All the latest smartphones come with a voice controlled personal assistant – a tiny personality for your phone that does what you say and finds answers to any question. But as with any personality, some are better than others. So, which personal assistant is best - Google Now, Cortana or BlackBerry Assistant?
Search the web
The main thing we use voice control on our phones for is simple web searches. It’s just so easy to tap one button and talk to the phone to find answers to simple questions.
With that in mind, we asked all three assistants how tall Mount Everest is – an easy question to kick things off. As you’d expect, all three got the answer and presented them in little cards (not just a long list of search results like you get when you ask a more complicated question).
BlackBerry Assistant, however, took a lot longer to give us the answer than Google Now or Cortana - although it at least gave us the height in feet, unlike Google Now. Europe may have adopted the metric system, but we like our beer in pints and our mountains measured in feet.
Next we tested whether the assistant could handle contextual search (conversational follow-up questions), so we asked: “Who was the first person to climb it?”
Cortana and Google Now both came up with the answer, although only Cortana credited Tenzing Norgay in the headline. Google Now had the headline ‘Hilary’ and only put the iconic Sherpa’s name in the detail of the result.
BlackBerry Assistant had no idea what ‘it’ referred to and simply brought up a Bing search page for what we had said. Disappointing.
Make a call
After playing with Bluetooth, we decided to make a call. None of the assistants struggled, although the BlackBerry was slower again, but we have friends with names like ‘Dave’, so there wasn’t really anything challenging for the phones to deal with.
Send a text
Sending a text message sounds like it’d be as simple for the virtual assistants as making a phone call, but it’s not. They all struggle with punctuation and if you pause for breathe or to think of what you’re going to say next, they end the message and ask if you want to send it.
Having said that, as BlackBerry Assistant is a bit slower than the other two, it gives you more time to think when dictating a message. That makes it the best for sending longer messages.
OK, we’ve never updated a Facebook status using voice control, but apparently that’s for good reason. Only BlackBerry Assistant was able to do it for us.
Saying ‘Update Facebook status’ to the three phones brought up a Bing search result on Cortana and a list of Android apps on Google Now. BlackBerry Assistant, meanwhile, brought up the Facebook app icon and reactivated the mic, waiting for the status we wanted to post. That’s a big bonus in BlackBerry’s corner.
Change phone settings
It’s a lot easier to change a setting on your phone with a simple voice command than it is to go searching through a full settings menu. So for our next test, we asked all the assistants to turn Bluetooth on and off again.
None of the phones had a problem doing this, but Google Now was noticeably faster than the other two, and BlackBerry Assistant was noticeably slower.
The speed problems for BlackBerry seem to come from processing what you’re saying. It looks like it waits for you to finish talking before working out the whole sentence – you can watch the other two process each word as you say it so it can search more quickly at the end.
Set an alarm
One of the most convenient things to do with voice control on your phone is set an alarm. So for our next test we told our three phones to ‘set an alarm for 10am Saturday’.
Cortana was the only one that set the alarm straightaway. Both Google Now and BlackBerry asked us to confirm, which would be nice if they got the time or day wrong, which they didn’t. But it was really annoying that Google Now didn’t automatically listen for you to confirm, you had to touch the screen again.
BlackBerry Assistant, however, did reactivate its mic and waited for you to say ‘yes’ or ‘confirm’, saving you a touch of the screen.
Our final test was to see how the virtual assistants handled a request to play a song on Spotify. We kept the instruction as simple, saying ‘play Rock Me Amadeus on Spotify’.
Impressively, all three phones opened the Spotify app and quickly found Falco’s ‘80s hit.
The only thing to really separate the three here is the fact Google Now can be used completely hands-free on some phones. Saying ‘OK, Google’ wakes up the virtual assistant so you can give it instructions. That’s really handy if you’re out walking, listening to music and want to change the track.
So which virtual assistant is best?
After spending an afternoon testing Cortana, Google Now and BlackBerry Assistant, we’re honestly hard-pressed to choose a favourite.
BlackBerry Assistant was consistently slower, but it can update Facebook, and be controlled with written instructions if you’re in a meeting or somewhere else that you need to be quiet.
Google Now was probably the fastest overall, but we didn’t like the way you have to confirm alarms.
Cortana was fast and didn’t need us to confirm what we’d said, so it probably edges out the other two as our favourite.
If you use the voice-controlled assistant on your phone, weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below. And yes, we do realise we’ve missed out a certain fruit-based smartphone, but it gets enough press anyway.