Apple's push-to-talk Siri vs. Google's always-listening Now: Which is better?

Apple's push-to-talk Siri vs. Google's always-listening: Which is better?

With iOS 7.1 Apple's added a new feature to Siri, their personal digital assistant — the ability to manually control how long Siri listens. The concept is remarkably similar to the old push-to-talk systems, just hold down the Home button, start talking, and then let go of the Home button and Siri goes to work. It's also remarkably different than the Moto X and Google's "always listening". But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Apple and Google have totally different businesses and that makes for totally different priorities. Apple makes money on hardware margins so they want to sell more and more profitable iPhones. Google makes money off advertising revenue so they want to hold more of your attention and acquire more of your data. That means it's in Google's best interest to discount hardware and lower prices to get products into more hands so the eyes attached to those hands can be enticed into looking at even more Google services. It also means it's in Apple's best interests to differentiate their hardware so the value clearly exceeds the cost. One of the ways to differentiate is privacy.

With the Moto X, whether it's in your hand or across the room, you can simply say "Okay, Google Now", tell it what you want, and it'll do it. No button press or physical contact required. To do this, however, the Moto X has to be listening to every word you say so it'll know when you say "Okay, Google Now". (It even has natural language and contextual coprocessors to make doing so more energy efficient.) For some of us the convenience far, far outweighs the privacy concerns since we like Google and love gadgets and, hey, it feels like something out of Star Trek.

With the iPhone and the new Siri option you absolutely have to press and hold down a big, clicky, physical button and hold it down for as long as you're talking. Say "Okay, Siri" and you know what you get? Nothing. You get nothing and more nothing unless and until you're hold down the button. Don't hold it down and Siri won't be listening. For some of us the loss of convenience is more than made up for by increase in control. Siri isn't always listening but we're damn sure it isn't listening when we don't want it to.

Apple extends this even to their new CarPlay feature, which extends iOS apps to automotive infotainment systems. If they work with Siri a button on the steering wheel needs to be pushed to activate it.

If your hands are busy or full or messy, always-listening can seem like a life saver. If you're in the middle of confidential, personal, or sensitive moment, push-to-talk can seem like a blessing.

The best of both worlds might be the ability to tell Siri to enter an always-listening hands-free mode. It could persist for a short period of time or until you tell Siri to stop listening. That way you have the privacy and security of push-to-talk most of the time, but the convenience of always-listening when you're driving, cooking, or otherwise have your hands and attention elsewhere.

It would have the advantage of Apple's business model not being dependent on aggregating our personal data, at least so far, but it wouldn't have all the depth and breadth of Google's services. Some might find that reassuring, others frustrating.

Likewise the on-board voice parsing — no need to go to the network to set alarms or perform other local tasks — and the whole "prescience" thing — preemptively serving up what it feels is relevant information. Google Now has done both for a while now. Siri, however, still goes to the network for everything and still only speaks when spoken to...

Push-to-talk or always-listening, what's your preference, when, and why?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Apple's push-to-talk Siri vs. Google's always-listening Now: Which is better?


I wonder if when Google Now becomes more and more widely known and recognized, if Google (or Motorola etc) will change the software to only recognize the phone owner's voice? Like if it can be activated by anyone saying the command, once more people become aware of this, will the software be changed to only be activated by the owner to preserve the security of their device, contacts, services, etc?

The Moto X recognizes only the user's voice. It does this by prompting you to say "ok, Google Now" three times while setting it up. I have a few coworkers with the Moto X, and I can say "ok, Google Now" a hundred times and nothing will happen. Even when you do get it to work, you can only really access whatever the user setup to allow. So for now, the only way that I can mess with them is when they ask Google Now what the weather is like, and I add "in Australia!" To the end of it so it doesn't do what they asked. Seriously though, Always Listening > Siri by a longshot

The Moto X can be trained but Google Now can't... That said even in a quiet room if you aren't holding the phone you have to get very loud to make Google Now do anything...

I have both a 5s and a Moto X. The only thing I can say about it is a physical button activation on the iPhone is just *slightly* better to me than the voice activation on the Moto X. there's always a few times out of the day that the phone doesn't recognize my voice. Could be me not speaking clear enough, but no matter the reason, it makes me feel a little dumb just talking directly into a turned off phone.

you must just be a apple fan because I owned a moto x and currently have a 5 and the always listening feature is much better then siri especially while driving

I'm also an android fan. Crazy huh? I can't comment on your experience and you haven't had mine. I know when mine fails.

