Which mobile platform - or speaker setup - offers the best voice control technology: Siri, Cortana, Google Now or Amazon Echo's Alexa?
Apple has been launching new hardware left, right and centre in recent months including, of course, the new iPhone SE and iPad Pro 9.7in just last month. But there was a bit of software excitement behind the scenes of that event too, with rumours emerging that Apple would be bringing the Siri voice control system to the next version of Mac OS X.
Siri has made a lot of progress in the last couple of years, developing into an impressive digital assistant that can handle all sorts of tasks on your iOS devices, and even on the latest Apple TV too. But Siri's absence on the Mac has been a glaring omission - especially as Microsoft has had its own Cortana voice-tech running on Windows PCs since the launch of Windows 10 last year. You can use Cortana on the latest Lumia Windows phones too, and there are other rivals lining up against Siri as well.
Google has had a voice-search option built into its apps for both Android and iOS for a while now, and Amazon recently launched its new Echo speaker system that includes the Alexa voice-assistant. The Echo is only available in the US at the moment, but we spent a few days recently with the new iPhone SE, Windows Lumia 950 and the Google app to see how the various voice assistants coped with a variety of requests and commands.
Read next: How to fix the most common Siri problems
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Understanding regional and foreign accents
Siri was the butt of plenty of jokes when it was first launched, but voice-recognition technology is constantly being refined so that it can deal with a wide range of voices, as well as national and regional accents. In fact, accents from different countries don't seem to be too much of a problem for these voice-recognition systems any more. The Amazon Echo is only available in the US right now, but Siri, Cortana and OK Google are used on smartphones sold all around the world, so they have to be able to cope with a wide range of accents.
Read more: Can Siri cope with British regional accents?
If you've got a really strong regional accent, or something like Dick Van Dyke's legendary cockney accent from Mary Poppins then you might get the occasional "Sorry, I didn't catch that." As it happens, I am a genuine cockernee myself, and it was only OK Google that understood my exaggerated "Cor blimey, guvnor!" when I tried a Dick Van Dyke impression as a test.
However, these voice systems are designed to learn and recognise your personal accent and speech patterns as you use them day after day, so it's only the most extreme accents and dialects that are likely to cause any problems.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Dealing with natural language questions
Reverting from Dick Van Dyke mode to my normal speaking voice, I found Siri to be one of the most versatile voice-recognition systems, and it was able to field all sorts of questions, from just asking about the weather to finding a nearby petrol station or looking up flight times on the internet. And, importantly, Siri is also very good at dealing with colloquial language, which makes it feel natural and easy to talk to.
Apple's programming team have obviously had a lot of fun figuring out how Siri can respond to remarks such as "Hey Siri - how's it hanging?" (response: "I'm happy to be alive!"). But when I asked Cortana and OK Google that question they both ended up doing a web search to look up the derivation of that phrase in a few online dictionaries.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Breadth of knowledge
Siri isn't perfect, though, and seemed to be completely stumped by my request for "film times at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch" (a well-known hipster hangout in East London). In contrast, Cortana and OK Google took this in their stride and quickly found the film times on the web for me.
Oddly, though, Cortana could sometimes be completely thrown by a relatively simple question, such as "What day is it today?" That enquiry left it beeping and repeatedly telling us that that it was "thinking" until the Lumia phone turned itself off after a couple of minutes.
One other difference worth mentioning is that Cortana and the Google app both attempt to anticipate questions that you might ask and provide information automatically. Cortana stores a 'notebook' of topics that you're interested in, while the Google app creates a set of 'cards' on similar topics.
This allows them to automatically provide quick updates on the weather, share prices and other information without you needing to ask, whereas Siri just waits until you specifically ask for something first (although the iOS Notifications system can update important information for you as well).
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Running and activating other apps
Another strong point of Siri is that it's designed to work with other Apple apps, such as Mail and Reminders, so you can tell Siri to "Send an email to Cliff" and then even dictate the entire email to your iPhone. That's great when you're driving, or in other situations where you're unable to use your hands, and some cars that support Apple's CarPlay software even have a special Siri button on the steering wheel so that it's always available without taking your hands off the wheel.
