Having a personal assistant is nothing new – but having a digital assistant in the palm of your hand is. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple have all built their own digital assistants that come with your devices. And they can all help you with things you do on a daily basis, hopefully making your life much easier.
Unfortunately, these devices you’re buying aren’t always cheap, so the question becomes: which one is the best? In this article, we hope to answer that question, based on your needs, personality, and the types of devices and services you already like to use.
What this article will cover:
- Alexa overview: a digital butler for your house
- Siri overview: a well-rounded assistant for Apple device fans
- Google Assistant overview: a fast-rising jack of all virtual trades
- Cortana overview: a superb workmate for getting things done
- Quick comparison table: how the assistants stack up
- Winner: finding information for you quickly
- Winner: ease of access at home, at work, and on-the-go
- Winner: voice command calling and messaging
- Winner: best task reminder
- Winner: control over your smart home
- Winner: ordering items and services
- Winner: real-time updates and GPS
- The bottom line: choosing the right assistant for you
Let’s start with the basic rundown on each assistant.
Alexa overview: a digital butler for your house
Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, is great for managing things you do every day around the house. With devices like the Echo and the Echo Dot (shown at right), you can start using voice commands to do things like: adjust the lighting or thermostat; ask for weather, news, or sports updates; or simply just get the answers to questions you’re stumped by. Alexa can even buy things for you off of Amazon, ship them, and track them as they come – always keeping you up-to-date on your purchases.
- Compatible with tons of non-Amazon smart speakers and devices
- Tens of thousands of add-on integrations for managing your smart home
- Excellent at ordering items online
- Available on few mobile-friendly devices
- Very basic built-in reminder functions
- Poor at finding specific, real-time information
- Amazon Echo 2nd Generation smart speaker from $99.99
- Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet computer from $149.99
- Amazon Echo Show 2nd Generation smart display from $229.99
If you’re looking to make your Alexa-enabled device even more functional in your smart home, these 11 accessories will give it a boost.
Siri overview: a well-rounded assistant for Apple device fans
Siri was one of the first virtual assistants, so Apple has had a head start in fine-tuning it to meet people’s needs. It’s available on most modern Apple devices, though it’s at it’s best when it’s on iPhones (like the one shown to the right) and iPads. It’s fantastic at getting you in touch with the people you care about, and its organizing capabilities are top-notch as well. It’s also good at finding directions and booking reservations, and it has a great personality to boot.
- Good balance of availability on home and mobile devices
- Excellent calling and messaging functions (on mobile)
- Advanced reminder functions arguably on par with Cortana
- Exclusively on Apple brand devices, which are generally expensive
- Somewhat poor at answering general knowledge questions
- Not very good at online shopping
Google Assistant overview: a fast-rising jack of all virtual trades
Google Assistant comes to you from Internet superpower Google. As you might expect, being backed by the world’s most powerful search engine makes Google Assistant fantastic at finding both static information – from the general to the trivial – as well as data that updates in real-time. Its other functions may not be as powerful as on the other assistants, but few are outright terrible. That makes it a well-rounded assistant that will likely only get more popular as it becomes more widely available.
- Excellent information-finding capabilities, even for uncommon questions
- Surprisingly good online shopping capabilities
- Great at keeping up with dynamic, real-time information
- Currently available mainly on Google-made tech, which is also expensive
- Poor basic calling and messaging functions
- Reminder functions are somewhat subpar compared to Siri and Cortana
- Google Home smart speaker from $129
- Pixel Slate tablet computer from $599
- Pixel 2 smartphone from $649
Cortana overview: a superb workmate for getting things done
Brought to you by computer pioneer Microsoft, Cortana debuted around the same time as Alexa. It specializes in productivity functions, including its advanced reminder system and its ability to integrate with other Microsoft services to co-ordinate your work and email. But don’t think Cortana is just all business and no pleasure. It also has a great personality, and will tell you jokes, sing to you, or play cool games with you if you ask it!
