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The battle of the digital assistants: Windows Phone Cortana vs Google Now vs Siri

Mark Hachman | April 15, 2014
Even in beta, Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant has an impressive amount to say for itself.

Google's weakness? It's the seemingly infinite variety of Android phone manufacturers, their skins and customizations, and the many permutations of Google's operating system and apps. On an older Samsung Galaxy Nexus, it's relatively easy to find Google Now: swipe up from the bottom of the screen. But on a Samsung Note 3, Samsung actually hides Google Now behind its inferior S Voice controls, robbing the digital assistant of much of its power.

What we think of as Google Now actually consists of two separate services: Voice Search, and Google Now proper. Voice Search is the command center. By tapping the microphone in the Google search widget (or by simply saying "OK Google" on supported phones), you can command your Android device to call a friend, navigate to a location, ask a question, set a reminder, play music, or perform a Web search. 

In general, Voice Search works independently, so if you want to ask Google what the capital of North Dakota is, you can. Enabling Google Now, however, opens up a much broader set of options. 

To do so, swipe up in the lock screen or from the bottom of your screen. On the Note 3, for example, you can tap once on the home screen, then tap the Google button at the bottom. In any event, if you haven't used Google Now before, you'll be asked to define cards Google Now should suggest. There are cards for traffic, weather, public transit, and much more. (CiteWorld goes into a lengthier explanation of the Google Now setup process.) 

Google uses a more organic process than Microsoft appears to. For example, if you once searched for a local Thai restaurant, you may occasionally see a card pop up with the time it will take to get there. Search for the score of the Miami Marlins game, as I did to test it, and Google thinks you'll want to monitor the Marlins in the future. Google Now can be a bit overeager.

Once Google Now is configured, you can swipe down through the cards. On each, there's an options menu to the upper right: Sports scores can be hidden, for example to "avoid spoilers." You can also filter out updates from a particular website, so cards about that website quit clogging up your Google Now stream.

At the bottom of Google Now's main interface, a menu option lets you poke through the Settings menu. There's also a "magic wand" to help you fine-tune your cards, and the finger icon will list your current reminders.

Overall, Google Now does an excellent job of answering questions, almost always directly answering them with a card. I would swear, however, that when Google previously fielded a command like "Remind me when I get to the grocery store to pick up milk," it would lock on to the nearest grocery store. But not any more. For now, Cortana gets the nod on this trick.

 

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