Like them or not, voice-activated assistants have become a standard on smartphones, and now desktops, with the inclusion of Cortana in Windows 10 and Siri in MacOS Sierra. They allow us to control our devices hands-free, offer a speedy alternative to typing queries, and they feel like the future.
So which one’s best for you? Cortana, Siri, and Google Now all generally do the same thing, but each has its own set of quirks that make it unique. Let’s take a look at how they measure up against one another.
On Windows Phone, you can use Cortana to make calls, send messages, set reminders, take notes, recognize music, find great restaurants, check your calendar, and more. The Windows 10 version of Cortana adds a few more features, such as the ability to search files by context — i.e. “Hey Cortana, show me presentations I’ve worked on in the past week.” The Windows 10 Anniversary update adds even more functionality, including accessibility from the lock screen and the ability to save and recall information, like where you’ve parked for example. All of this is done using natural language.
While you can store specific bits of information now with Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant is constantly analyzing your interactions to learn more about you. This information is stored in something Microsoft calls the “Notebook,” which includes the places you like to go, people you care about, your preferred quiet hours, and things you might be interested in, among other things. You can even edit it if you like.
Cortana can also read your emails, track your location, watch your browsing history, check your contact list, keep an eye on your calendar, and put all this data together to suggest useful information, if you allow it to. Cortana is designed to recognize context, so it should be able to understand followup requests, and you can phrase things in different ways and still expect a useful answer. You can also type your questions or requests, if you prefer to not speak out loud.
Cortana is not limited Microsoft’s apps, either, as the it can access third-party content as well. For example, asking how many calories are in a banana would not only return the answer, but the option to add that food to your calorie tracker, too (if it supports Cortana). The assistant can also add something to your Hulu queue, or check out a friend’s Facebook feed. More and more third-party connectivity is being added all the time.
Microsoft has big plans for Cortana in the future, including using her voice recognition for something the company calls “conversation as a service,” which will combine Cortana’s listening abilities with bots to help you get things done. Think a conversation over Skype where you’re discussing a business trip. Cortana could automatically search for flights and hotels for you as it learns about your trip.
Siri has been an integral part of iOS since the launch of iOS 5 in 2011. It started out with the basics, and initially offered a limited set of responses to basic queries like weather, sports, and messaging. Siri has expanded greatly since then and, for the first time, will support third-party integration with MacOS Sierra and iOS 10.
While Siri’s joke capabilities are legendary — possibly a holdover from the time prior to Apple’s acquisition — there’s lots of serious things Siri can do for you. You can command it to call people, send messages, schedule meetings, launch apps and games, play music, answer questions, remind you of things later, and provide weather forecasts.
The assistant is also much better at understanding contextual queries, and with MacOS Sierra and iOS 10, will rely on web searches much less. Siri will also be able to get far more specific given that software will be able to integrate with third-party apps and understand follow-up queries. That’s a big change in strategy for Apple, which typically maintains a tight grip on what third-party companies get access to its native functions. Because of this, it’s a bit too early to tell how well this stacks up to Cortana.
Siri can contextually search for files using Siri on MacOS, though the assistant doesn’t seem to have the learning capabilities that Cortana does when it comes to personalized responses. This can make it a bit more difficult to find files through Siri.
Another downside to Siri is its reliance on voice. Cortana and Google Now work easily with text input, but Siri requires voice input (technically, it is possible to edit your dictation after the fact, but that’s no substitute). This is especially annoying with the MacOS version of the assistant, as there are many reasons a user might not be able to talk to their Mac.
Google Now is different from Cortana and Siri in that it’s designed with a more general audience in mind. While it is part of Android OS, Google Now also lives in an app for iOS, and can be accessed through the Chrome browser, too.
It’s easiest to think of Google Now as an extension of Google’s search capabilities, but it does much of what the other two virtual assistants do just as well. Like Cortana and Siri, you can ask Google Now for directions to the closest Chinese restaurant, or what the weather is looking like for the next 10 days. If you let it, Google’s software will utilize your search history and customize its responses based on what it knows about your queries. This means if you ask Google Now to tell you what’s in the news, it will provide articles it thinks you’d be interested based on what you’ve previously read on Google.
Its additional third-party support means that, like Cortana and Siri, you can add new features to Google Now that aren’t a native part of platform.
Related: How to use Google Now
Google’s integration with its search engine makes Google Now one of the most useful virtual assistants out of the box. Unless you’ve never used Google as a search engine before, it already has a treasure trove of data on what you’ve done on the web. It will also learn your habits if you’re using it on a smartphone, and attempt to preemptively serve you a specific card. You can even tell it whether it’s actually serving you relevant cards, so the software will improve over time.
Google Now on Android operates much like Cortana, especially since it’s tightly integrated with the operating system’s search functionality. As you’re doing things on the web, Google Now will pull up relevant information. If you’re reading about a new movie, for instance, it might bring up a card with a list of showtimes for your local theater.
How the three assistants stack up
To make things easier to understand, we’ve created a table that should help clarify what each of the three major voice assistants can and cannot handle right now. These tables are based on the features of Windows 10, iOS 10, and MacOS Sierra, as well Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
|Access functions within apps||Yes||Yes||No|
|Send messages or emails||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Web search powered by||Bing||Bing, Wolfram Alpha|
|Sense of humor||Yes||Yes||No|
Which is the best?
Even with Siri finally making it to MacOS, Cortana remains the best virtual assistant available. Apple’s decision to finally open up Siri to third parties will make a big difference, but it’s too early to tell how much better it will be, or if it can even match what Cortana and Google Now currently can do.
Apple remains at a disadvantage simply based on its own business model. Both Microsoft and Google own services that a large number of web users already use. Combining this with a virtual assistant makes it much more convenient to the person using it, because it can somewhat anticipate what you might be looking for.
Cortana’s upcoming abilities, namely the “conversation as service” component, make Microsoft’s assistant particularly exciting. Not even having to ask Cortana to help you — like Google Now is doing to some extent with Now on Tap — seems like the future of virtual assistants.