CES 2018 demonstrated that smart digital assistants are becoming key components of a variety of gadgets. As these AI companions play more of a role in everyday life, every tech company wants an assistant app to call their own. Amazon has Alexa, Apple has Siri, Google has Google Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, and Samsung has Bixby.
Some of these AIs can help you do everything from looking up train times to controlling a smart home—but it can be hard to keep track of which one can do what. So we downloaded all of the five major assistant apps to put them through their paces, pinpoint their differences, and decide which are the smartest and most capable.
A note before we fire up the apps: Because each of these assistants can respond to thousands of commands, it's hard to do an exhaustive survey of their skills. Instead, we aim to give you a general flavor of what each one is like. Also bear in mind that we were talking to Alexa via an Amazon Echo speaker, so it couldn't display text and graphics alongside its responses like the other assistants—which we tested on Android and iOS phones—did.
We started the contest by asking the assistants basic questions about topics like the weather forecast, conversions between different measurements, and trivia.
Every assistant could answer a simple query about the weather and provide the forecast for the next few days. We did notice some very slight variations in the responses, probably because these apps rely on different sources. Alexa gave the most useful information in the shortest time, which makes sense—as a voice-only program, it has to be as succinct as possible.
The apps also coped admirably with simple calculations and conversions between different units. They could even update us on the time in different time zones—though we should knock points off for Siri and Cortana, which didn't include the day as well as the time in their spoken responses, something you need to know if a region is a day ahead of or behind you.
We also tried a number of queries that you might throw into a search engine: "How old is Barack Obama?", "Who built the Empire State Building?", "What is the population of France?" and "How big is California?". All the assistants returned the correct answers, which means every one of them would make a good trivia night companion.
However, a more complex question tripped up a few of the assistants. We asked: "What's that movie with Robert de Niro and Al Pacino in it?" In response, Google Assistant and Bixby did well, producing a list of all five films that matched the question. Siri showed just three of the films, Cortana showed the Wikipedia page for Robert de Niro, and Alexa had no idea what was going on and tried to play a video.
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