Speaking Siri: Mastering Apple's voice assistant

With the design kept the same, hardware specs only marginally tinkered and an operating system that has rolled out to the previous two generations of devices, there isn't much that sets the iPhone 4S apart.

A lot has been written about Siri so far: the fact that it doesn't support all functions in all launch territories, the fact that it will give comic responses to some questions. Sure, there are some novelty pre-conditioned responses, but long after the amusement value has worn off, does Siri still has something to offer?

We've been talking to Siri since launch and we thought it was worth bringing some clarity to this new fangled addition. Should Siri be a conversation buddy? Should you make polite requests or bark orders?

We've previously explained what Siri is, how it works, what it utilises and where it came from and you can read all about it here, but for the sake of completeness we'll be covering some of those points again. 

What is Siri and what will it do?

Siri is a digital voice assistant that comes with the new iPhone 4S. It has been ported to the iPhone 4, but at the moment it is a feature limited to the iPhone 4S.

Siri has access to various apps on your phone, as well as various sources of information online. In a nutshell it will access the following features of your iPhone: address book, calendars, alarms, email, Find My Friends, maps, messages, music, notes, phone (including FaceTime), reminders, Safari, stocks and weather.

You'll notice that these are all core applications and all native Apple-controlled apps. Beyond this, Siri will offer to search the Internet, with results from the likes of Wolfram Alpha ready to roll to your assistance.

How do you use Siri?

Press and hold the home button on your iPhone 4S and you'll start Siri.

It works in the lock screen as well as when the phone is unlocked and it's worth checking the settings, as Siri can be used to bypass your passcode for some functions, especially sending messages. These settings are in the Passcode Lock options.

 

Siri can also be activated by a headset, again, a long press on your in-line remote on your "Made for iPhone" headphones will trigger Siri, meaning you can control a whole range of functions without taking the phone out of your pocket. In fact it works in apps, when playing music, no matter what you are doing, a long press will fire up Siri.

Siri listens to you and automatically starts and stops listening, indicated with beeps. In noisy environments it will sometimes continue listening to background noise and you'll have to tap the icon to stop it listening and trigger the response. 

What are the biggest problems?

The biggest problem at present is that not all services are available outside the US. Try saying "find me a burger" and it will give you a standard message that business searches are only available in the US. But Siri is lying. This isn't an insurmountable problem as we'll reveal shortly.

Try asking Siri for directions to … anywhere … and it will quickly remind you that maps and traffic are only available in the US, again, not the end of the world. 

 

As a beta piece of software you can't outright blame Siri for these failings, but you can't help feeling a little disappointed not to have the same level of service that cousins in the US get, until you figure out how to beat the system that is.

The second problem we have is that, at times, Siri needs you to select a piece of information. This is a bigger problem. For example, composing an email can be problematic when Siri wants you to select an email address. We have some contacts with three email addresses and when Siri hits one of these, it dives into an eternal loop of asking you which email address you want, over and over and over again.

Answers from Siri come in two ways as we've suggested above and this really affects how useful Siri is in practice. Siri can return some suggestions - a list of names - and it can read your new "messages" but can't read your emails or appointments. You can ask it for the weather and it will say "there is some bad weather coming up", but then needs you to look at the screen to see what that bad weather is.

This hybrid approach means it takes a little time to learn what you can do and what you can't. In some cases it is a great hands-free system, in others it might just save you a couple of presses on the screen. Sometimes, of course, it's downright frustrating.

 

Recognition of what you have said is generally good, but it will struggle if you don't sound out each word. Often when we've been saying a name, it will run it together, so Chris Hall becomes Chrishall. It can find the former, but not the latter. It also doesn't punctuate, so anything you say, mistakes and all, becomes one stream of consciousness. That might be fine if you know Siri is reading it aloud at the other end in a text message, but not if human eyes are passing over it.

The final problem is simple misunderstanding. Siri has been a little over-sold and it really works best with terms it can understand. Sometimes Siri will throw a curve ball and throw random stuff at you, sometimes it is just plain wrong (as in the date shot above), but learning Siri's limitations is key to mastering it. Like all relationships, there has to be compromise.

Message: Stuart Miles

Messages is probably the best working example of Siri. Within the world of text/SMS messages, you can have it read your new messages to you, reply to messages, dictate the message and have it sent.

One of the smart things about Siri is that it can understand different terms, so you can use more natural language with it. You're not constrained to using specific commands, although in reality, Siri works much more reliably if you do.  Say "text message" and you can't go wrong, but if you use just "message", we've found it trying to compose an email.