- Excellent reminder functions, including for events involving specific people
- Available on many devices – basically anything that runs iOS, Android, or Windows
- Integrates well with other Microsoft-owned services, such as Outlook, Office, and LinkedIn
- Relatively few customization options
- Not great at performing specialized functions; usually just finds information on them
- Not available on very many non-PC home-based electronics
- Harman Kardon INVOKE smart speaker from $49.95
- Xbox One S Starter Bundle video game system from $299
- Microsoft Surface GO tablet computer from $399
Quick comparison table: how the assistants stack up against each other
Before we go any further, here are a few fast facts about each of the assistants that can be useful if you’re looking to make a decision in a hurry.
|Sends through Gmail with IFTTT enabled||Can send, read, and reply||Sends short emails||Sends through Gmail|
|Translating||Individual phrases||French, German, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish||Microsoft Translator: 60 languages||Google Translate: 104 languages|
|Maps||No maps||Apple Maps||Maps in search results||Google Maps|
|Travel||Can book Uber, Lyft, and taxis||Can show search results for travel but not book|
|Music||Can only find music for you on the Internet through a search|
|Popular app integrations|
Now we’ll look at some key things that you might want your assistant to do and evaluate which one does them the best.
Winner: finding information for you quickly
This is one of the most basic virtual assistant features, and definitely something you need to work well. How quickly can an assistant find information for you – like movie showtimes, measurement conversions, and flight times – and, more importantly, how relevant is the information you’re presented?
Each assistant uses its own individual search engine to find answers for you. However, all of them are based on well-known search engines from the Internet. Alexa and Cortana use Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Google Assistant, quite obviously, uses Google Search. Siri used to use Bing, but now uses Google Search as well.
When put to the test, both Alexa and Google Assistant managed to offer the most accurate responses to general knowledge questions. However, Google Assistant was also able to answer niche questions, including sources and additional links. Siri and Cortana were a little less helpful, often just performing quasi-relevant Internet searches for you to pick through or outright admitting to not knowing answers.
Winner: GOOGLE ASSISTANT
This should come as little surprise. Google runs the most powerful search engine on the Internet, which is just simply better at finding the most relevant information and answers for you.
If you’re looking for a way to get around using Bing with Alexa or Cortana, just ask them to “Search Google for [X]” and they will! You may need to install third-party extensions for this to work, though.
Winner: ease of access at home, at work, and on-the-go
It’s important to think about where you can use your assistant; that is, what types of devices you can use it on. Some assistants work through home devices, such as smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Others will work on smartphones and other mobile devices, such as iPads.
Alexa is available on most of Amazon’s smart home electronics, including their flagship smart speaker, the Echo. However, it’s also compatible with many other smart speakers and digital media players that aren’t Amazon-brand. The catch here is that most of them usually can’t be taken outside the home, so Alexa loses points on the mobile front.
(Image source: TechHive)
Siri is better in this regard, being a standard feature on many of Apple’s modern “i-Series” portable devices. It’s also available on a few home-based devices like MacOS computers and Apple HomePod.
Cortana has the advantage of being available on a lot of mobile devices that run iOS, Android, or Windows operating systems. However, it’s not widely available on home-based devices yet, with the exception of PCs running Windows 10 or later and more modern versions of Microsoft’s “Xbox” video game consoles (i.e. Xbox One or later).
Google Assistant is relatively new, but its availability is expanding rapidly. Initially only available on the Google Pixel line of smartphones, it is now compatible with the Google Home smart speaker, Android Wear smartwatches, Google Pixelbook laptops, Google Pixel Slate tablets, and Google Pixel Buds headphones. It also works on iOS devices (though only in the US right now), as well as certain smart TVs.
In addition, Google is trying to retroactively add their assistant to devices running older versions of the Android operating system. They’re also planning to add it to their Android TV digital media player, as well as to car interfaces via Android Auto.
While exclusively on Apple devices, Siri probably strikes the best balance of being available for you both at home and while you’re out and about. It’s available in more countries and languages, too. But its competitors are still hot on its heels, particularly Google Assistant.
Winner: voice command calling and messaging
You want your assistant to be able to make phone calls and send text messages easily, as well as accurately turn your words into results.
