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Voice assistants, or virtual assistants, are more than just the cool, often-female voices that respond to your verbal requests to play a song or check the weather: They are the point of communication between you and all your connected devices. But whether your voice assistant is the hub of your smart home, or simply a smartphone-based helper that tells you if it’s raining, the best assistants streamline your relationship with technology.
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The Best Voice Assistants: Summed Up
|‘Delete recording’ options|
|Instant translation technology|
|IoT compatible brands|
How We Chose the Best Voice Assistants
The value of a voice assistant hinges on the number of things it can control. On your phone, it should be able to access apps and accomplish simple tasks. At home, it should be able to complete household commands, like switching the light bulbs on and the thermostat off.
Voice assistants that boast broad compatibility give you seamless control over disparate technology, and, by extension, over the comfort and security of your home. It takes a major platform with a broad range of compatibilities to create a truly worthwhile voice assistant. Other, lesser-known options exist, but can’t compete when it comes to controlling devices or responding to queries.
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Third-party developers are flocking to a handful of well-known platforms. In order of their popularity with developers (according to a study by Adobe Analytics):
- Amazon Alexa
- Google Assistant
- Apple Siri
- Microsoft Cortana
- Samsung Bixby
We focused our research on these five voice assistants. All are available via smartphone, but we also highlight the best smart speakers that feature the voice assistants.
Correct information, completed tasks
The highest calling of voice-controlled technology? They allow our devices to recede into the background, enabling technology to “disappear.” In day-to-day usage, voice assistants live up to this mission by answering general questions (one of the leading uses for voice assistants and smart devices) and completing tasks. How long does it take to hard boil an egg? Can you set my alarm for 6:30 AM? You should only have to ask once to get relevant, high-quality responses. A 2018 study by SEO and digital marketing firm Stone Temple (now Perficient Digital ) tested the smartness of digital personal assistants by comparing the accuracy and completeness of responses to over 4,000 questions. Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana pull to the front, with Siri in fourth place.
Affiliated smart speakers
In our smart home survey, we asked over 1,200 people about their favorite home automation devices. Smart speakers and hubs came out on top. Add to this the fact that the majority of people use voice commands when home alone, according to a 2019 Perficient Digital survey, and you have good reason that your voice assistant should be accessible via smart speaker. Google, Amazon, and Apple all offer various smart speakers and hubs that run their voice assistants. Microsoft’s is only available through third-party devices. Samsung doesn’t yet offer an in-house hub, though one is slated to be released in late summer 2019.
The Best Voice Assistants
Smart home support
No mobile experience
Why we chose it
Amazon Alexa is highly capable of answering general questions and performing tasks such as providing a news briefing or calendar reminder. The voice assistant recently gained a Follow-up Mode that allows you to give multiple commands to Alexa. Simply give your follow-up command after your first and Alexa will respond without having to be woken up or reactivated. More importantly, these conversational capabilities show that Alexa is keeping pace in the quickly evolving world of voice assistant technology. Research suggests that she is learning more quickly than the competition, exhibiting increasing ability to handle natural language requests.
Smart home support
Of all the voice assistants we compared, Amazon Alexa boasts the greatest compatibility with other smart home devices. Most voice assistants work with popular smart home picks like the Philips Hue lights and the Ring doorbell camera, but Alexa is compatible with 7,400 brands and counting — contrast that with Google Assistant’s roughly 1,000 and Siri’s 50-ish. Granted, Google Assistant is catching up, but Alexa still leads the pack when it comes to the number of options you have for automating your home — an important feature if you want to shop third-party devices as you build your smart home.
“Voice assistant technology is still in the early stages and requires a learning curve.”
Founder, Rarely Impossible
Most voice assistants will help you complete general tasks, but Alexa’s connection to Amazon offers the most seamless shopping experience. You’ll need an Amazon Prime membership to shop, but the service makes it easy to place, cancel, and track orders. You can even ask Alexa if Amazon is offering any exclusive deals.
Points to consider
A recent study by Perficient Digital revealed that Amazon Alexa has a slight tendency to answer questions incorrectly or not provide a relevant answer. At times, it might even take a few attempts until you get the answer you seek. However, it is important to note that this is also due to Alexa now answering a much larger range of questions — the likelihood of an inaccurate responses increases with the number of prompts. Lee Mallon, founder of voice and mobile application company Rarely Impossible, explained that while useful, “voice assistant technology is still in the early stages and requires a learning curve.” It takes a little practice to learn how to phrase voice commands to get consistent and effective responses.
