Nearly every smartphone and computer on the market today has a smart assistant trapped inside, like a helpful ghost, but how do they stack up against one another? While it may seem like Siri, Cortana, and the nameless Google Now assistant are all just variations of the same thing — and well, they are to some extent — they each have their own quirks, flaws, and strengths. So which one’s best for you? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, as they’re so similar it’s hard to compare them without digging deep into their capabilities. That said, let’s get started.
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, like 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 Creators Update adds even more functionality, including the ability to lock, restart, or shut down your computer. All of this is done using natural language.
While you can store specific bits of information with Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant is constantly analyzing your interactions to learn more about you. This info 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 info, if you allow it to. Cortana is designed to recognize context, so it should be able to understand follow-up 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 (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, and with the Creators Update, it’s easier than ever for third-party developers to include Cortana functionality. The latter update will open Cortana up to developers in a few important ways by allowing developers to add their own Cortana commands, which are tied directly to their respective applications.
Siri has been an integral part of iOS since the launch of iOS 5 in 2011. It started with the basics such as weather and messaging, but has expanded greatly since then and, for the first time, supports third-party integration with MacOS Sierra and iOS 10.
While Siri’s jokes are legendary, the virtual assistant is getting more capable every day. Now, you can ask it to call people, send messages, schedule meetings, launch apps and games, play music, answer questions, set reminders, and provide weather forecasts.
It’s also very good at understanding contextual queries, and with MacOS Sierra and iOS 10, relies a lot less on web results. Siri can also 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 which 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 in MacOS, though, she 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 his or her Mac, or might not want to in a crowded office.
Google Now is different from Cortana and Siri in that it’s designed with less personality, and more functionality in mind. While it is an integral part of Android, Google Now also lives in an iOS app, and can be accessed through the Chrome browser.
It’s easiest to think of Google Now as an extension of Google’s search capabilities, rather than a full-on smart assistant, 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 looks 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 in based on what you’ve previously read on Google.
The platform’s 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.
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 7.0 Nougat.
|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 most fully-featured assistant currently 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 more convenient to the person using it, because it can somewhat anticipate what you might be looking for.
That said, the best smart assistant is the one you have with you. So be sure to try their respective apps on your smartphone, your desktop, and maybe even some of your smart home devices before settling on which one you want to track your every move.