Google isn’t the only one with a voice-activated digital assistant that can serve at your beck and call.
Two other competitors are vying for your attention, with hopes that they will bring superior voice search and perform more tasks pull you away from Google.
First there’s Microsoft’s Cortana, which brings its Halo-inspired name and deep ties to Bing and Microsoft products. Then there’s the scrappy Hound, the product of years of behind-the-scene voice recognition work by Soundhound, a company primarily known for its song identification app.
Can either of them really surpass Google Now? One of Android’s best features is the ability to yell, “OK Google” to your phone and get a snappy response. On the surface, going with another search engine besides Google seems to defeat the purpose of using Android in the first place
But Android is built for openness, so there’s no reason not to put another service to the test. In all fairness, both challengers are in Beta (Hound requires an invite) and won’t have the same home court advantages as Google.
But when it comes to competition, there are no excuses. So read on to find out if you need to squeeze aside Google and make some room on your home screen.
I created a list of 100 questions that represent a broad spectrum of the kind of queries an ideal digital assistant would answer. Some of the items are voice commands that Google already performs, and I wanted to see how Hound and Cortana would handle them.
Others were more aspirational, the idea being they would probably fail, because I wanted to really stretch what the voice search apps were capable of. A few of these were a complete flop; others surprised me.
Two sets of questions were contextual: I started with one question, like “Where’s the best place to get sushi around here?” and then follow it up with “How late is it open?” These were meant to measure how well each service remembers your past questions, knowing what pronouns like “it” refer to, for example.
I asked each question by voice, with the hope of getting the right information and a spoken answer. With that in mind, I rated each answer on the following scale:
- 3 - Perfection! A spoken answer with details, directly tied to the question.
- 2 - Good, with the task performed or question answered. Not as detailed or no voice feedback.
- 1 - The app just performed a web search.
- 0 - No comprehension of the question or an unrelated result. In short, fail.
For one measure, I tallied up their scores to see how they fared in terms of the number of points collected.
The key takeaway is that on a day-to-day basis, for most questions, the best performer is still Google Now. But I was quite impressed with Hound, especially its ability to handle multi-step, contextual questions. With Cortana, I liked the Google Now-style feed of news and information, and it also bested Google in a few spots.
For testing, I also took advantage of Android’s ability to set a different default search app. This way when you hold down on a physical or virtual home button you can launch right into Google, Cortana, or Hound.
The big picture
Taking an average of the responses also showed a win for Google, as even when it didn’t nail the question with a score of “3,” it often at least pulled up some useful information to earn a “2.”
This method of scoring hurt Cortana the most, as I found it to be the most unstable of the batch. I often had to repeat questions, or in a few cases, restart the app because it froze up.
You can check out a Google Sheet that has all the questions and each answer’s rating. Included are a few anecdotal notes. There’s also a Google Photos gallery with a more extensive collection of screenshots.
If there’s one question that illustrates the difference in the approach among the three services it’s their response to, “What is the meaning of life?”
Google gave a straight answer, with the dictionary definition of “life” and a link to Wikipedia. Cortana and Hound, however, were more playful. The latter two tend to infuse more personality with their answers and respond better to natural questions. Cortana even starts off by asking your name and will say it back with some responses.
Google is the king of knowledge
There’s a reason that Google is synonymous with search. Even when it didn’t land a 3 on my scale, Google typically offered information that was useful. No doubt Google’s recent innovations in voice search capabilities played a role here.
And the company’s combination of its search capabilities with Google Now means that you get some cool tricks. Search for a specific sports score, for example, and you will get a Google Now card that updates you about that game. Look up a flight, and the app creates a persistent reminder about it in Google Now.
Where Google occasionally stumbles is in relation to questions of a more conversational in nature. For example, “show me yoga videos” only brought up a page full of ads, whereas I would expect Google to be able to take me to a full selection of instructors contorting themselves in painful ways.
Google is at its best when delivering a straight answer. What the Google Answer Robot lacks in personality she makes up for with a vast array of Internet-mined information, delivering the right answers to questions about the Winter Solstice, age of Quentin Tarantino, and the status of a flight.
Though Google will also be playful at times; you can ask it to flip a coin or roll a die. The app also handled one of the contextual question sets well, providing directions to the Space Needle after I had already queried its whereabouts.
Hound is a more personable, conversational assistant
Hound’s claim to fame is how well it understands human language. It was the only app of the three to correctly understand the question, “Show me hotels in San Francisco for this weekend less than $400.”
Hound was also great at follow-up queries, like finding out if a place was open after locating it in an initial search. It’s also easy to launch another search by saying, “OK, Hound.”
Hound also handled currency conversions like a pro. I could ask for dollars to pounds, then follow it up with “how about in Euros?” without the need to restate the amount. It did this well in the scenarios thrown at it from among the test questions, but also was helpful in everyday situations that required me to find out how late some place was open or to ask for directions.
Hound also offers a little more fun, with the ability to play a game of Hangman using nothing but your voice. There's also a clever “hints” tab on a lot of searches. Hound wants you to get used to talking to it like a normal human, as the app is designed to be more interactive and conversational than Google.
But not all was perfect. No matter how slowly or loudly I pronounced, “what movies are playing tonight?” all Hound would give me was listings for Plano, Texas. I then asked for local cinemas, and it said there were none (there are two less than ten miles from me). It was rather frustrating.
While you can always chalk up the missteps to the beta tag, these problems demonstrate some clear areas where Hound will need to improve. The other hurdle is that web searches are conducted through Bing. It does the job, but Bing has that kind of aura of Internet Explorer. Results don’t feel as relevant, especially given how well Google can tie your results to your personal data.
But Hound was the contender that showed the most promise and original features. I plan on keeping it around to see how it grows and develops, as it definitely does some functions better than Google.
Cortana shows promise, but has a lot of performance issues
Cortana’s best advantage is that the app plays well with some of the features of Android, like opening your calendar or using data from your Microsoft account to better tailor your searches.
It also goes for the personalized approach by learning your name and responding better to some casual questions like, “What’s going on today?”
When I tried that, Cortana served up some calendar appointments, while Google Now just did a basic web search. It was also good at finding relevant news, even recognizing that I might be interested in Android Wear (probably because the app was running on an Android device).
Cortana also passed the taco test, finding several nearby restaurants and and telling me how to get there and their hours. Of course, it taps into Bing services with a few drops of Yelp, so depending on your preferences that may or may not appeal to you. The interface is also very much in line with Microsoft’s other products, which have made a major push on Android recently.
My biggest issue with Cortana was its tendency to often not hear me or misunderstand the question. It also crashed a few times. While it’s expected for a Beta product to have some issues, Cortana has some ways to go before it could be a reliable daily assistant.
As it stands, the most compelling reason to use Cortana is if you’re a Windows and/or heavy Office user. I see Cortana tying deeper into these products, so you could over time have a more fluid experience with all these connected services on Android.
Voice input is the future
The heavy interest in voice assistants by these three companies tells you something: much of the future of search is about voice commands, queries, and contextual information. Services like Google Now also illustrate how search is not always just about a pulling up answers to a question anymore. Good search results take context and multiple data factors to deliver good results.
While Google still has a considerable edge on Android, both Hound and Cortana are worth trying out. Set one of them as your default search option on your Android phone and give it a thorough test by throwing as many questions at it as you can. Apps and services get better with competition, so if nothing else the future of voice search on Android looks like it will be rather healthy for some time to come.