Voice recognition: Which smartphone is the best listener?

Philip Schiller presenting Apple's iPhone 4S Apple's Philip Schiller introduces the Siri service

It's a challenge that has occupied scientists for decades and promised huge fortunes to anyone who could solve it.

I'm talking about speech recognition, back in the news because it is one of the most significant features of Apple's latest phone.

Will it remain an amusing party-trick - or become the key way in which we communicate with computers?

In the early stages of the speech recognition industry, it was often marketed to lawyers and doctors, busy professionals who were often uneasy with the use of keyboards.

They were offered expensive and often pretty rudimentary products, allowing them to dictate medical notes or lengthy legal submissions into a microphone and then have their voices transformed into text.

One suspects that such products often relied on plenty of work from rather less well-paid secretaries to turn the machine's efforts into recognisable English.

In recent years voice recognition has begun to become a much more affordable, and hence mass market, service through the mobile phone.

Remember Spinvox, the voicemail transcription service which seemed to have cracked seamless machine-based speech recognition?

Until we discovered that the work was mostly done by humans in call-centres around the world.

But it was a demo at Google's headquarters in Mountain View a couple of years ago that began to convince me that voice recognition could really become mainstream.

At the launch of its Nexus Android phone, a Google executive held the new handset in front of him and said "navigate to San Francisco airport".

With impressive speed the phone began to issue driving instructions.

So Google has been a voice pioneer for a while - but somehow the feature has remained an interesting but little-used aspect of the Android phones. And now, as so often before, Apple has come along with something that may not be more innovative but is a lot more useable.

Two things stand out about the Siri voice feature on the iPhone 4S - it's built into just about every aspect of the phone's operations and it seems eager to have a relationship with you, the user, on your terms.

Testing, testing

So, unlike with Android's system, you don't have to learn a precise set of commands and then hold the phone in front of you while passers-by eye you nervously.

You lift the phone to your ear and tell it to "make an appointment in my diary with Kevin at five" or " tell me how the weather looks in London on Friday" and for the most part, it happens.

But has Siri, a business bought by Apple a couple of years ago, actually produced a more accurate voice recognition service than Android?

I decided to put this to the test, asking each system to transcribe the first paragraph of this blog post into an email.

I carried out the test in a quiet room, so in easier conditions than will usually be the case.  

Samsung Galaxy Tab Samsung unveiled its rival to the iPad a year ago

First, I asked the iPhone to send an email to myself, then dictated the text. Here's the result:

"It's a challenge that has occupied scientists the decade and promised huge fortunes to anyone who could solve it stop I'm talking about speech recognition back in the news because it is one of the most significant features of Apples latest phone STOCK will it remain unamusing party trick or become McKee way in which we communicate with COMPUTERS?"

Then I took a Samsung Galaxy Tab, which offers Android voice control.

Here I had to manually open an email and then press a microphone symbol on the keyboard - so slightly more work than on the iPhone. And here is the result:

"If I started the decade and poets 14th avenue and hope It stops on Interstate recognItIon back In the news because It's 1 of the most signIant pIctures of apples latest phone got the wIll remaIn In the musIc of the trIck or become a keyway computers."

So, both systems are far from perfect. But Android, which was far better than Apple's old Voice Control system, now appears to have been leap-frogged by Siri.

Whether, after the initial curiosity value of the new feature, users find it changes the way they interact with devices is far from clear. It has certainly proved a great way of marketing the latest iPhone, with record sales in its first three days.

Overnight, though, the smartphone landscape will change again.

At an event in Hong Kong, Google and Samsung are due to unveil a new phone featuring Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android operating system.

Apparently one of its features is voice recognition which makes the camera focus on whoever is talking.

So far it's been big screens, great cameras, and clever apps which have been the key selling points for the latest handsets.

Maybe the phone which is the best listener will win the next round of this contest.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It would be really useful to update this article with an attempt to read the same text with the new Nexus.

