Almost every aspect of the iPhone 4S is unsurprising: it is, in short, an example of iterative design at its best. It might have a fast processor, an excellent camera, and a slew of much-needed tweaks thanks to iOS 5, but the stand-out, big-label feature is Siri the voice-controlled virtual assistant. Siri, in the absence of an iPhone 5, was the One More Thing at Apple’s recent press event, and it will be the cornerstone of Apple’s marketing drive until the iPad 3 and iPhone 5 roll around next year.
What if you don’t have an iPhone 4S, though? Better yet, what if you don’t want an iPhone? What if you’re a member of the hipster counterculture who proudly wields an open source Android phone? Why should Siri be limited to the freshly-pressed, high-falutin’ pockets of iPhone owners? Pah! Well, we have good news and bad news: No, there isn’t an exact Siri analog for Android, but yes, there are plenty of alternatives that either leverage Google’s excellent voice API to provide piecemeal functionality that’s almost as good as Siri, or apps that use their own cloud-based infrastructure to deliver a very similar service to Siri.
Vlingo Virtual Assistant (Free, $2 to remove ads)
With over one million downloads, a price tag that you can’t argue with, and a feature set that looks remarkably similar to Siri, Vlingo is probably the best voice-control app for Android. Vlingo lets you send texts and emails, voice dial, find local restaurants and businesses, buy movie tickets, open apps, update Twitter or Facebook, and more, all with your voice.
The best way to see how Vlingo works is to watch the video below, but basically it’s an app that runs and stays in the foreground — and then you tap the “Speak it” button to give a command. There’s also a hands-free “InCar” module that wakes up whenever you say “Hi Vlingo!” It isn’t quite as smooth as Siri, but considering it’s an app and isn’t baked into the OS, it’s impressive.
Incidentally, there are versions of Vlingo for BlackBerry, Nokia, iOS, and feature phones — and Windows!
Next up is a brand-new app for Android 2.2 and later that does exactly what it says on the tin: you can draft and send SMS texts just by using your voice. Sonalight advertises itself as an excellent companion for driving, if you want to tell your loved one that you’ll be home late, without taking your hands off the wheel or entering into an (ugh!) conversation.
Sonalight also reads back SMSes that arrive — but that’s it, as far as functionality goes. It’s a free download, but the app appends a Market link to the end of each of your messages unless you upgrade, which costs $20 per year. Speaking to TechCrunch, its developers say that the monetization approach may change, too.
You might know this already, but Google actually provides an app that functions a lot like Siri: Voice Search (Android 2.2+). Once it’s installed you can access Voice Search by clicking the microphone button on the home screen Google gadget, and then simply call out your command. You can ask Voice Search/Actions to send an SMS, email, give you directions, and more.
The only problem with Voice Search is that there isn’t much to configure, it isn’t capable of reading responses out to you, and it requires a fair bit of on-screen button pushing to make it work.
Edwin, Speech-to-Speech (Free)
Very similar to Vlingo, Edwin (Android 2.1+) gives you voice control — and spoken responses — of various features. Like Siri, Edwin is hooked up to Wolfram Alpha, so you can ask it all sorts of odd questions, but you can also use Edwin to make calls, give you map directions, tweet, and so on.
Speaktoit Assistant (Free)
Finally, if the feature you most like about Siri is the idea of telling a woman to do things for you, check out Speaktoit Assistant (Android 2.1+). Speaktoit is basically the same deal as Siri or Vlingo, but instead of a boring text-only interface, you get to interact with an animated avatar!
By default your assistant is a perky brunette, but you can change it to a busty blonde librarian, and there are two male avatars included too. You can even customize the avatar’s skin color, hair style, clothing…
You can see my rather awesome handiwork on the right.
If you use another Siri-type app for Android, let us know in the comments!