Throwing around dismissive terms like "fanboy" make it hard to have a conversation. Probably better to stick with explaining what you like better and why :)

Not only that. It seems that when someone has both brands, if one of the brands is critized it is assumed that they must be a fanboy of the other brand. I think both brands whether Apple or Android should be able to be equally critized without the fanboy label.

It's more concerning to me when someone uses the fanboy label on people like me who actively use both OS's. It doesn't really make sense.... If I was actually a fanboy, I wouldn't have spent the money on both phones....

The concept of holding the home button the hole time u talk 2 Siri is ridiculous! They will have another update that changes that!

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You don't always have to do it that way- this is just to help in a loud room, etc. The old way still works too!

Yea. Specifically, if you let go of the Home Button right after the Siri screen pops up, it'll behave as usual, automatically waiting until you're done talking.

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I've used both the Moto X and Siri (iPhone 5). I LOVED the true hands-free "Ok Google Now" feature (it comes in handy while driving). However, Siri would read back my texts prior to sending them while Google Now would simply display the message I wanted to send and require me to press "send" (unless I was replying to an incoming message; then it would ask if I wanted to send the reply). They're both excellent services, but I would like to see Siri able to go completely hands-free (voice command). That would complete the experience for me.

This is pretty much how I feel about the two. I really love always on for when I'm driving, but elsewhere pressing the button doesn't bother me because I'll be looking at my phone anyway.

When the driving assist feature is on, the moto x will read the incoming text message and ask if you would like to reply. If you say yes it will type what you say and then read it back to you to confirm before sending.

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This article makes it sound like always listening was pervasive at Google, when only one of their devices supported it (and now, none of their devices support it). I think that alone indicates it's not quite ready for prime time as everything else Google makes requires some sort of user interaction.

Hidden feature within Nexus 5 too. Currently only a POC but the DEV environment is about to make it public

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It's actually solely because of hardware. The Moto X had to have a dedicated DSP chip just to manage this in a battery friendly way.

Now, starting with the Snapdragon 800 series, CPUs are beginning to have such DSP functionality built in. Don't be surprised if Google makes an announcement at the next I/O about more "always listening" functionality for the next version of Android.

I can't wait to see how they play in to the Cortana personality
Siri is smug, Google is lifeless.. Cortana could be a fun one to work with and I hope leads to Siri stepping up her/his/its game

Siri is more Pixar than smug.

I too am curious about Cortana. I had high hopes for TellMe and Microsoft just never seemed to push it.

No way,
Opening to Finding Nemo, Up and Frozen to name a few. I don't know about how Siri treats you, Rene, but she would never make me cry like that.

Maybe the Aust voice is just more smug sounding?

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My Siri sure sounds smug with his male British voice. Just how I like it.

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I don't understand how people were all up in arms about the XboxOne "always listening" but when it comes to Google doing it, that's totally OK..

I've got friends who refused to buy the XboxOne because of it being creepy and paranoia about spying (as if they are worth spying on). But for Google, a company built on catching what you do and selling it, they love the feature..

The Moto X sold 500k in the 4th quarter. Motorola loss money again in the 4th quarter. Everyone says the Motorola sale was about patents. If Google got Motorola in black we would have seen more software & hardware integrated phones. Most Android users use Samsung phones & touch wiz. The sales back it up. Moto X & stock android have received praise but the masses don't use it.

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My guess is a device that's intended to listen to voices a fair distance away (Xbox) versus one that is trained to listen to only one voice at close proximity may have something to do with the additional apprehension. Plus, there's nothing terribly helpful my game machine can do for me, where a cell phone can do a lot. I'd turn that feature off in a heartbeat... that is if I cared to buy an Xbox and if the flexibility to turn it off were available. Oh yeah, you can also turn it off on the Moto X :)

There's a difference between "always listening" and "always paying attention." Neither the XBOX One nor the Moto X will actually pay attention until you say the correct phrase.

I've only played with an Xbox One once, but I could never get the voice controls to do what I wanted. It was extremely frustrating, and made me feel like having a remote was the greatest thing ever

I think always listening is less of a security risk than it may seem. Yes it's always listening but it's not recording or uploading what it hears and when it's not been activated what it hears isn't processed in the same way so as to save battery. It also, in my experience, doesn't activate easily enough to be an issue in a meeting. Now I haven't used a Moto X but I have been using Google Now since it debuted and I'm pretty sure that the voice processing algorithms on the Moto X are the same ones being used by Google Now.

