Asking a personal assistant to read back your new e-mails shouldn’t be that hard, right?
After all, if Google could turn on and off my smart lights, tell me when my most recent bill is due and figure out the square root of 45, certainly it could read back my Gmail. Right?
“Sorry, I’m not sure how to help,” barks the Google Assistant from within the Google Home speaker.
But ask the same question to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa (with an added “skill”), and it’s a success. Both can read back the latest Gmail, easily.
Which just goes to show you, each voice computing platform is not the same. Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant have their strengths and weaknesses.
Voice computing is one of the hottest growth areas, with Amazon and Google in a heated battle to win over control of your home and cars with personal assistants to handle basic computer commands. Amazon, with the Echo speakers, leads the market with 40 million U.S. users, according to market researcher Voicebot.ai, compared to 16 million for Google and its Home speaker. Siri is the most used of the personal assistants, thanks to the strength of over 1.4 billion iPhone owners.
Still, survey after survey shows that Google is the smartest of the personal assistant, with Amazon’s Alexa a close No. 2, and Apple’s Siri was behind.
Once again, we sat down to ask a series of questions – 100 of them – to the assistants to see how they would fare. But we did it differently this time. I wondered: How would each fare if we asked a different set of questions? Namely, what if we asked Amazon’s suggested Alexa queries to Google and vice versa with Siri?
This survey had a different victor, Alexa, with only 22 wrong replies out of 100, to 25 for Google and 43 for Siri. More importantly, it showed that each voice platform has a unique set of differences. Apple’s maligned Siri is best for basics (sending a text, composing an e-mail, adding calendar items), while Google is usually the smartest for math and trivia, best in smart home for quick setup and ease of use. Amazon has way more skills and different things you can do than the other two.
Let’s start with some notable fails.
Alexa and Google can’t send a message on WhatsApp or iMessage
Alexa cannot have an SMS message dictated (although you can call Alexa contacts via the app and type a message there), nor can Google send an SMS text. With Siri, just ask, compose the message and direct it to be sent.
Google and Siri can’t rent a car for you
Google and Siri can’t. First, you’ll need to enable a “skill” in the Alexa app for Avis or Budget, then say “Alexa, open Budget,” or “Alexa, tell Avis I need a car in Boston,” and the process continues from there. Ask Siri, and you get “Here’s what I found on the Web,” with a list of rental car places and Google recites names of car agencies, sans address or phone number.
Alexa and Siri can’t tell you when your next flight is, or when a bill is due.
Alexa and Siri couldn’t do this, perhaps because they’re not reading my Gmail with the eagle eye of Google.
Siri can’t announce that dinner is ready—or help you get dressed for the night. Alexa and Google can.
Siri failed what is one of the cooler features of the voice assistants – a sound effect of a dinner bell and your voice beaming from one speaker to another (that is, if you have at least two of them, in different rooms.) Via a Google Home skill called “Dress Right” and Alexa’s “Able Style” skills, you get sartorial suggestions for the night. Siri offers a weather forecast.
Google and Siri can’t play the song you listened to last Friday.
Alexa got the command right, while Google and Apple offered music we’ve never played, let alone last Friday.
Alexa and Google will play “music I like.” Siri too, but *
The three assistants will respond to “play music I like,” and each does it differently. Alexa bases it on songs you’ve played in the past (with Prime Music) to give you a playlist based on those artists, and it’s usually 100 percent right on. Google Home needs to be linked with YouTube Music, where Google goes through your YouTube and YouTube Music plays to come up with a personalized playlist that’s very good but has too many repeats if you listen for a long time. YouTube Music is a free, ad-supported service and Prime Music comes with your $119 Prime expedited shipping and entertainment subscription.
*Siri will only “play music I like,” if you subscribe to Apple’s $9.99 monthly Music service.
Some other highlights of our survey:
—All could read reviews for the Green Book movie.
—Alexa couldn’t say “Thank you” in Mandarin, while Siri and Google could. Siri could translate “In Brazilian Portuguese, how do you say ‘what are the most popular desserts at this cafe?” while the others couldn’t.
—Alexa and Siri could “divide a $94 check three ways,” while the question somehow stumped the king of math, Google, which said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to help with that.”
—All of them knew when the sun would set in Chicago tonight, how many calories were in a Big Mac, where the closest gas station or grocery store is, the results for 62 times 12, how to spell words and automatically play the morning news. Alexa and Google knew when HBO’s Game of Thrones was returning with new episodes. Siri had no idea.
—Alexa and Google could buy coconut water, Siri couldn’t, but all three could shop for Viva paper towels.
Tip to remember: If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. Often it’s the phrase, the diction, or, there might be a skill in the Alexa or Google Home app to enable the command, like I found for renting a car, hailing a cab and using Open Table for reservations.
Also, do note that we these questions were created by Amazon, Google and Apple to tout the various attributes of their personal assistants, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Siri, for instance, couldn’t shop on Amazon-owned Whole Foods or track your shipping from e-tailer, while Google couldn’t find your iPhone. Yes, Siri performed the worst, but remember, mostly this was at answering Amazon and Google’s questions. Alexa and the Google Assistant didn’t fare too well with all the Siri queries either.
But hey, Google, when you can’t read back Gmail and rivals Alexa and Siri can, clearly there’s some important catchup work to be done.