Google is also getting in on the driving scene with Android Auto, and if you're using OK Google on an Android phone then it can work with other Android/Google apps to send emails, create reminders and perform other tasks just like Siri. However, depending on the type of phone you have, you may have to activate OK Google from within the main Google search app, rather than being able to activate it from the Home screen as you can with Siri. The iOS version of the Google app is a bit more limited, though, primarily using its voice option for web searching rather than being an all-round digital assistant.
Cortana is also good at working with other apps on Windows devices, and had no trouble creating emails, reminders or notes. We could also use it to launch other types of apps too, such as the Paint graphics app on a Windows laptop, although we were a little disappointed to see that Cortana couldn't handle additional commands, such as pasting a screenshot into the app for us. Even so, Cortana is the only one of these digital assistants that currently works well on a wide range of desktop and laptop computers, as well as mobile devices.
In fact, Microsoft has even launched a Cortana app for iOS (although this is currently only available in the US). That's really throwing down the gauntlet for Apple and Siri, and makes us even keener to see Apple bring Siri on to the Mac as soon as possible.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Switching on accidentally
Speed and accuracy of response isn't the only thing you need to think about. The Amazon Echo recently made the news when a number of owners reported that the Alexa assistant was responding to voices it heard on the television - starting a music playlist unprompted, and even adjusting someone's radiator thermostat in one case.
But that's been a problem for Siri too. When Apple VP Phil Schiller introduced the new iPad Pro there was a point in his speech where he was talking about using Hey Siri - except that he pronounced it "Hey... Siri" - and admitted that he did this in order to avoid activating Siri on iPhones belonging to people in the audience. He was joking, but there was more than a hint of truth to the jest.
We tried Siri out with some videos from YouTube (check out the popular "Siri, call my girlfriend" clip) and it did sometimes respond to voices coming from the speakers on our office iMac.
How to stop Siri, Cortana and Google Now from responding to other people's voices
Siri has an option that allows you to train it to so that it can respond more selectively to just your voice. Go to Settings/General/Siri and then turn Hey Siri off, and then on again. This prompts you to repeat a number of phrases so that Siri can learn to recognise your specific voice, and once I'd used this on my iPhone I found that Siri no longer responded to any voices other than my own.
Cortana provides a similar training option, but it also includes an option that allows it to respond 'to anyone' - perhaps if you're using it on a tablet that you share with other members of your family. You can train OK Google too, and some of the latest Android phones also allow you to create a profile for a 'trusted voice' that can be used to give commands even when your phone is locked.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Which is fastest?
One thing to remember is that all these voice-control systems require an internet connection, which can be either Wi-Fi or mobile broadband. Voice recognition technology requires huge amounts of processing power in order to accurately analyse human speech, which could slow down even the fastest smartphone or tablet. To speed things up these digital assistants offload your voice commands to powerful servers on the internet. Your words are then analysed and the appropriate response is downloaded to your device.
That can cause delays, but we actually found that Siri and its various rivals all responded pretty quickly. Cortana was perhaps the slowest, though - and wasn't helped by its habit of flashing rapidly changing strings on text onto the screen, which create the impression that it's having trouble figuring out what you've just said. And, on our Lumia phone, we also found that Cortana would sometimes pause briefly to update its notebook feature before responding to our commands, which could be annoying at times.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Methods of activation and 'always on' options
Siri, Cortana and OK Google can all be activated in two ways. Pressing and holding the Home button on an iOS device activates Siri, while Cortana and OK Google let you tap a microphone icon on the screen.
However, all three systems also provide an always-on option, which tells your phone or tablet to constantly listen out for a key phrase, such as "Hey, Siri" or "OK Google", which it recognises as the start of a new command. The Amazon Echo will keep listening as long as it's turned on, although there is an option to turn its microphone off if you want to.
