Talking to your phone (no seriously)

Phones are excellent instruments to contact other humans, despite the fact that sometimes people forget that their phones have a speech functionality–such as the girls who updated Facebook when trapped, rather than, you know, calling for help.

However, your phone can be pretty fun to talk to, all on its own. Grace, my Samsung Galaxy S3, had been on Ice Cream Sandwich so long I despaired of ever getting Jellybean. I wanted Jellybean so badly because it’s new voice system apparently kicks Siri’s (Apple’s voice assistant) butt. Well, if she had one.

So I started a campaign of trying out apps from the various app stores to see if I could get a really good voice assistant while I wiled away the time waiting for Jellybean.

The apps I tried were all free and all available through the Google Play store:

I put together a few tests for each to determine which one I would actually want to keep using. During this time, Jellybean dropped (4.1 at least). However, I was so taken with the process (and ultimately the results) that I didn’t actually try to review the Jellybean voice assistant–which is just as well as there are tons of reviews out there for you to look at.

  1. Here are the things I wanted my voice assistant to do:
  2. Read SMS messages (texts) and send them
  3. Read my Email (through Gmail) and send email
  4. Send an Email (through Gmail)
  5. Turn bluetooth on (and off)
  6. Read Twitter
  7. Post to Twitter
  8. Open Google Plus
  9. Read Google Plus
  10. Post to Google Plus
  11. Tell a joke
  12. Find an Address
  13. Answer the question “What is the weather like outside?” without further qualification
  14. Set an Alarm (and actually have it go off)

Anything else they can do would be gravy on top, as it were.

A lot of folks might also be interested in their capacity to communicate with Facebook, and considerably less excited about the ability to communicate with Google+. To you, I say that all of them have similar functionality to Twitter, doing some FB reading and allowing some FB posting. I didn’t test intensively. Also, none of them can read or post to Google+ just yet, though all of them could open it (mostly).

Speaktoit has the honor of being the only assistant that you actually get to look at; you can even customize it. It was, however, slightly creepy, because apparently your cartoonish digital assistant needs to blink his/her eyes, but not move their mouth when they speak. Or for any reason, really. It was like weird telepathy being spoken out loud + being written on the phone. This is, however, the only application that can give you a voice assistant with a Mohawk. Speaktoit runs in the background as just “Assistant” and when you press the notification, you get asked something friendly but which basically means, “what do you want?” I wanted driving directions, to set an alarm, to be told a joke, to open Google + (without me having to open it first before I used the assistant) and to understand the difference between me wanting it to read tweets and tweet something for me. The app prides itself on you bring able to speak in your natural way to get across things, but wow, they need to revist that concept with the words “tweet” and “twitter.” Everything else worked fine, though for these items I often got asked what I’d like to tweet or soulfully apologized to for the assistant not knowing what the heck I was talking about. Oh, and while Robin and utter! allowed me to tap into and use the Jellybean voice assistant to speak through the program, this was not available through Speaktoit (though it might have been and I just didn’t figure it out).

utter! does everything on my list except manage alarms, tell jokes and read back emails, sms, twitter, etc. (as noted before, none of them could read G+). However, it did everything else like a champ. It’s in beta (like Robin), and I encountered an unusual bug during my testing. I was surprised and delighted at how fast the turn around time was for the developer contacting me about the issue. I couldn’t reproduce it, but he has it logged in case it happens to someone else. utter! also has some nice features that are not intrinsic to the other apps I evaluated: it has a way to log into/sync up with LinkedIn, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, and Tasker. This makes it a lot easier for utter! to give commands to/receive feedback from these programs. Google+ is set for a future release (per the interface), which is the only one of these apps that even seemed to have any interest in specifically syncing with that social network (the one I tend to use most of the time). The reason utter! doesn’t read back texts, email, Twitter, etc., appears to be because it integrates with Tasker and other programs to do so. Being that I will do a post another day about Tasker (and other programs that let you automate your phone options), sufficing to say that I find it very complicated, so I didn’t engage those options for this testing. Unlike Speaktoit, you cannot name your assistant (you can’t do that for Robin, either, but then she’s already named). utter! does great on answering questions for you,  and has additional features where you can tell it how to address you when it first opens (both Speaktoit and Robin allow you to define how it addresses you in general); for example, I had it saying “What is your desire, my mistress?” Otherwise it called me “Lori” (at my request). It also allows you to program in specific phrases and specific responses you want in return–for example, when I said “Who is the fairest of them all?” I had it respond with “Why you, of course!” Note, I am that vain, but that’s the example they provide for setting that up, so I used it. Bizarrely good for my self-esteem despite the fact it was only doing what I programmed it to do. utter! despite the video, does not yet have the “tell a joke” function enabled, though it’s just a matter of time.  You can also set handles for actions–for example, to call my husband (who is one of many Davids in my list), I nicknamed him “Handsome” and whenever I tell it to “call Handsome” it calls my husband at home (when it’s not trying desperately to look for a contact named Hansen). utter!, sadly is not as good at navigation as Robin, and didn’t seem to grasp some of the other cool options available with Robin. Oh, and setting an alarm for 8 hours later actually caused it to go off two days later, at the wrong time. utter! does not yet have voice activation, but the amount of features coming into it and the speed at which bugs are fixed is very, very promising.

Robin is primarily sold as a “hands free driving assistant” and, like utter! is in beta. Robin passes all the tests provided. All of them. She will call you whatever you’d like to be called. She is great at directions. She reads everything for you (except Google+ as noted above). She does not provide the pre-programmed answer and reply function of utter!, but she is freakishly complimentary of your searching and always says some form of “she missed you” or is eager to do stuff with you whenever you turn her on after an extended period of her being off. She tells good jokes, and, she has the additional benefits of providing you news–you can ask for general, or more specific like entertainment, or you can ask for personal and she’ll read your FB wall. In addition to navigating you very nicely, she’ll also help you find parking near where you’re headed and help with price comparisons for parking, as well. I like Robin because you don’t have to touch her to activate her, you can pass your hand near the camera sensor (which is a lot easier than finding a specific button on a phone while I’m driving) or shake the phone to wake her. To its credit, utter! also allows you to shake the phone to wake it. While I was testing Robin out, she got an upgrade that allows her to give you your news in different voices–she oscillates between her own female dulcet tones and a strong male voice. She also wished me a happy holiday on Thanksgiving, which neither of my other two assistants did.

For me, the current clear winner is Robin. However, I have kept utter! on my phone, as well. utter! promises to only get better and better, and I look forward to seeing and using the new features as they become available (including it linking with G+!). Both Robin and utter! are in beta, so having them both available is good in the event that–like ever voice assistant–one of them fails to understand me/do what I’d like.

While I did not evaluate Jellybean’s voice assistant for anything other than navigation, let me just say that it blows the competitors away in this regards. It understands street names far better than anything else I’ve tried. Additionally, though I know that utter! and Robin are using Google maps, it seems to be better able to find difficult addresses than they are. This was especially helpful when I was in the middle of an asthma attack on vacation, and needed to find a local ER; I didn’t have the brains for entering it into Google maps manually, and the results were prompt and accurate. I wouldn’t have died without Jellybean voice assistant, but my life is sure a lot more pleasant because of it. I’ll probably spend some time trying out all my little tests on it in the future. For now, I’ll be really happy its good at what it does best.

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One response to “Talking to your phone (no seriously)

  1. Pingback: Long(er) Term Usage Report: Stuff I’ve Reviewed | Screaming At Electric Sheep

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