Alexa allows you to use it like an intercom to talk or send announcements between other Alexa-enabled devices in your home. You can also use it send calls, texts, and voice messages to other Alexa users, as well as to other phone numbers in North America, for free. However, you (and your recipient) may need to register for the service. You also cannot call emergency numbers, or international numbers without paying long-distance charges, unless you have an Echo Connect.
Cortana is similar. It offers free calling and text messaging to contacts or numbers in North America. You can also use it to call people through Skype, but you must either be calling someone who has Skype as well, or your Skype account must have credit to pay for long-distance fees.
Google Assistant is a bit more limited. It allows you to call numbers in Canada, US, and UK for free. However, you cannot use it to call emergency numbers, and you can’t call international numbers unless you have linked your device to a Google Fi or Google Voice account.
(Image source: SiriUserGuide.com)
Then there’s Siri. Siri can send phone calls or text messages to any contact on your device, and even read your messages back to you! It can also call emergency and international numbers, as well as compose emails, without third-party support – two big things that the other assistants can’t do. However, it still allows calling and messaging through third-party apps, such as WhatsApp or Viber.
One caveat, though: home-based devices running Siri, like the Apple HomePod, are limited to sending text messages only for now.
While its capabilities are somewhat limited on non-mobile devices, when it’s where it can shine, Siri can communicate in ways that the other assistants can’t.
Winner: best task reminder
Reminders, to do lists, shopping lists, adding to your calendar, setting a timer – these are all fundamental ways of organizing your daily life, and your assistant needs to be good at them.
Perhaps surprisingly, Alexa is rather poor at this aspect. It can set timers and reminders for you to do things at a certain time and/or date, but that’s about it.
Google Assistant is a little better, as it can add locations to your reminders. That way, you’ll remember not only when you were supposed to do something, but where.
Cortana can set both time-based and location-based reminders as well, and even give you reminders of events based on emails in your email account. But its coolest feature is its people-based reminders, so when someone comes over and you planned to do something together with them, Cortana can let you know!
Siri, for its part, has time-based and location-based reminders, too. It can also remind you of specific tasks in a to-do list, as well as relay reminders you set in certain integrated apps.
This is a close one between Siri and Cortana, but Cortana’s ability to remind you to do things with specific people is just next-level cool.
Digital assistants can be handy for keeping your schedule together, but there are many other websites and apps specifically devoted to that. Here are 10 of the best of them.
Winner: control over your smart home
If you love living in a smart home, you need an assistant that is going to help you control it easily and precisely. This includes doing things such as playing music for you, turning appliances on and off, and locking and unlocking doors.
Alexa works with a lot of smart home devices, and it also has a vast library of “Skills” that you can install to customize the abilities of the device you use it on. For instance, you can ask for news briefings, set an alarm to wake you up to music or a radio station, get recipe ideas (or just order food), start a workout or meditation session, play games, and more!
Google Assistant has a similar convention known as “Actions,” though it only has just over 4200 of them so far, as opposed to the tens of thousands that Alexa has. Some people just prefer to extend Google Assistant’s capabilities through the popular task automation platform IFTTT (If This, Then That).
Siri was powered up in iOS 12 with a new feature called “Shortcuts,” which allows it to automate tasks based on your history of actions. You can also create your own custom commands, but that’s a bit trickier.
Cortana lags pretty far behind the competition here, with only about 230 “skill” extensions.
Alexa reigns supreme over smart households for now. However, Siri’s “Shortcuts” function could make that a less clear-cut judgment in the near future, depending on how many services and smart devices end up integrating with it.
Winner: ordering items and services
Assistants are capable of a lot more than just basic searches, and can even perform real-life actions for you, such as buying items or food and having them delivered to you, or booking vacations for you.
As it was made by e-commerce giant Amazon, you’d think Alexa would do well here – and you’d be right. It does pretty well at ordering general goods, which isn’t surprising, given that it’s backed by Amazon’s huge catalog of products. When it comes to booking reservations, however, it’s adequate, but not great.