No mobile experience
Unlike its leading competitors Google Assistant and Siri, Alexa is not pre-installed into mobile phones. You can still use the voice assistant by downloading the Amazon Alexa app, but it isn’t as seamless as simply activating Google Assistant or Siri by voice.
Expanding range of capabilities
Second-best in device compatibility
Why we chose it
While the capabilities of voice assistants are constantly changing as companies release new updates, a 2018 digital assistants accuracy study by Perficient Digital found that Google Assistant holds the highest grade in the class — it’s still smarter than Amazon Alexa. During the test of more than 4,000 questions led by Stone Temple before the Perficient Digital merger, Google Assistant consistently outperformed other industry leaders, repeatedly recognizing and correctly responding to questions. If you have a Google Home speaker, Google Assistant can understand two commands at the same time — a step up from Amazon Alexa’s Follow-Up Mode. Alexa can tell you the indoor temperature and then adjust the thermostat, but Google Assistant can adjust the thermostat and also switch on the TV. Thanks to newer, smaller technology, Google Assistant is also faster.
Google Assistant falls behind Alexa when it comes to smart device compatibility, but the voice assistant is rapidly catching up. In 2018 Google launched routines — a feature identical to Amazon Alexa’s routines — allowing you to string multiple actions together using a single command. For example, say “Hey Google, good morning” and your assistant will turn on the lights, tell you the weather, and stream music. Google Assistants are also now compatible with everything from refrigerators to third-party smart displays and can understand commands made in pairings of languages, which is important in bilingual households. Continued compatibility and language advancements are a good sign that Google Assistant won’t be an outdated choice anytime soon.
Unsurprisingly, Google Assistant has better compatibility with Google brands. Due to a May 2019 merger, those brands now include the Nest smart home suite. When asking questions, your assistant will look for the answer on Google — the most popular search engine in the world. Alexa, on the other hand, uses Bing.
Points to consider
Second-best in compatibility
Although Google Assistant is quickly gaining compatibility with popular home automation and home security services, Alexa is the industry leader when it comes to voice assistant integration. While Google is moving to restrict third-party compatibility in an effort to control ecosystem security, Amazon has more of an open-door policy with more than 60,000 compatible smart home devices. Google’s count is a fraction of Amazon’s at 10,000. For those who prioritize flexibility when automating their home, Alexa is the better option.
Limited voice applications
Limited device control
Why we chose it
When choosing a voice assistant, it makes sense to consider the technological ecosystem of your home or the brands and devices you use. For those who are loyal to the Apple ecosystem, opting for Siri-enabled products can lead to a more streamlined tech experience. Apple’s products excel at leveraging each other’s strengths — iPads, HomeKit devices, and the HomePod smart speaker are specifically designed to work better together.
Siri, who comes pre-downloaded on the world’s 1.4 billion active Apple devices, works with smart devices that are compatible with Apple’s home automation service HomeKit. The number of integrations is limited compared to Amazon and Google, but Apple regulates what is available to ensure the products are effective and easy to use. Activating an automation feature is as simple as giving a regular command, which stands in contrast to specialized activation words required by Alexa and Google Assistant. Better still, if you have a HomePod, any HomeKit products you already have set up will integrate with the speaker on their own during setup.
Siri’s main advantage over competitors is the ability to understand multiple languages. The voice assistant currently understands 21 languages, compared to Alexa’s three and Google Assistant’s four. It’s important to recognize that Siri only supports English when using the Apple HomePod smart speaker, but her multilingual capabilities on the iPhone make her a strong option for those who speak a language outside of Alexa or Google Assistant’s limited options (English, French, German, Japanese).
Points to consider
Limited voice applications
The biggest drawback of Siri is that it doesn’t have many voice applications. The tight focus on the Apple ecosystem means popular services like Spotify or Pandora aren’t accessible through Siri. For those loyal to Apple, having an iTunes account and skipping other music services isn’t an issue. But for those who enjoy third-party services, a more flexible voice assistant is the better bet.
Limited device control
While Siri will allow you to control basic home automation features through HomeKit devices, other devices with the voice assistant aren’t quite as versatile. For example, the HomePod smart speaker won’t allow you to add events to your calendar through Siri and cannot identify different voices. For those with Apple products there’s no reason not to use Siri, but for those who want more versatile voice assistant devices for their kitchen or living room, Alexa and Google Assistant devices are the way to go.
