Our phones aren’t merely devices we use to call the people we like (and some folks that we don’t). They’ve become friends. No, they’re now life partners. We take them with us everywhere, even places we would never take the people we love, like the toilet. We cuddle up with them at night and start our day with their company.
But this relationship isn’t one of pure affection. Our phones serve us. They’re personal assistants. No matter how many times you ask your phone the same question, it doesn’t get annoyed. Even when it doesn’t know the answer, it will try.
Most Android devices ship with Google Now, which surfaces information before we search for it, answers the questions we ask out loud, and obeys our voice commands. But is it the only or best option for you? This may be surprising, but there are many others to consider.
1. Google Now
Gmail users, Googlers, Hangout-ers, Android owners, and YouTube watchers have given Google plenty of data over the years. Google Now is the company’s effort to do something productive with that information. Built-in to your Android phone by default, this personal assistant tries to surface information before you know you want it. Google Now sends out suggestions based on your search history, what you’ve watched, and what goes through your inbox.
That’s hardly the end of it. Google Now tells commuters how much traffic is blocking up their route home from work. It lets you know when to arrive at the airport in time for a flight. It shows the weather over the next several days. Starting with Android Marshmallow, it can also provide context and background for text inside other apps.
What makes Google Now so effective is the work Google has placed into voice recognition and machine learning. There’s a good chance Google will not only make out the words in your question but also understand what you’re trying to ask. Depending on the nature of the task, you might get back search results, start a trip in Google Maps, or create an alarm.
It’s ambiguous when you’re using Now versus Google Voice Search versus some other Google service. This is a positive and a negative. Alarms you create with Now can appear inside Inbox by Gmail and Google Keep. If you use these services, great. If not, you won’t fully get to experience all that Now can do.
With the command, “OK Google,” it’s clear you’re asking this amorphous entity your questions, not a woman that lives inside your phone. But if that doesn’t work for you, you’re not stuck with Google.
Apple has Siri. Android has Google Now. Microsoft figured that Windows Phone needed something, so it came out with Cortana. But the company didn’t stop there. It later released versions for Android and iOS.
Cross-platform availability is possibly Cortana’s biggest appeal. The Halo-inspired personal assistant is baked into Windows 10. One benefit of this is being able to send a text message from your laptop when you miss a call on your phone. You can also talk to your PC the same way you talk to your smartphone or tablet.
This is an advantage Google Now doesn’t have. Yes, you can access many of your reminders created on your phone inside Inbox by Gmail or on Google Calendar, but those are disjointed services.
You can search Google using your voice, but that feels more like talking to a search engine than a personal assistant. While Google Now is a supplement to all things Google, Cortana is more her own person, so to speak.
Download: Cortana for Android (Free)
Maybe you’re not particularly excited about sharing your information with one of the companies behind each of these personal assistants. I understand. Fortunately, there are other options out there from smaller developers.
Robin is one of several personal assistants we compared three years ago (back when Google Now was just a baby, and Cortana had yet to appear). Looking for Siri-style snark? Three years later, this may still one of your best bets. Robin’s developers have deliberately tried to make an app that feels like a challenger to Apple’s digital assistant. That makes it worth a look for people who are less interested in finding an alternative to Siri and are mostly trying to find the same thing, only for Android. That’s not to say Robin is a copy. Hardly.
As for Android users who have not used Siri before, here’s how Robin compares to Google Now. It’s funnier, for one. More specifically, the app is more of a driving assistant than a way to surface information. Think of Robin as a friend riding shotgun that looks up stuff and does things for you while your hands are on the wheel.
Download: Robin for Android (Free with in-app purchases)
Robin isn’t your only option for an amusing Siri alternative. Assistant.ai is another app that takes this whole personal assistant role to heart… perhaps too much so. The main screen shows a depiction of a human secretary, which adds charm, though her robotic text-to-speech voice breaks the mood a bit.
Regardless, here you may find that mix of corny jokes and functionality that you’re looking for. And if it’s too much, at least you don’t have to open the app to speak commands.
Assistant.ai doesn’t stop at obeying orders. It tries to make suggestions based on your favorite places and preferences, in addition to your schedule and location. Sounds like a personal assistant, right? With all the role-playing going on in-app, you may feel like a boss every time you put down your phone.
Assistant.ai is ad-supported, but you can remove those and unlock complete functionality by going premium. Doing so will cost you $18 a year or $40 for a lifetime subscription. That makes this one of the pricier options, so make sure you like this assistant before hiring her full-time.
Download: Assistant.ai for Android (Free with in-app purchases)
5. Dragon Mobile Assistant
Maybe you want something with that corporate feel, only without all the privacy concerns that come with using a personal assistant made by a company that already knows so much about you. Dragon Mobile Assistant comes from Nuance, the makers of some pretty impressive voice dictation software for PCs and mobile devices. This might be the option that hits the right spot between mega-corporation and a person tinkering around at home.
Dragon Mobile Assistant responds to the phrase “Hello Dragon.” It’s not particularly conversational, but it provides the answer to basic questions about the weather and general facts, such as the height of Mount Everest. You can use it to send email and posts to social networks, which both draw on one of the app’s biggest strengths.
Dragon uses its own voice dictation engine rather than Google’s, so you may find this assistant does a better job of picking up your voice. If that’s the case, you have the option to have Dragon listen for your commands at all times, even when the screen is off.
Download: Dragon Mobile Assistant for Android (Free)
Siri? Cortana? Bah. You’ve seen Iron Man, and you know Jarvis is the coolest of the bunch. You want what Tony Stark has, and you’re in luck. Jarvis can be found lurking in the Play Store.
This version is hardly the super intelligence that aids the Avengers, but it’s compatible with Android Wear. That makes it an alternative to Google Voice Search on your smartwatch. Jarvis can do similar tasks such as control music playback, but it can also go further.
An example of this would be turning on the flash on your phone, helping you find a device you misplaced in the middle of the night. It’s not quite as cool as having the phone fly out of the sofa cushions and into your hands, but in our world, Jarvis can only do so much.
On your phone, Jarvis does the basics you would expect by now, allowing you to place calls and send texts. The app can tell you the weather and update you on the news. But that’s not why you would choose this assistant over the other options on this list. You would do it for the music, artwork, and voice that makes you feel like you are Iron Man.
Download: Jarvis for Android (Free with in-app purchases)
7. Smart Voice Assistant
Some of these apps look outdated. Others look modern but still somewhat out of place. By comparison, Smart Voice Assistant should look right at home next to the other apps you’ve been running since Android Lollipop.
Smart Voice Assistant isn’t a ready-to-go solution right from the beginning. You go through the list of features you can activate via voice commands and assign your own custom keywords. You also assign names to contacts and particular phone numbers. This can feel tedious at first, but when you’re done, you know exactly what your system can do.
Since the app runs in the background, you will then be able to issue these commands at any time. You can fully dictate texts and have the Smart Voice Assistant read back the responses if, for example, you need to keep your eyes on the road.
Smart Voice Assistant is a bit of a one-man effort, so it won’t feel quite as polished as what you get from the better funded or more established projects. But the app is easy on the eyes, and it’s sure to appeal to user who wants more control over their experience.
Which Assistant is Right for You?
We each have our own preferences and needs. Out of the box, Google works pretty fine, but maybe you want to use the same personal assistant on both Android and Windows. In that case, maybe Cortana’s the choice for you.
Those of us who aren’t comfortable with giving these companies more information may find Robin, Jarvis, or another smaller app worth considering.
What do you think of digital personal assistants? How do the options for Android compare to other mobile operating systems? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Image Credits:female android by Willyam Bradberry via Shutterstock