    It's all well and good comparing the new Apple voice recognition with the old Google one, but, for an accurate comparison, you need to compare the OS versions that have come out a week apart from each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    You should have posted a video of your testing. Truly natural speech recognition does not exist today when dictated to in the manner many people speak to humans. You don't have to speak extra s l o w l y, just enunciate well. Many Brits & Americans speak as though their mouth is full of mush, or in machine gun fashion.

    Google has the top people in speech reco, Apple buys it from Nuance..

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I suspect having a 'conversation' with your device to get it to understand enough to do what you really want is a long way off.
    And, do I really want the entire office knowing what I am doing on my phone/computer? What when there is a whole office trying to edit files, make calls... who does the phone/computer listen to?
    Lots of thought required

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Another day... another Apple "innovation" that they, in reality, have brought in and then polished...


  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    how about this:
    "Apple sue Android over the use of the number 'Four' in their latest software - arguing this is copyright infringement of the iPhone 4S"

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Any plans for any coverage of the new Android release? I know it will mean doing a piece that doesn't involve Apple, but I am sure the BBC can squeeze an iPhone 4s picture in somewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Does anyone at the BBC actually own an Android phone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    You failed to look at Google Voice correctly - poor research on your part. When you install Google voice, there's a video which shows you how to send email, text, navigate, etc just using voice commands.

    Every single time we get a technology story, it's always pro Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    also, is it true this app was on iPhone 3 & 4? becuase if so, thats just awful.
    "the new iPhone 5.1.... Now with calculator app!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    you could always just leave a voicemail for someone? or speak to them? how does a phone that can (convert words to text then send them, then a 2nd phone receives them, converts to text then to voice) help anybody?
    hands-free satnav "take me home" sounds good, but as you said - you have been able to do that for a while

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Erm...you do know Android 4.0 was announced yesterday, right? Or are you too busy obsessing over Apple?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    so Android release a huge new update. Samsung release a flagship phone ..... and what do we get on the BBC tech pages ? (1) How much profit Apple is making (2) How 'game-changing' is Apples new software.
    I used to defend the BBC for impartial journalism but this is starting to get beyond a joke

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    "Google's technical approach leads Nuance's by at least two years. Furthermore, they have many more languages where they have captured millions of utterances for speech tuning purposes. Make no mistake about it google is well in the lead in front of Nuance and Apple."

    Which explains Google's inferior comparison in similar reviews?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The new Windows Phone 'Mango' update has added voice recognition for texting, although, for some reason it doesn’t seem to be available for emailing. It works very well and understands my dodgy north of Ireland accent almost perfectly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.


    "much of the functionality of Siri would be unusable outside the US due to a lack of partners providing listings data. Until this key plank is in place I suspect it will continue to provide amusement rather than utility."

    Only outside of America, as you said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I use Vlingo on my Android phone (S II) ind its quite good.

    As more and more people use these systems they will learn to recognise more words quicker and with more precision.

    My only gripe about Siri & Vlingo is that you need an internet or 3g connection for it to work as its not the phone that processes your voice but servers on the Internet. This can use up limited bandwidth and cause delays

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    "If it's been around for a while but didn't really catch on then I think we know the answer to whether it is just another gimmick."

    MP3 players were around for years before they caught on. Being first to do something, even first to do something well, is usually irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Google's technical approach leads Nuance's by at least two years. Furthermore, they have many more languages where they have captured millions of utterances for speech tuning purposes. Make no mistake about it google is well in the lead in front of Nuance and Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Tams - It's an article comparing Apple iPhone and Android voice recognition. How would the article have been written without mentioning Apple (or, indeed, Android as Rory has also done numerous times in the article)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I know this is rather off-topic, but this article is absolutely peppered with references to Apple or Apple products. Almost every time smartphones or tablets are covered by you, there always seems to be a reference to Apple. ¬.¬


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