Guide to the Best Voice Assistants
Remember that voice assistants are still developing
Voice assistants are evolving quickly, but they’re still in the early stages of development. Adam Fingerman, Chief Experience Officer and co-founder of ArcTouch explained that, at the moment, “Voice assistants are best for simple and quick answers or tasks. They are undeniably useful, but at the kindergarten level in terms of potential uses.” In other words, voice assistants aren’t yet able to complete exceedingly complex tasks or respond correctly to every request. But they’re still capable of adding convenience in the day-to-day.
Stay up to date with advancements
Voice technology is evolving quickly. That means new services and features for voice assistants like the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are constantly under development — they’re heading to Toyota cars, smart glasses, and even toilets. Knowing what advancements are on the way will help you keep track of your voice assistant’s capabilities so you’re making the most of the technology at your beck and call.
Choose the voice assistant to match your needs
Most voice assistants perform similar tasks, but some excel when it comes to specific use cases. For example, those who shop with Amazon Prime frequently will benefit from using Alexa. Those who enjoy digging up information online should opt for Google Assistant. In addition, you can always mix and match depending on the situation, such as using Google Assistant or Siri on your phone while using Alexa at home.
“A smart speaker is a listening microphone.”
Dr. Florian Schaub
Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan
Be proactive about privacy
Tech companies are responding en masse to public concern with privacy. A lot of it is lip service — talking up dedication to privacy in keynotes and press releases. But we have also seen promising, practical changes, like Google’s introduction of the kill switch in the newest Google Nest Home Hub. Innovations like this one affect smart home technology, an obvious focus in the privacy debate.
We talked to Dr. Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies human-computer interaction. He wants to see tech companies make more changes to the design and function of smart home tech in the interest of user privacy. In the meantime, his advice is to keep aware: “A smart speaker is a listening microphone.”
Turn smart speakers and hubs off for private conversations. And think about where you place them in your home. A 2019 study conducted by Adobe on voice assistant use found that consumers are most likely to place their smart speaker in their living room or bedroom, but consider locating yours in a more public location, like the kitchen or foyer, to give you a clear delineation between where you will and won’t be heard.
Voice Assistant FAQ
Similar to phone applications, voice applications allow voice assistants to perform specialized tasks or provide custom services. Granting voice assistants new abilities through applications gives you the ability to enhance what your voice-assistant-enabled device is capable of, whether that means guiding you through a recipe or donating to a charity.
Yes. But some loss of privacy is inevitable when using most modern technology. The devices and applications we’ve come to rely on for their convenience simply wouldn’t be so convenient if they weren’t gathering data. Privacy is the trade-off for ease and speed.
A voice assistant’s reliance on voice recognition and recording technology in particular can lead to privacy concerns. Now, as Fingerman explained, “Voice assistants are technically always listening for their wake-word, but they do not record until activated.” That said, those recorded segments are often parsed through after the fact by humans, who annotate recordings in order to bolster machine learning. Recorded data may also be linked to individuals. Still, recordings are sent over an encrypted connection. And you can delete recordings by visiting your voice assistant’s settings. Amazon Alexa does one better: You can just ask her to delete them for you.
Leading tech companies are introducing more and more privacy measures to help consumers feel comfortable bringing smart devices home. Google is figuring out ways to accomplish more computing within the device, rather than exporting work to the cloud. As the big names jostle to establish themselves as privacy-friendly, rather than privacy-invasive, we look forward to seeing more user control over voice assistant functionality.
- Amazon Alexa — Via the Settings menu or by voice command. Just say, “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” or “Alexa, delete what I just said.”
- Google Assistant — Google has put privacy controls front and center in your Google account. Find delete options in Settings. There you can also turn off voice data storage.
- Siri — Siri lags behind its peers in offering user-friendly delete controls. You have to delete “recent” recordings you have to turn Siri off and disable dictation on iDevice.
- Microsoft Cortana — The Microsoft Privacy Dashboard Voice History presents a list of recordings you can delete. You can also adjust settings about how much info is collected.
- Samsung Bixby — Head to Bixby Home, then My Bixby to find recording history and delete conversations.
Current market trends suggest that voice assistant technology will continue to gain popularity and adoption. The Voicebot.ai study on consumer adoption for smart speakers revealed that around 20% of the U.S. population has access to smart speakers today, which is up from less than one percent just two years ago. In addition, the study reveals that consumer adoption of voice assistant technology is consistently exceeding industry expectations. Put simply, voice assistant technology is a large focus of the world’s tech giants and will soon be available in everything from cars to earbuds.