Somehow, ZTE built a voice assistant so good it makes Siri look silly

When voice control works, it’s hugely satisfying and often, a real time saver. But when it doesn’t work, it’s hugely frustrating. And, until now, we haven’t found a voice control system that actually works. ZTE wants to become the master of all things voice activated, and has partnered up with firms including Audience and Nuance to create a new, ultimate voice control system. It makes its debut on the Star 2 smartphone, and we got a chance to try it out.

It works. Really, really well. ZTE hasn’t given it a fancy name, or any quirky character traits like Siri. Instead it’s put all its effort on on accuracy and speed to make it standout. A long press on the Home button wakes up the assistant, and it responds to a variety of commands. You can open apps, play music, toggle Wi-Fi, activate the camera, and even swap between front and rear camera lenses using your voice.  You can program in your own phrases to open custom apps, too. Raise the phone to your head, and the assistant automatically asks you who to call. It’s even possible to unlock the phone using a pre-set command, and the Star 2 recognises your voice.

Hands on video

Voice control without an Internet connection

Live demos of this type of feature rarely work every time, but the Star 2 didn’t miss a beat. Not only did it understand, but it responded instantly, and all without an Internet connection. This means you can’t go outside of the system’s pre-programmed commands to search the Web, or ask how tall your favorite celebrity is, but we’ll sacrifice that for a system which actually understands what we’re asking, even in a reception dead zone. Voice control isn’t new, but voice control that actually does what you tell it to do is a complete revelation.

Although ZTE says it’ll operate happily in noisy environments, we couldn’t test the claim out in the quiet hotel room where we used the Star 2. When the Star 2 was announced, we were concerned whether it would respond well to English voice commands, given it was only confirmed for launch in China. We tried it out with both American and British accents, male and female, without issue.

Luckily, the Star 2 is a desirable phone outside of its voice commands. The slim metal chassis makes it feel expensive and well-built, and it’s surprisingly light. It’s also comfortable to hold. While the Snapdragon 801 processor isn’t the newest on the market, it’s powerful and energy efficient. The 13-megapixel rear camera and wide-angle 5-megapixel front cam don’t break new ground, but match most other high-end smartphones available.

It’s the voice controls which set the Star 2 apart though, and ZTE has big plans for it in the future. Earlier in 2014, it set up the Smart Voice Alliance to create a standard voice control platform for use in mobile devices. Judging by the Star 2’s winning performance, it’s off to a very positive start.

No global release plans yet

After we got all excited about the Star 2, ZTE dampened our enthusiasm by pulling an all-too-familiar trick. There’s no U.S. or global release confirmation for the Star 2 yet. We were told it wants to release the Star 2 outside China, but had nothing to share about when (or if) it would happen. ZTE’s making a lot of noise about becoming a major player in the United States, and the Star 2 would, from our biased view, do a far better job at increasing recognition than partnering with sports teams.

It’s a shame, but if we shout about it loud enough, maybe ZTE will listen to our pleas as well as the Star 2’s voice assistant hears our commands.

Highs

  • Voice control that consistently works well
  • Premium metal chassis
  • Lightweight

Lows

  • No global release date
Wearables

Omron HeartGuide brings blood pressure monitoring to your wrist

High blood pressure leads to heart attacks, strokes, and many other health problems, so it's important to keep an eye on. Omron's HeartGuide is a fitness tracking watch that can also monitor your blood pressure from your wrist.
Mobile

The Note 8 and S8 range now have access to the Android Pie beta

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.
Mobile

On a budget? We found the best affordable smartphones you can buy

Here are the best cheap phones for anyone working with a tight budget, whether you're a fan of stock Android or marathon battery life. Find out what you can get for under $500 or far, far less as we round up the best budget smartphones.
Computing

Go hands-free in Windows 10 with speech-to-text support

Looking for the dictation, speech-to-text, and voice control options in Windows 10? Here's how to set up Speech Recognition in Windows 10 and use it to go hands-free in a variety of different tasks and applications within Windows.
Smart Home

A.I.’s humorous side: Here are the funniest things to ask Alexa

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant has a wide repertoire of funny responses, jokes, and hidden replies that you can have fun with. Here are the best funny things to ask Alexa and examples of what her responses are.
Mobile

Learn how to play YouTube in the background on iOS and Android

We show you how to play YouTube in the background with apps such as Opera, Chrome, and Firefox -- along with the premium offerings like YouTube Premium -- whether you have an Android or iOS device.
Mobile

Verizon’s deal could get you a free iPhone XR — but there’s some fine print

Verizon launched a new deal for its smartphones aimed at encouraging customers to open a new line. If you're willing and you want two new phones, you could get a free Samsung Galaxy S9, iPhone XR, or Pixel 3.
Mobile

Android vs. iOS: Which smartphone platform is the best?

If you’re trying to choose a new phone and you’re not sure about the merits and pitfalls of the leading smartphone operating systems, then come on in for a detailed breakdown as we pit Android vs. iOS in various categories.
Photography

From DIY to AAA, here's how to take a passport photo in 6 different ways

If you're applying for a passport or renewing one, you need to submit a photo in your official application. There are strict guidelines, but fortunately, it's something you can do at home. Here's how to take a passport photo.
Mobile

OpenTable points can now be used to whittle down cost of a hotel stay

Have some OpenTable Dining Points built up? Now those points can also be used to make your own hotel discounts. OpenTable is teaming up with Kayak to use points as discounts on participating hotels.
Mobile

Get $100 discount on the Razer Phone 2 for a limited time

The Razer Phone 2 is finally here, and it's got upgraded specs, that super-smooth 120Hz display, and an updated design. Here's absolutely everything you need to know about the Razer Phone 2.
Deals

REI slashes prices on Suunto, Garmin, and Fitbit Versa smartwatches

Though fitness trackers and smartwatches can get pretty pricey, REI is offering some sweet discounts on top brands. Right now, you can get a new smartwatch from Fitbit, Suunto, and Garmin for up to 35 percent off its normal price.
Social Media

Twitter suffers privacy scare as bug reveals tweets of protected accounts

If you set your Twitter account to private and you have an Android device, you'd better check your settings now. Twitter says it's just fixed a four-year-old bug that flipped the privacy switch to make the account public.
Wearables

Check out the four cool Swatch watches you can use for mobile payments

Swatch has announced its Swatchpay technology is now available in Switzerland, enabling mobile payments from your Swatch watch. It works in a similar way to Apple Pay and Google Pay. Here's everything about it.