Earlier this week, Google finally put the Google Assistant onto iPhones. For the first time, Apple fanboys can use Google’s AI to perform a bunch of tricks, but much more importantly, it means we can finally have a Google Assistant vs Siri showdown.
This isn’t a fair fight on several counts: Google’s been doing AI for much longer and has more data to mine; but Siri’s also the built-in AI, which gives her access to far more of the iPhone’s functions. But despite blatant Apple favoritism for Siri, Google Assistant can still pull a bunch of tricks that Siri can only dream of.
The first feature you’re likely to notice is that you can type questions to Google Assistant. If, like me, you’d never be seen dead talking to your phone in public, this is a genuinely game-changing feature. It lets you use all the smarts of Google without needing to say actual words in public and have everyone around you judging your movie choice.
Written queries get treated exactly the same as spoken things: you can write in natural speech, so things like “set an alarm for 7” or “what’s the weather like today” keeps working just fine.
Another of Google’s neat features is that it remembers what you’re talking about. For example, you can ask “Who directed Batman Begins,” and then immediately follow up with “show me pictures of him,” and it’ll bring up images of Christopher Nolan. It goes a long way towards making the Google Assistant feel like a real person, not some kind of information-fetching bot or an enhanced version of Google.
Google will even suggest a lot of these follow-up features to you. Once I’d asked about Christopher Nolan, it provided a bunch of prompts like “Images” and “Movies,” which you can tap to get more info. It feels a lot like the information cards that Google serves up when you do an internet search, but easier to access.
You can ask Google “What’s the status of Delta flight 361 to Atlanta,” and it’ll give you info directly within the app without kicking you out to a web page. Siri’s not even close — as with many things, if you ask it for a flight status, it’ll do a web search and give you the top pages. Even when Google can’t give you precise flight status, it still gives useful info. For example, I tried asking “What’s the status of the Delta flight from Charlotte to Wilmington,” it sent me to a web page for Wilmington airport, with Airline:Delta and Origin:Charlotte already filled in.
Google has opened up the Assistant’s natural-language-processing to a bunch of third-party companies. One of the better ones is Genius, the music recognition and recommendation database. Ask the Assistant “I’d like to talk to Genius,” and you get a new conversation specifically with the Genius bot. From there, you can type in a couple of lyrics, and it’ll tell you what song you’re listening to and information about it.
In many ways, I actually prefer it to Shazam or other services that listen to a sound clip. Quite often, I’m in a bar where a music recognition service won’t work, but I can make out snippets of lyrics. Typing that straight into the Assistant is a little easier than doing a Google search, and gives better results.
This is a little unfair, because both Google Assistant and Siri do have a shopping list feature. But Google’s is much faster and slicker to use, and syncs to a dedicated Shopping List that’s tied to your Google account, and you can easily manage from multiple devices.
Way more importantly, though, Google Assistant doesn’t just keep the shopping list as another list. When you browse to the list in the Home app (or just ask Google Assistant “shopping list,”) you get the option to shop your list using Google Express. You can view the list, browse item options, and then checkout all without leaving the app, or really feeling like you’re doing anything.
Where Siri still wins
There’s one big caveat to all this, though: Google Assistant requires you to open up an app before you can use it. Siri can be activated by your voice or by pressing the home button, which takes seconds off the process every time you use it. Sure, Google’s voice recognition is much better, and it syncs with all your Google accounts, but that doesn’t really matter if you don’t use it. While Siri remains the only option for the native voice assistant on the iPhone — and I don’t see Apple changing that any time soon — the Assistant is still going to be second-best.