Many people have asked how these always-on option might affect battery life on their mobile devices - and, in fact, most older iOS devices only allow you to use the Hey Siri option when they're connected to a power supply. But when we left our iPhone SE and Windows Lumia 950 running with these options turned on we found that they drained less than 1% of extra power from the battery each hour. In addition, Siri and Cortana both get turned off automatically when your phone battery drops below 20%, so you can probably leave them on all day without worrying too much.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Controlling the smart home
Of course, the ultimate aim with these voice-recognition systems is a Star Trek future where you control all sorts of devices with your voice commands. Apple's got that future firmly in its sights, and the ability to use Siri to tell the new Apple TV to "find films with Tom Cruise" or "play Game Of Thrones season 3 episode 7" shows the future potential for voice-recognition technology.
Apple's HomeKit allows you to extend Siri's voice controls on to other devices too, such as the Philips Hue lighting systems, or Elgato's Eve thermostat controls. Unfortunately, there aren't many other companies that currently support HomeKit and it's the Amazon Echo that really seems to be making the running here. The Echo allows manufacturers of other devices to create 'skills' that can be used to control their devices, and the Echo already works with a wide range of home-automation devices from companies such as Philips, Nest and Samsung.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Which is the best voice-control tech?
Siri's flexibility and accuracy with colloquial language does make it one of the outstanding personal digital assistants in the mobile arena, but there's no doubt that it's got plenty of competition. And with Microsoft extending across a wider range of devices, and Amazon trying to take a lead in home automation, Apple and Siri will have their work cut out to decide which digital assistant will control the home of the future.
Next page: Our comparison of some of Siri and Cortana's features from 2015, written by Lou Hattersley.
What is the best AI voice assistant: Microsoft Cortana or Apple Siri? In this Siri vs. Cortana feature, we look at two AI assistants. Apple Siri is the famous voice behind the iPhone; Cortana is the newer Microsoft equivalent, coming soon to Windows 10 on all platforms. So which is best: Siri or Cortana? We think that Cortana has the edge in terms of semantically being able to segue into your life, and the fact that it is now baked in to Windows 10. But Siri is, in our experience, a better and more accurate tool. Right now at least.
The good news is that by the end of the year you will be able to try out Cortana on your iPhone, as Microsoft is making the tool available as an app for iOS. Here, then, is our Siri vs Cortana comparison review. For more on Siri, take a look at our complete guide: How to use Siri: 'Hey Siri!' and all the other Siri features
Siri vs Cortana: what they are, why they matter
Anything Apple can do; Microsoft can do later. It's an adage, but almost four years after Apple made Siri an integral part of iOS, Microsoft released Cortana, its Siri-a-like feature for Windows Phone.
While it's easy to scoff at Microsoft following again in Apple's footsteps, voice control has been making real gains in recent years and Apple was never going to be the only tech company to have a voice control aspect to its phones. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that Google's 'Okay Google' Google Now service is one area in which [whisper it] Android is better than iOS.
Siri itself has made some real strides in recent months and is now more responsive and more intelligent than ever. Siri has become more intelligent and in the UK more capable than ever. But Cortana is also a rapidly improving feature. And when Windows 10 drops as a free upgrade for Window PCs and laptops in late July 2015, Cortana will be a part of it. We expect Siri to make its OS X bow with the upcoming El Capitan release, although Apple is currently staying coy on that subject.
Interestingly Microsoft is making Cortana available for Android and iOS, so pretty soon you will be able to use it on your iPhone, alongside or instead of Siri.
So there has never been a more important time to compare the Apple- and Microsoft voice assistants. And in this feature this is what we are going to do: we're going to look at Microsoft Cortana vs. Apple Siri.
Other things you might like to read:
Funny things to ask Siri: watch our video and laugh at Siri's responses to our questions
Get to know iOS 7: Siri
How do I get old Siri back? Change the Siri settings in iOS 7.1 to hear the old Siri voice again
Siri vs Cortana: What is Microsoft Cortana?