Siri is rather proactive when it comes to real-life actions, such as offering to make reservations or give you directions (which it’s very good at) if you’re looking for a restaurant or other business. The catch is that you have to be somewhat specific. However, if you’re looking to just order stuff online, it isn’t very helpful at all.
(Image source: iMore)
Google Assistant is surprisingly good at shopping online, able to order you products from particular online stores – again, as long as you’re specific. Its ability to book services is only decent, but then again, none of the virtual assistants have it perfected yet (though Siri has a slight lead).
Cortana can help you shop online, but it isn’t very good at doing so without extra add-on functions.
Backed by one of the world’s largest online marketplaces, Alexa had a natural head start in online shopping, and continues to hold its lead. However, Google Assistant is beginning to give Alexa a run for its money.
Winner: real-time updates and GPS
In addition to reminders, updates on topics such as the weather, news, and sports are all things that you’ll likely want to know regularly, so you need to make sure your assistant can keep you up to speed without you needing to say much.
Both Google Assistant and Siri are pretty good at giving real-time directions to places you want to go, along with ETAs and GPS navigation. However, Google Assistant has an edge in its backing from Google Maps, which lets it give extra information like public transit details (something Siri can only do on mobile devices) and general traffic reports.
Google Assistant is also better at getting long-distance travel information than Siri, able to pull up details on available flights and email you if prices for your seats change. It’s also able to pull news headlines from trusted journalistic sources. However, it can only read them aloud on Google Home – Alexa and Cortana can do this on any device.
Cortana, like Google Assistant, can also get you an accurate weather forecast and read it aloud. However, it joins Siri in struggling to get updates on information like sports scores and schedules unless you specify exactly what you’re looking for.
Alexa, for its part, is good at pulling updated information for topics like news and sports – including reading it aloud to you. However, it’s poor when it comes to directions – it’s unable to handle public transit information, traffic updates, or ETAs without accompanying speed data.
Winner: GOOGLE ASSISTANT
Again, Google’s top-tier search capabilities give its assistant the edge in keeping you up-to-date. It’s particularly good at inferring what you want to know by what you ask for, and then giving you as much relevant information as possible.
The bottom line: choosing the right assistant for you
Overall, we feel that Siri is the most well-rounded digital assistant out there right now, although Google Assistant will likely be taking that crown once Google gets it working on more devices. But Alexa and Cortana still have their uses. Alexa remains the best assistant for controlling the smart devices in your home, at least for now. And Cortana is now being marketed by Microsoft as a stand-alone productivity app than a true digital assistant. So, to recap their selling points:
Choose Alexa if…
You are more concerned with getting help at home rather than when you’re out and about. Alexa isn’t available on too many mobile devices, but it’s compatible with tons of home electronics. It’s also great at handling functions around the house, has a huge number of customization options, makes shopping online a breeze, and is on devices that are relatively affordable.
Choose Siri if…
You love all things Apple. Siri is a great general-purpose assistant that excels at things like calling or messaging other people, getting directions, booking reservations, and setting detailed reminders. Its new “Shortcuts” function also offers the potential for loads of new ways to customize your experience. It’s also very accessible, as you can find Apple products in more places – and use them in more languages – than the others.
Choose Cortana if…
You like to mix business with pleasure. Cortana is available on many Microsoft products, as well as Android and iOS devices, so it’s not hard to find something that it’s compatible with. It’s great at scheduling your upcoming events, checking your email, and getting all sorts of other business-related things done. Cortana also has a great personality, and will even sing for you or entertain you with witty answers to questions and jokes all day long.
Choose Google Assistant if…
You are a fan of Google’s seemingly ever-expanding, integrated network of services. Like Siri, Google Assistant is good at almost everything it can do. But its biggest strength comes from the power of Google’s superior search technology to bring you virtually any kind of information you could ask for. It’s also beginning to rival Alexa in its online shopping capabilities, and that’s no easy feat.
Most digital assistants can put together a grocery list for you. But these specialized apps help streamline your shopping experience, from searching for deals to remembering where everything is in your usual store.