The great virtual assistant debate
January 17 2018 10:46 PM

By Harold Glicken

We live in an age of virtual assistants. I have four at my beck and call, ready to guide me through the day.
My personal assistants include Siri on my iPhone and Mac, Cortana on my Windows PC, Amazon’s amazing Alexa on my Echo and a voice that can be changed from female to male on my Google Home Mini. Siri and Cortana are free as part of the Mac and Windows operating systems respectively. The cheapest Echo costs $99, and the Google Home Mini costs $50, although both are frequently discounted.
How deft are they at explaining the intricacies of modern life? I posed five questions to each of them:

1. What is the temperature in Grand Forks, ND?
Echo: Currently it’s 26 degrees with mostly cloudy skies. Tonight you can expect cold weather and freezing rain with a low of 25 degrees.
Google Home: In Grand Forks, it’s currently 25.
Cortana: It’s cloudy and 24, with partly cloudy skies and a high of 29 in the forecast. (A visual display of a 10-day forecast also appeared on my monitor.)
Siri: Pretty cold in Grand Forks. 24 degrees (A visual hour-by-hour temperature graphic appeared on the screen.)
Winner: Siri — I like the “pretty cold” comment.

2. What’s the best way to travel by car to Long Beach, California (I live in LA)?
Echo: I don’t know. I’ll look into it. Ask me later.
Google Home: Los Angeles is 17.7 miles. As I don’t know your speed, I can’t tell you how long it will take. (I didn’t ask for times, just the route.)
Cortana: Siri: OK. I found this on the web …” (Five modes of transportation popped up, but there were no specifics about the best routes by car. One entry pulled up an article on travelling between New York and California.)
Siri: (Same as Cortana)
Winner: None

3. How long will it take to get from LA to Long Beach?
Echo: As I don’t know your speed, I can’t estimate the time it will take.
Google Home: By car, the trip from LA to Long Beach is 39 minutes with light traffic.
Cortana: Distance from Los Angeles, Calif. to Long Beach, Calif. 24 miles. You can get this distance about 28 mins. If you want to planning (sic) travel by plane, for 20 miles, you can get this distance in 32 minutes. (Huh?)
Siri: Traffic to Long Beach is light, so it should take 39 minutes via I-405.
Winner: Siri

4. How long did Queen Victoria rule the British Empire?
Echo: Sorry, I’m not sure.
Google Home: 63 years, 7 months and 2 days … Victoria was the longest reigning British monarch until her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth II surpassed her in 2015.
Cortana: According to Wikipedia, her reign was 63 years and seven months (and) is known as the Victorian Era, It was a period of industrial cultural, political, scientific and military change in the United Kingdom and was marked by a great expansion of the British Empire.
Winner: Google Home

5. What is the status of the wildfires in Southern California?
Echo: Six major fires have been burning across Southern California since Monday. Many are still raging, according to The New York Times … the Thomas Fire in Ventura County and Santa Barbara is only 15 percent contained. (When I asked again, I got an NPR news update with several other news stories.)
Google Home: Sorry, I can’t help with that.
Cortana: No voice response, but an impressive list of news reports about the fires.
Siri: OK. I found this on the web (a list of stories from the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times).
Winner: Echo, which had the best voice response.

So, which one would I use most if I had only one choice? None of them got it right all the time, and these apps and devices can do much more than answer the kinds of questions I posed. For example, Siri will dial your phone calls, and all four will find a recipe for (for example) chilli, and hold your hand as you prepare the ingredients. Siri had some folksy qualities, which I like, while Google Home was more straightforward. In the fire status question, I like the way Echo gave me an update, then transferred to the newscast. Cortana is best used while sitting in front of a computer.
If you have an iPhone, Siri will answer most questions. My grandkids go wild with Echo, begging for kiddie songs. I use Echo mostly for playing music from Amazon’s fee-based library, and I like the way Echo’s little brother, Echo Dot, has Bluetooth connectivity for my external speaker. I also use Echo to control my house lights and thermostat. Google Home can do likewise.
One thing’s for certain, though. If you have an Echo, you don’t need a Google Home. And if you have Siri, you don’t need to rush out and buy a Windows PC for Cortana.
What did we do before we had virtual personal assistants? We looked up information, listened to the radio for traffic updates and pulled out a tattered, stained paper recipe for chilli. — TNS

Harold Glicken is a retired newspaper editor. He can be reached at [email protected] and a collection of his columns can be found

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