Tech Talk: Which Digital Assistant Is Most Useful?

Recently, Popular Science tested the most popular Digital Assistants and put them up against each other to determine which one is most useful and which one has the best Artificial Intelligence (AI). At CES 2018, it was quite apparent that these devices are the wave of the future. Though still relatively primitive, the manufacturers are constantly pushing out updates to make them even better. No matter how good they are experts estimates show that sales will almost double in 2018 and by 2020 sales will reach more than $12 billion. People seem to be jumping on the AI bandwagon even though there are many privacy issues concerning exactly where our information is stored and who has access to it, but it does not seem to bother most users. Let us look at how Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby did in their comparison.

All Digital Assistants were capable of handling general knowledge inquirers – what is the weather or what time is it (even in a different time zone) – in a similar fashion and they did a good job. They did note that neither Siri nor Cortana could provide the listener the day, which is something you would need to know when asking about the time in different parts of the world. When it comes to simple trivia questions, all devices did a good job on questions such as; “How big is Texas?”, “How high is the Empire State building?”, “How old is Donald Trump?,” and “What is the population of Pennsylvania?” However, if the questions become more convoluted, the answers are not so definite. They asked the devices, “What’s a movie with Robert de Niro and Al Pacino in it?” Google and Bixby did the best and came up with all five films. Siri found three of the films, but Cortana showed a Wikipedia page for Robert de Niro, while Alexa simply tried to play a video. When it comes to simple questions, these Digital Assistants can nail it, but more complex questions leave a little to be desired.

When it comes to organizational skills, there were a few caveats. Except for Cortana, all of the Digital Assistants could work with Google, Apple, and Microsoft apps. Any assistant will create a new event, but none could give you an idea of what days were free on your calendar. If you ask “What am I doing next week?” newcomers Bixby and Siri were best at displaying your answer – Alexa, on the standard Amazon Echo, which is what they tested, does not have a screen. Accessing your contacts is straightforward and all assistants can “Call John Doe” and “Text Jane Doe.” Siri was the only one that confirmed if you wanted to make the call, while the others just dialed the number. Simply looking up contact information caused a mixed bag of results. When asked, “Where does [name] live?” Bixby and Siri nailed it. Google Assistant and Cortana brought up a web page and Alexa was not able to provide them anything. Accessing the most recent emails was successful with Google Assistant, Bixby, and Siri, however, Cortana could not because of its lack of integration with the Android and iOS operating systems. All of the assistants but Alexa could easily send an email to a specific contact. Alex does not play well with emails, but an update from Amazon could fix that situation.

Just like a good secretary, one of the most important usages of a digital assistant is its ability to remind you of important dates or appointments. This is one category where all of the assistants will excel. Our source threw out a few orders to the apps and setting up an alarm was not problem for any of them, however, when asked to “cancel the alarm for tomorrow”, only Bixby, Google Assistant, and Alexa were able to complete the task. Siri understood “cancel alarm” and Cortana simply could not understand the command and needed to bring up the list of alarms for the user to manually turn it off or delete it. When it came to reminders, all apps work admirably, but with a few differences. If you were vague, such as, “remind me to buy milk”, Bixby, Cortana, and Siri simply saved the reminder, but Alexa and Google Assistant wanted to know when you wanted to make your purchase. If you include a specific day and time for a reminder, all apps could handle that request. When asked to “delete all reminders,” Alexa and Bixby first asked for confirmation and then performed the request. Siri wanted confirmation for each reminder, while Google Assistant and Cortana ignored the request and the testers were forced to perform the task manually.

When it comes to entertainment there is a real mixed bag of responses. Asking them a simple question like “What’s the news?”, Cortana, Google Assistant, Bixby, and Siri will list the top headlines from the internet – Cortana can read them out loud. Alexa takes a more detailed approach and will read aloud the local, national, and even international news. Abbreviating the name also results in different responses. When asking about the Manchester United soccer team by saying, “What was the United score?” Google Assistant and Alexa were spot on with their answer. Siri and Cortana needed the full name to answer the question properly and Bixby brought up a list of results from the web. How the apps handled music was dependent upon which audio service you are attempting to access. Siri, of course, could only work with Apple Music and Bixby could only relate to music files on the device. Spotify works great with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana. Movies were a similar mixed bag – as long as you are connected to Fire TV on the same network, Alexa did a good job of bringing up movies or Netflix. Google Assistant, Bixby, and Siri easily brought up YouTube videos. Siri, of course, would bring up anything stored in your iTunes library, as would Google Assistant with Chromecast. Cortana is not in the same league as its counterparts.

While the above-mentioned queries and commands is a fairly long list of capabilities, it's only a fraction of what these digital assistants can do, and the designers keep adding new features and capabilities all of the time. Any one of these assistants will certainly make your life easier. According to the study, Google Assistant is the winner – and why not – as Google has invested much time and money in their AI. If you are sporting an Android device and you use Google services, Google Assistant is the best way to go. Similarly, if you're invested in the Apple ecosystem, then Siri is your best choice. Alexa’s biggest strength, which relies on a speaker in the house, is its integration with third party companies like Uber, Dominos, iCloud, and Spotify. Cortana is just not as polished as the other assistants are, while Bixby, the newest assistant, is making strong headway and Samsung is constantly sending out upgrades to make it better. If you own a Samsung phone, then Bixby works quite well.

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