My opinion is that always listening needs to be a user option and that push to activate is kinda out dated. Although I do think that the push and hold to listen would be faster to respond because it's not trying to decide if you've stopped speaking. Honestly it's a matter of user preference, and, as long as those with know how are double checking what is being done, it's all secure enough.

I would love to have Siri's language processing on device for settings, reading messages, and so on. Sprint's network isn't reliable enough for me to be able to count on Siri working frequently enough for me to use her as often as I would otherwise like to.

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It's tough because I use Siri and Google Now for different purposes. I use Google Now for the practical things like getting directions, setting reminders, and other such things. However, Siri is dang fun to use when I just want to ask something random. Also, asking Siri to tell you jokes is much more awesome when you are with your friends just goofing around than asking Google Now.

I don't know, it depends on how I feel. For business purposes, I like Google Now more. For non-business use, Siri is the best.

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When I had my gnex I was always using Google Now. I hardly use Siri on my 5s. I'm not sure that GN is that much better than Siri but it always seemed easier, and more convenient, to use.

For now i do think that apple having the button is a tad bit better than google now always listening. Simply for the reason that was stated in the article that anyone could activate google now on your device. However when they do have some sort of functionality that allows only the owner to activate siri by voice recognition then we have something truly special assuming everyone uses siri as much as i do.

The always listening is trained to your voice. My friends have all failed to activate it.

Beamed via my Moto X from the iMore Android app.

Wow I did not know that. I imagine it must be extremely accurate as well just like Google now.

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The voice activation on the Moto X is pretty nice. It would probably be even better on the iPhone.

Beamed via my Moto X from the iMore Android app.

Google Now is 100 times more accurate and faster than Siri. I use Siri for one thing. Setting timers.

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And you have the scientific data to corroborate your findings where? And the peer review studies are published where?

The only things Google (Now) may be "100 times more accurate and faster than Siri" at is listening in on your conversations without your knowledge, and tracking every little thing you do so they can make more money off of you without explicitly asking to do so...'cause, you know, "Do no evil" 'n' stuff...

I prefer specifically telling the device when to listen to me and not having a service always listening. I don't use the push-hold thing for Siri though, I still just just the press-hold-release then talk.

I don't much care about one button vs no buttons, but the lack of any on device processing puts Siri leagues behind Google Now.

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Why don't people just tap the screen? When you're done talking to SIRI tap the screen and she completes your querie. I don't want to press and hold. When I am done talking I always tap the screen so that she can fetch what I need.

I'll go one better. Why don't people just hold the iPhone up to their ear? It automatically activates Siri button push free, recognizes 99.9% of my queries and is a lot easier to hear responses too.

EXACTLY! Especially in a potentially noisy environment where Siri could continue listening to the ambient noise and misinterpret it as additional commands.

I had the nexus 5 for a brief period of time and disabled google now. I don't want my phone listening to everything that goes on in my life, who knows what Google is doing with that data. I like th Siri model because when I want to use it, it's there, and you can still turn on raise for Siri. Also, I'm getting tired off all these apps that want access to my microphone, apps like shazam I can understand but why does a news app need access to my microphone? No thanks!

There is no data. If you don't say"OK Google" nothing is being sent. This isn't seri. It doesn't need a server to translate any language. Nothing is transmitted or saved unless you say the magic words. Looks like your misunderstanding caused you to miss out. Kind of like a person who won't use electricity because it's scary.

hmm...the "google search" app available from the App Store has "OK Google" voice activated search capabilities so long as the app is "active" (if it's merely running in the background, in my experience saying "OK Google" won't trigger a search).

having owned and used both the X and the 5S, imo voice activated searches/commands are a secondary thought/concern as compared to UX (draw your own conclusions on what OS is "better"...everyone has their own favorite).

Rene, it would really be worth mentioning the "Raise to Speak" additional option, as it is at least a button press free way to activate Siri.

Instead of comparing why cant we have both of them with the always on feature configurable so we can enable it when necessary.

