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Hands-On

Google Assistant arrives on the iPhone, but isn't going to replace Siri soon

After a year stuck just on Android devices, Siri competitor Google Assistant has come over to the iPhone —AppleInsider fires it up, to see how it fares on its own, and compared to Apple's offering.




Announced during Google's I/O keynote on Wednesday, Google Assistant promises to bring the full force of Google services to bear. It's relatively light-weight, running on anything that iOS 9 can run —meaning nearly everything Apple produced for iOS gear in the last five years.

Initial installation



As with everything else downloaded from the App Store, the app downloaded and installed fine on a fifth generation iPad, a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, an iPhone 7 Plus, and the iPhone SE. We successfully logged in with our Google account —and that's when the craziness started.

The app asked to alter our permissions on our Google account, but failed to do so when we approved the request. We ultimately had to log in on a browser, and manually change the settings.




After force-quitting the app and restarting, it acknowledged the account changes, and we got to work —in portrait mode only, for both.

Mish-mash of permissions



Google account permissions aren't the only ones that the app needs, though. The first time you ask the device to do something for you that relies on your data stored on your device, it asks for permission. In some cases, you'll have granted the same permission for both your Google account, and your phone as well.

This isn't a bad thing —but we found that from time to time we'd have to re-authorize the Assistant's use of stored iPhone data or features. We're not sure why at this point, but the re-authorization happened on all three test devices.

Voice recognition



For Wednesday's and Thursday's tests, the main tester originally heralds from western Massachusetts, far west of the "Cliff Claven" line. The farther away you get from Boston, residents speak more like we're from Connecticut or upstate New York, rather than the "Cheers" mailman. We have a few linguistic oddities but they're mostly in what we call things, rather than pronunciation.

Whether or not that's unaccented, is for the reader to decide.

Regardless, in our testing, Google Assistant did far better with speech recognition and parsing what's been said than Siri. Google Assistant fares better with homonyms than the current Siri incarnation does, and Google's product also does far better with acronyms than Apple's implementation.

So far, we've done limited testing with speakers originally from France, the deep U.S. south, and the Philippines with the same results —Siri chokes on acronyms and homonyms more than Google Assistant does.

Recognizing words is only part of the battle. Another front in that fight is what you do with the words. Neither are perfect.




Siri blew the interpretation completely, but even though Google Assistant got the words right, it didn't answer the question properly either. Even though touted as a feature, Google's conversational-style queries don't fare that well, even if it's properly identified the question at hand.

Even when shifting to a technology term, in this case, "USB-C," the results were effectively the same.




We'll see what Apple has up its sleeve at WWDC. Rumors have circulated for some time that a Siri refresh and expansion is imminent.

Practical use, and limitations



Ultimately, whether or not you use Google's Assistant on iOS boils down to three things —how deeply you're already embedded in the Google ecosystem, who you want handling your data including some personal information, and if you can tolerate the Apple-induced limitations that the app has.

Google Assistant leans heavily on your existing Google profile, and all the data its collected on you associated with that account. If you've been avoiding Google so far, Google Assistant isn't a good reason to jump in now.

As with Siri on iOS and macOS, Apple still isn't interested in collating data for sale. The Siri configuration menu has a button that invokes a summary of what Siri collects, what it sends to Apple, and how it is used —there is no such nicety for Google Assistant.

Other specifics like song names, names of photo albums, photo album names, and similar user data points are collated by Siri, but not linked to other data that Apple may have as a result of use of other Apple services. As we mentioned, Google Assistant passes requests for a song selection to Apple Music, it's not clear what Google does with this data.

That all said, Google Assistant could be so much more. Right now, because of API restrictions from Apple, Google Assistant can't launch apps, can't send an email through Apple Mail, do anything with Apple's Clock app including setting alarms (but it can set an in-app timer), or use anything besides Messages for communication.




This probably isn't going to change any time soon. So, at least for now, Siri has an edge over Google Assistant for iOS users.

But, both have a long way to go.