Cortana is a voice activated assistant for Windows Phone devices, soon to be baked into Windows 10 for all platforms. It operates much in the same way as Apple Siri. Users ask Cortana questions, or make requests, and it answers them or activates the appropriate feature on the phone. Like Siri, it has a name, and a personality to make the process of talking to your phone seem less weird.
Video game buffs will know that Cortana is the name of the Ai companion in the famous Halo series. Microsoft no longer owns Bungie, the makers of Halo, but it seems to want to bring this artificial agent into the real world. For more on Cortana, see: Here's what Windows Phone's rumored digital assistant needs to win you over
Cortana vs Siri: activating the voice assistant
Users activate Cortana in much the same way as Siri. Hold down the Search button on the Windows Phone (running the Windows 8.1 update), and Cortana will appear. Now speak the request, such as "call Alex" or "set an alarm for 8 o'clock" and Cortana will respond accordingly.
Unlike Siri, Cortana is designated as an app in Windows Phone. So it has its own icon that you can tap (this also activates Cortana).
Siri is activated by holding down the Home button on the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.
What neither system does, just yet, is persistently monitor the audio and respond when you say, "Siri" or "Cortana" out loud. You have to activate both systems by physically tapping the device. We're sure this functionality is coming at some point down the line, on both devices, but it probably has functionality and battery implications at the moment.
Siri vs Cortana: Which devices will run Microsoft Cortana
Cortana first came along as part of the Window 8.1 update. Today Cortana is available as what Microsoft deems a 'beta' to all users of Windows Phone 8.1 in the United States and the UK, as well as China Users in certain countries can also choose to opt-in to the alpha for the English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish versions of Cortana on Windows Phone. In most of these regions, Cortana is also available via Windows Insider to both PC and mobile preview users of Windows 10.
Windows 10 launches at the end of July 2015 as a free upgrade to all users of Windows 7 and Windows 8, on PC, laptop, tablet and smartphone. Cortana will be part of that update.
On PCs and tablets Cortana will be accessed through the search button in the taskbar, while on smartphones Cortana will still be brought up using the search key on the device. Microsoft has also announced that Cortana will soon be available on other mobile platforms. An Android release is set for July 2015 followed by an iOS release later in the year. So pretty soon you will be able to use both Cortana and Siri on your iPhone. Cortana is also coming to Xbox as part of the Windows 10 roll out. It's gonna be everywhere - like it or not.
Siri vs Cortana: What can you do with Cortana and Siri
Both Siri and Cortana offer a wide range of similar functionality. Both Cortana and Siri enable you to do the following tasks:
Make calls to contacts
Send texts and emails
Create calendar events
Search the web
Look up Movie times
Siri vs Cortana: What Cortana has over Siri
Cortana has a few (not many) features that it lists that are unique. These are things it can do that Siri cannot. Here are some that we have heard of:
Cortana can look up flight times and flight information directly
Cortana has contact based reminders. So Cortana can give you a reminder when you start texting or emailing a person.
Cortana features Shazam-style music recognition.
These do not seem like make-or-break features to us, and we think that Siri will feature Shazam and flight times. The contact-based reminders feature is more interesting, and Microsoft should deserve credit for coming up with a unique feature for Cortana (even though the rest of Cortana owes such a big debt to Siri).
Siri vs Cortana: sense of humour
Cortana has the same humorous retorts that have made Siri famous. You can ask Cortana to tell you a joke, or you can ask Cortana about Siri and get similar snarky responses to Siri would reply about Google. If anything it seems that Microsoft has made Cortana even edgier than Siri, leading the American Comedian Arsenio Hall to create this a skit in which both Siri and Cortana start to fight on air.
Siri vs Cortana: the verdict
For the time being it seems that both Siri and Cortana offer similar functionality, although we are impressed with Microsoft's approach of tying reminders and events to people and prompting you when you get in touch. In-depth testing will allow us to explore whether Siri or Cortana offers better basic voice recognition, although both services will evolve the more you use them. In our limited experience, however, we find Siri subjectively easier to use.