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Ok Google is cool and OK Siri would be superb especially in the car. I think you can be spied on in many ways and I would tend to believe that Google is not recording 24/7 listening by MotoX. So I would like to see OK Siri. However local processing is way more important issue again especially in the car. I live in a country which has won accolades for superfast mobile data but still when you drive in a narrow vallye in the countryside you gets spots with Edge signal only and Siri gets lost. At the same time most of the time I want Siri to read my calendar appointments , set new ones, read and send text messages and emails play music and launch navigation. A lot of that is local (new appointment could be put on my local calendar and beamed to my work server when I get in an area of strong signal). I hope that with CarPlay Apple will goninto kocal processing.

I use the Google Now search app instead of Siri... before & even after iOS 7.1 update. \_(ツ)_/ #KanyeShrug sorry Apple, Siri just isn't accurate enough with it's voice/word recognition.

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I've used both and while both are fine, Siri gives me more information by voice than Google Now.

Don't like this new way at all. It's ridiculous. I think it's also going to wear out the damn home button. Dumb move, just can't leave well enough alone.

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I honestly couldn't care less either way. I hardly ever use Siri on my iPad mini, and I don't use my phone (Lumia 521) in the car very much. I'd probably turn off any "always listening" feature just to keep it from trying to help me.

It's simply you can't have your cake and eat it too. Most people now think that it doesn't work that way so they expect the convenience with the protection of their privacy, un-realistic. I like the always listening feature but I don't like battery drain. It can be done on iPhones as observed by the lift to activate Siri option. Also in Jailbreak there are Siri tweaks that lets Siri activate by name (always listening). When it can be done with no battery drain I would be down until then I don't mind tapping a button. I always had the problem where I would start composing an iMessage and Siri would cut me off requiring me to change the message and try to get it done in a short burst. So this new feature is going to be awesome for me. Overall always listening is the best for me but not until it can be done properly.

Given that Siri speaks only very few languages, there is not even competition between the two these days. Google's is the leading product and what people where I live associate with natural language recognition. This makes sense, since Google has to be locally relevant where ever they make business; they are, after all, and ads company. Apple, in contrast, believe they can afford the middle finger treatment to their customers. For which reason, perhaps, their market share in Scandinavia has plummeted so fast. (Of course, it is not just the non-functional Siri that has alienated customers, but also the horrible maps that do not work in Europe.)

I have to say that Siri has been responding far quicker than before. Though Google Now still verges on the edge of telepathy as far as understanding what I'm saying.

I've never had an Android phone, so I only know Siri, but I'm wondering, how much of a battery suck is it to have it always listening?

There's a time and a place for both. There's no real debate to be had, Siri, Google Now and Cortana simply need a toggle to choose between push to talk and always listening.

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I'm an iPhone guy, so Siri is OK. What bothers me about the "always listening" mode is that there's a server somewhere collecting all that data that your device is sending, all the time. In this case, Google. That makes me uncomfortable. On demand, with no storage on servers, is OK with me.

O think Apple should go Middle ground here!
Press to listen, and if it gets more than a pre-configured time of silence, asks the user if its all done or if it wants to continue.
Also if not in writing message mode, it just stops listening after no sound for that time.

Apple could also do something like Google with a command to start listening and other to stop.

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Google now is the best ... Siri is alright, not accurate and useful. Who wants to talk, give me info which matters. And half of time damn thing fails.

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I find Siri very accurate when I use it, but it just hasn't become a regular habit and I only do a few things. "Tell my wife I'm on my way" as I walk out from work. "Take me home" when I want directions home. I think if Siri would be listening like the MotoX I'd use it in the car all the time.

Has anyone noticed "raise to speak" is broken with 7.1? I had to turn it off and on again to make it work.

Only Moto X can hear "OK Googl Now" when phone is locked so using MotoX while driving is helpful but with other Android phones is tottaly useless. It is much easier with Siri and EarPods. Just push for 2sec mic and that's it. You don't need to hold mic while talking. This is something new but it works perfect on "old" way, just 2 sec to activate Siri and your iPhone can be in your pocket. That's how I use it all the time while driving. Beside that it is much easier to use it with headphones on Android and on iPhone, otherwise you have to have mobile close to your mouth or it should be some quite room.

No doubt Apple is a brand name and but Google also no less in comparison. You can the in global market the have high demand for Google's products as they are low priced and also available easily. In comparison the price of Apple's products are very high but in quality no doubt they are the best but need high maintenance. Services of Google are mostly preferred by people than Apple. Well nice and informative blog.