 

You'll also find that Siri wants the message text upfront. Say "Text message Stuart Miles" and often you'll get a new SMS with the words "Stuart Miles" written in the middle. Fortunately it will repeat the body of the message to you before it sends, so you do get the chance to change it.

Exactly the same principle applies to emails: say "Email" upfront and you know it is composing an email. Put Siri in his place and Siri does what he is told.

Is my Wife at home?

Siri can interpret your contacts, recognises relationships and can access Find My Friends. By this logic, if everything is in place you'll be able to ask Siri if your wife is at home. Of course, you'd have to tell Siri who your wife is (and it can literally be anybody in your contacts) and she has to be logged into Find My Friends. (Technically this only really locates a device, but it's a pretty neat trick.) 

 

Finding contacts is easy too and works well, meaning you don't have to type in a name to search your device. This is where Siri becomes a little less hands-free, as contact cards are shown on screen, although if you want to use a particular piece of information, you can simply say "Call Stuart Miles" and Siri will endeavour to do so, say "Call Stuart" and you give Siri the chance to get confused.

By exactly the same method you can launch a FaceTime conversation, just by telling Siri what to do. 

Play Guns N' Roses

Music also works rather well with Siri, although we found the delay that Siri brings to music is a little frustrating. With music playing you can ask Siri what track is playing, ask to play a song, album or even genre. Music with Siri has worked without fault for us, save for the odd confusion with artist or album names - we couldn't get it to play Guns N' Roses, by the way, until we'd asked it what was playing then mimicked the way it said Guns N' Roses.

In this sense it is very much like the voice control function that the previous iPhone offered.

Appointments, Reminders, Notes

Handling of appointments can be frustrating because Siri can't read them all out to you, but will return you a list. You can, however, make new appointments, just by asking for them. You can set the time and the title of the appointment, but we couldn't get it to do anything more advanced like put them in a specific calendar: it's default all the way.

 

Reminders and Notes are also useful, as these are very simple to compose on the fly. You could dictate a Note telling yourself where you parked the car, the sort of thing you don’t really want to bash out in a message as you walk off to the shops. Of course, you can then just ask to see your Notes on your return and read it off the screen. Here it is really important to speak clearly, or you just get a run of garbled message.

Reminders too is excellent, because you can just dictate the entire thing. Need to be reminded that you need to drop the kids off at the pool? Tell Siri and a Reminder is scheduled. It's as simple as pressing the button and speaking. 

Searching the Internet and side-stepping those restrictions

Searching for information is one of the primary ways Siri is likely to be put to task. This is something of a grey area because Siri has to decide what type of information you're looking for.

Saying "search the web" or similar makes it clear what you are trying to do; often, if Siri can't discern what you meant it will suggest a web search. Ordering a search of the Internet can bypass the business search limitations to a certain extent because Google is pretty smart and can fill in the gaps for you, with great results.

Before you get started, make sure that Safari can use your location - head to Google and allow it to use your location. This will let Google return a map to you and enable the Places tab in Google to return results.

This means you can search for things like restaurants; say "search web Nandos" and boom, it returns your nearest Nando's for some peri-peri chicken, with contact details and a map. Say "search web burger", hit the Places tab and all burger joints are listed, with a map. It's not really Siri that's clever in this equation, it's Google, but who cares as long as you get to fill your belly?

As if this isn't enough, Google will also offer you directions which, you guessed it, links straight through to Maps on your iPhone and works just as any other request for directions does. It might not be as polished as the Siri result that US users get, but it does the job.

Siri: What's the verdict?

The long and short of it is that Siri is a sophisticated system, but as in life, you get the best results if you ask for exactly what you want. In being a dynamic system there are many degrees of vagarity. Our advice is to stick to what works if you want to sidestep the frustrations that Siri can bring. 

 

The international limitations aren't actually a problem. Ironically it’s the power of Google that fills in the gaps and even more ironically, the experience for local searching for UK users is then almost identical to voice searching in Android.

Taking this a step further, knowing what Siri can access and finding work arounds that use other mobile shortcuts, like web or SMS functions, can advance the system a little further. We're sure that in the future Siri will be able to compose Tweets or Facebook updates (which it currently can't unless you set-up Tweet by SMS).

But hands-free messaging, calling and music control from a headset can be a real benefit and now we've mastered it, we like it. Accepting the hybrid approach of Siri can make it much more useful and it's definitely worth taking the time to build a rapport and get Siri on your side. The devil is in the details and being able ask what the time is in a different country, or asking to set a timer makes a fiddly job much easier.

Remember: ultimately Siri works for you. Ask the right questions and you'll get the right answers.