Bonnie Cha

For Hire: Good Virtual Assistant for Android

When the iPhone 4S first came out, one of its most talked-about features was Siri, the smartphone’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. The concept wasn’t new, but what made Siri special was that it understood everyday language and responded with contextual answers. Android phone users might have felt envious of Siri. But there’s no need to be jealous.

The upcoming Samsung Galaxy S III will come with its own Siri-like feature called S Voice, but for other Android phone owners, there are a number of virtual assistant apps available from the Google Play Store. I spent this past week testing two of them, Vlingo and Speaktoit Assistant, on the HTC One X from AT&T. The apps aren’t exclusive to Android. Vlingo first launched on BlackBerry in 2008, and also works with Symbian and Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Meanwhile, Speaktoit began on Android in 2011, and now supports iOS, with a Windows Phone app arriving in June.

Both of the Android apps are free and let you perform multiple tasks using voice commands. Speaktoit is more conversational, capable of using context to answer questions like Siri does, but it needs a bit of training to work with casual phrases, which Siri does without training. Vlingo, on the other hand, performs better, but lacks the ability to create calendar appointments, which is an important feature for a virtual assistant, thus tipping the scale in Speaktoit’s favor.

Of the two, Vlingo is definitely more of your no-nonsense personal assistant. It doesn’t offer any friendly banter; in fact, unless you press the Read button or turn on the SafeReader function to read incoming messages, it doesn’t talk back to you at all.

Vlingo’s list of abilities includes basic tasks, like dialing contacts, as well as more specialized requests, such as buying movie tickets. However, it seems to me that the app’s inability to create new appointments should be a key feature of a virtual assistant app.

This became especially clear over the past week as I was planning a surprise birthday party. In all the chaos, it would have been nice to create appointments with Vlingo. As it was, Vlingo didn’t understand the command “Create new appointment,” and searched the Web instead.

Vlingo says that while the ability to create appointments and alarms is a frequently requested feature, it does not have details about when this function might roll out.

This is an unfortunate drawback of an otherwise solid app, as Vlingo’s voice-recognition software was accurate from the start. When dictating messages, I appreciated that the app capitalized letters at the beginning of a sentence, inserted apostrophes where appropriate, and understood commands for adding text to the subject line. Speaktoit does not do any of this.

You can use Vlingo to update your Facebook status, send tweets, and check into Foursquare, as well. I sent a tweet using Vlingo, and I liked that it brought up a separate window, so I could attach a photo, whereas Speaktoit only gives you the option to send.

Be aware that you will have to log into your social networks and email accounts on both apps, so they can perform such functions as accessing your address book for voice dialing. Both companies say they do not collect any personal data without a user’s permission or disclosure, but earlier this year, Vlingo was hit with several software bugs that resulted in the app gathering more data than intended. The company has since tightened its security protocols to fix the issue.

One other unique feature about Vlingo is its InCar mode. Though still in its beta, or testing, stage, you can use this mode to call, compose and send text messages or navigate to a place, all by voice. As long as you have the app open, you can say, “Hey Vlingo” to launch the voice-recognition system.

Speaktoit Assistant is an app that’s more like Siri in that it offers more personality when answering questions; it even adds a human touch with a customizable avatar. You can choose between a male or female assistant, and change its hair, voice and more. There’s also a simple microphone if you find the avatars to be cheesy.

Right from the beginning, Speaktoit looks to get more personal by asking for your name. Unfortunately, my assistant Sam and I didn’t get off to a good start, after she interpreted “body” for “Bonnie.” After four tries, I finally gave up and typed in my name. (We made up after I asked Sam to be my best friend, and she said, “I thought we already were.”)

Speaktoit uses Google’s voice-recognition system (Vlingo uses its own, but you can switch to Google), and the first few rounds can be rough. However, the system learns your voice as you continue to use it, so accuracy should improve over time. I found this to be the case in my testing.

Even so, there’s a bit of a learning curve with using Speaktoit. While the app says you can ask questions as you normally would in real life, I found that’s not necessarily true. For example, I asked, “How deep is the Pacific Ocean?” and Sam said, “I’m still learning about that myself, Bonnie. As soon as I know, you’ll know.” But if I asked, “Find depth of Pacific Ocean,” Speaktoit brought up Google search results.

Once you learn these tricks, Speaktoit serves as a good virtual assistant. It has several advantages over Vlingo, including the fact that it reads back answers out loud. The app also does a better job with location-based requests. With Speaktoit, you can ask, “What is today’s weather?” and get the forecast for your current location, but with Vlingo, you have to include the city in your question.

To be sure, neither Vlingo nor Speaktoit Assistant is perfect. Thankfully, they’re free, so you can try both. But with a bit of time and training, Speaktoit is a more capable virtual assistant, with its talk-back abilities, full calendar management, and better location-based results.

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