None of the services from the major tech companies was close to perfect, but individually they excelled in some things while coming up short in others.
When I asked Alexa earlier this week who was playing in the Super Bowl, she responded, somewhat monotonously, “Super Bowl 49’s winner is New England Patriots.”
“Come on, that’s last year’s Super Bowl,” I said. “Even I can do better than that.”
At the time, I was actually alone in my living room. I was talking to the virtual companion inside Amazon.com’s wireless speaker, Echo, which was released last June. Known as Alexa, she has gained raves from Silicon Valley’s tech-obsessed digerati and has become one of the newest members of the virtual assistants club.
All the so-called Frightful Five tech behemoths — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now part of Alphabet — now offer virtual assistants, which handle tedious tasks in response to voice commands or keystrokes on various devices.
Apple’s Siri is the best known, having been available since 2011, but Microsoft now has Cortana, Facebook is testing one called M, and Google builds its voice assistant into its search apps.
I set up tests for the assistants and graded their abilities to accomplish 16 tasks in categories that most consumers generally enjoy: music, productivity, travel and commuting, dining, entertainment and interests like sports.
In the end, none of the voice assistants earned a report card that would make a strict parent proud. Here’s how they stacked up in terms of grade-point averages out of 4.0.
• Google (Google): 3.1
• Siri (Apple): 2.9
• Cortana (Microsoft): 2.3
• Alexa (Amazon): 1.7
Apple was the strongest at productivity tasks like calendar appointments and email; Google was the best at travel and commute-related tasks. Alexa excelled at music, and Cortana was mediocre across the board. Facebook was left out of the grading system because the company denied access to M, though I did hang out with her for two hours on a friend’s account.
Apple said Siri had “become faster and smarter” and spoke more languages than other assistants. Microsoft said it was “just scratching the surface” on how Cortana could help people. Google said that it wanted smartphones to do more of the heavy lifting, and that users could do a host of things just by speaking to Google. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
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On the productivity front, Siri was best able to schedule a meeting with a friend in Hawaii, check what was on my calendar for tomorrow, send an email and read my most recent email aloud. Others could complete only some of those tasks.
Siri also fared well in music-related tasks, but was bested by Alexa. Both assistants could play the song “Hey” by the Pixies, put on the latest episode of the “Radiolab” podcast and play music in the instrumentals genre. But Alexa could play a specific music station on Pandora, whereas Siri could only open the Pandora app.
Google achieved the highest marks for completing travel and commuting-related tasks. It responded perfectly to the question “What is the traffic like to 221 Main Street?” by showing me how long it would take to drive there.
When I said, “Take me to the Dogpatch Boulders gym,” it showed me a map and gave voice directions. When I said, “Find me plane tickets to New York next week,” it offered an impressive response: Flights from San Francisco to New York next week start at $435, and the shortest flight is five hours and 10 minutes long.
On travel and commuting, Cortana could offer solutions for the questions about traffic and directions, but not the one about flights. Siri earned a C-minus in the category: She could not give traffic estimates, and in response to the question about flights to New York, she spat out an unhelpful list of Web search results.
Alexa got a D — she could offer traffic estimates for only one fixed location that was set up inside the app, like your office, and she added the task of finding a flight to New York to my to-do list.
For food-related tasks, Google and Apple were even. Each of the assistants was able to find a list of nearby Indian restaurants. Only Google’s voice assistant could order delivery food, but with an unintuitive process that required naming a specific restaurant that delivers food through one of the apps that Google has teamed up with. Siri was the only one capable of booking a restaurant table.
As for special interests, I asked each assistant two fairly obvious questions: Who won this past Sunday’s football games, and who will be playing at the Super Bowl?
Google, Cortana and Siri loaded scores for Sunday’s National Football League games. But only Google and Cortana could say the Carolina Panthers would face the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, whereas Siri could say only that the big game would take place on Feb. 7. Alexa was as clueless about sports as I am: She couldn’t answer either question.