Touch is so 2011. The next frontier is voice, and Apple helped kickoff that movement with Siri for iPhone. Apple’s virtual personal assistant ties together a range of voice commands and wraps them in a gently comic personality. Siri can take dictation for messages, put appointments in your calendar, tell you the latest Giants’ score, or give you directions to the nearest Thai restaurant.
Siri is built into the iOS platform and capable of using Apple’s line-up of apps, which includes everything from stocks and iMessage, to the calendar and the maps app. It uses Wolfram Alpha, a search technology that’s capable of understanding questions, and it can pull in answers from Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Wikipedia. Unlike its biggest competitor, Google Now, Siri does not pre-empt your needs, it waits for instruction and responds to your commands.
The set up
You will be asked if you want to enable Siri during the initial set up of your new iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. If you didn’t enable it then, head into Settings > General > Siri and toggle it on. You will also find the option to set your language, change the gender of Siri’s voice, determine when you want voice feedback, enter your own contact information, and choose whether to toggle on the Raise to Speak feature. Siri requires a Wi-Fi or cellular connection to work.
To launch Siri, press and hold the Home button until you see the Siri microphone pop up. If you toggled Raise to Speak on then you’ll also be able to launch Siri whenever your iPhone’s screen is on, by simply raising the iPhone to your ear, as you would normally when you want to make or take a call.
If you are using iOS 7 then you’ll see a question mark at the bottom left of the screen when Siri is active. Tap on that question mark for a list of commands that Siri can understand. You can also just say “options” to get the list of possibilities, and for anyone using iOS 6, you can tap the “i” to the right of Siri’s opening question, “What can I help you with?”
Configuration and correction
Siri is capable of remembering your various relationships to different contacts. This means that you can say things like “Call Mom” or “Send a message to my wife” and Siri will know who you mean, but you have to set it up first. The quickest way is to head into Contacts and select your own name and then tap Edit at the top right. Scroll down and you’ll find a section with relationships where you can specify contacts.
You can also just tell Siri directly. Start Siri up with the Home button and say “Steven Hill is my brother” and you’ll get the option to add that relationship and have Siri remember it. If you say “Call my brother,” and you haven’t specified it previously, then Siri will ask you who your brother is, and you can choose a contact.
It can be annoying when Siri doesn’t pronounce names correctly, but you can do something about that. Start Siri say “That’s not how you pronounce Steven,” and Siri will ask you how to pronounce it, and then give you a couple of options to choose from. If you prefer then you can always go into Contacts, select the one you want and tap Add Field and then choose Phonetic First Name or Phonetic Last Name.
You can ask Siri to find all sorts of information for you, set up appointments, send messages, and more. Start Siri up and ask for what you need. If Siri doesn’t understand it will try to question you to narrow your request down. Here’s a brief list of some of the kinds of things you can command or ask:
- Call my wife at home
- Set up a meeting with Jeff at 9am tomorrow
- Where’s my next appointment?
- What day is it?
- Email Dad about the football game
- How do I get home?
- Find a Thai restaurant nearby
- Play Sabotage
- Open Facebook
- Remind me to buy milk when I leave work
- What’s the weather like tomorrow?
- Turn off Bluetooth
- Who directed The Shining?
- When do the Giants play next?
- How far away is the moon?
Siri can understand some conversational commands and it has a basic grasp of context, so if you say something like “Find a Thai restaurant nearby,” then you can say something like “how about Mexican?” next and it will search for Mexican restaurants nearby. This doesn’t work for everything, though.
Edit your text: If Siri hears you incorrectly then you can always repeat your command or question. You can also tap the relevant text in the speech bubble and edit it by typing. You’ll see a line under words that it thinks might be wrong and you can tap on those to get some quick auto-correct suggestions. You can also dictate punctuation in messages, just say “comma” or “period” and Siri will put it in.
Not as great outside the USA: You should generally find that Siri improves over time and gets better at understanding you, though there’s no doubt that it struggles with some accents more than others. It’s also worth pointing out that not all of Siri’s features are available beyond U.S. borders.
Tell it to “Google this” to avoid Bing: When you search for information online you’ll also find that Bing is the default search engine and sadly you can’t change it as the default in Siri, but what you can do is say “Google the best iPhone apps” and it will search Google. The same thing will work with Yahoo or Wikipedia, and you can also ask Siri to search Twitter.
For a complete list of everything you can ask Siri, check out Reddit.
It’s worth experimenting to see what you can find because there are a few comic replies in there if you say things like “Open the pod bay doors” or ask “Where can I dump this body?”
Before we wrap up this section it’s worth mentioning the ability to ask Siri questions like “Where’s my daughter?” or “Is my wife at home?” If you want to keep tabs on your family then you can use Apple’s Find My Friends service. The app also allows you to set alerts when people get to specific locations and to track them, which can be particularly useful for parents. It doesn’t always work perfectly and it is due an update to bring it in line with iOS 7, but if it works for you it can provide real peace of mind.
The future of Siri
Siri has been improving steadily since its first release. It’s faster, more accurate, and has an expanding repertoire of tricks which grows with each new version of iOS. In iOS 6 Siri got the ability to launch apps, provide sports stats, and book restaurants using the OpenTable service. The ability to correct the pronunciation of names is new to iOS 7. You can also now use Siri to play voicemail or control iTunes Radio. Then there’s the Twitter integration, which allows you to ask what’s trending, or find out what a specific contact has been tweeting recently. The option to have Siri read out your new emails is also a welcome addition. Just say “Read my mail.”
It’s tough to predict how good Siri will get, but this Huffington Post article on the origins of Siri provides a real insight into where it came from and what it was originally intended to be. In many ways Apple has cut back on that original vision, partly due the difficulty of reaching agreements with partnered services, but it could give a real hint at the future direction.
While it’s far from perfect, Siri is a potentially useful tool, and it’s becoming a part of daily life for many.
Do you use Siri? Share your experiences in the comments. What do you like about Siri and what doesn’t work for you? Have you got any tips for other users?