I never thought I'd be telling my phone what to do. But I often find myself talking to various digital assistants -- Siri on the iPhone and Google Now on Android devices -- to request driving directions, restaurant recommendations and answers to all sorts of nagging questions.
Until recently, I harbored a small prejudice against this kind of voice technology. I've long been annoyed by automated phone systems that make you speak instructions rather than enter them with a touch-tone phone. These technologies tend to hear me incorrectly and slow me down as I try to make a train reservation or check my credit card account. I also feel odd talking to my phone, rather than with a real human.
Even when smartphones started letting you search the Web with voice commands, my instinct was to stick with typing, however awkward touch-screen keyboards became.
My attitude slowly changed. A key turning point came during a 230-mile drive from Charleston, W.Va., to visit friends outside Cleveland. I needed to pick up wine for my hosts and was pleased when Siri found a winery in Dover, Ohio. The shop was about 50 miles away from where I was, but relatively close to the highway I was on.
A traditional search might have located places that were closer in distance, but more out of the way. More importantly, I was able to perform that search while cruising on the highway. (Yeah, I know I shouldn't be doing that, but using voice commands beats typing while driving.)
to find choices closer to my route.
Another complaint: Both require Internet connections for the most part -- even for tasks that don't involve looking up anything, such as setting the alarm on your phone. The exception is Google Now's ability to make phone calls anytime by saying "Call Tom" or another name on your contact list, but in those times when you don't have a data connection, you're not likely to have voice service, either.
But if you don't need perfection, both Siri and Google Now are decent assistants, especially considering that typing on small touch-screen keyboards can be frustrating.
Siri is chattier -- and feistier -- than Google Now. She'll always respond with something, whereas Google Now often gives you no more than a list of websites, as if you'd just conducted a regular Web search. Only occasionally does Google Now give you a spoken-aloud response.
Siri excels with restaurants, in part because of Apple's partnerships with the reviews site Yelp and restaurant-reservation service OpenTable. Ask for Italian restaurants, and Siri offers you several -- with information on price range, average user ratings on Yelp and distance from your current location. Ask for GOOD Italian restaurants, and Siri sorts those restaurants by rating.
Ask for reservations, and Siri gives you a few choices with open spots, whether you're looking for something tomorrow night or this weekend. Just tap on one to complete the reservation through OpenTable.
Google Now sometimes gives me a link to OpenTable or information from Google-owned Zagat, but other requests simply lead to restaurants' websites and paid ads.
As for movies, both will give you movie showtimes and let you buy tickets, though for tickets iPhone users will need a free software update to iOS 6.1, which came out in late January. In addition, Siri can only buy tickets through Fandango, not MovieTickets or other rivals.
Both correctly give me latest sports scores, though I stumped Google Now when I asked how a particular team was doing. Google Now simply gives me the latest score, while Siri tells me where the team is in the standings.
Siri is better at integrating with the phone's calendar and alarm clock. When I ask for an alarm for "tomorrow night at 7," Siri tells me she can't set anything more than a day ahead, while Google Now
simply sets one. Imagine the embarrassment should my alarm clock go off while out with friends at a show.
Siri is better with answering such questions as who won the Oscars for best picture in 1996 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize. As usual, Google Now returns standard Web results.
Both directly answered me when I asked when Memorial Day is. Siri added, "I hope you get the day off." Thanks for looking out for me, Siri.
What I also like about Siri is that she's always a click away -- just tap on the home button on the iPhone. Google Now is like a disappearing act: Sometimes you see its search box and the microphone button; sometimes you don't.
By now, you might be wondering, why bother with Google Now?
Although Siri performs better in many situations, Google Now isn't bad if you have an Android device. Apple has had more time to refine its service, as Siri has been around for more than a year -- and longer as a startup before Apple bought it. Google Now made its debut over the summer in phones running the Jelly Bean version of Android, and it continually gets new capabilities.
In addition, Google Now does more than voice search. Over time, it's supposed to know about your interests and give you information without asking. If you have the necessary permissions turned on, you can search for a sports team on a desktop computer and find the latest score waiting for you on the phone after the game. Walk by a movie theater and see showtimes automatically pop up. Commute along a certain route each day, and Google Now will check traffic and offer alternative driving directions when appropriate.
What's clear from my test is that we're just at the beginning of seeing what voice search and virtual assistants can do.
It's easy to get caught up on the mistakes these services make interpreting our voices. But Siri and Google Now are enticing enough that I can't wait to see what they do in the months and years ahead.