Tag Archives: ios

Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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The Best of Both Worlds

I once wrote a blog about how the tablet was the replacement of the netbook, and for the most part, I nailed it. Many computer makers now make small computers called ultra books with as much or more power than notebooks and desktops. Most feature touch screen displays similar to tablets, albeit a tad larger, which brings me to my point: The tablet is NOT the replacement for the net book. But then again, neither is the ultra book. No, the replacement is actually a little bit of both. Microsoft introduced the Surface last year and despite a mega marketing campaign and obvious product placement in shows like Arrow (or just about every other show on TV) the Surface has not beaten the iPad or Android tablet in sales. It should. It is the replacement for the net book and brings the best of mobile computing and traditional computing together.

I traded my Acer One net book for an Asus Transformer Prime tablet (with attached keyboard) running Android’s Jelly Bean OS. I used this setup for a couple of years, trying different software to get some semblance of functionality for writing. Unfortunately, Android is still in sore need of a serious word processing solution. After Asus abandoned the prime, software updates made the tablet so slow as to be worthless to me. There was no update to Jelly Bean or Kit Kat for the Prime. It was time for a new device.

I first tried a Galaxy Note, but it was too much like my phone, also a Note, and I thought it wouldn’t be a good tool for writing, as Android still lacks a good word processor. I briefly considered the iPad, since it comes with Pages, which I hear is not a bad app for writing, but when I tried it I was underwhelmed. No, I needed to get back to a windows machine, it seemed, especially since I have been dying to try Scrivener, a professional writing app for Windows and Macs. Of course, that meant getting into Windows 8.

The Windows 8 operating system has a split personality that occasionally battles with itself. Tablets like the Galaxy Tab and the iPad feature operating systems and applications tailored for the ultra mobile consumer platform. Users of tablets do not spend a lot of time creating content, rather, they view and interact with content. For this reason, most tablets do not offer all the bells and whistles of a full version of Windows or Mac OS. Apple realizes this and has a separate OS for their mobile devices. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be struggling with drawing a line between functions. For Windows 8, Microsoft jumped head first into the mobile platform pool, and took the desktop with it. Long time users of Windows moaned and groaned and clung to their copies of Windows 7 like a life preserver. Some even refused to leave XP. Microsoft listened and revamped 8.1 to include the ability to keep the traditional desktop interface, albeit with some modifications. Once a user gets used to the changes in the full version of 8.1 and not the RT version, the changes are not too bad. There is a learning curve, to be sure, but so far, I have found all the settings and functions I have gotten used to with earlier versions.

The Surface Pro 2 is zippy fast boasting an i5 CPU running at 2.5 GHz, though if one wishes to optimize battery life, it will slow down the CPU when on battery. When it does this it is not appreciably slower to the average user. During my testing, I did notice the slow down on the legacy apps, which are more resource hungry. It also comes with a stylus.

Good keyboard action on the Power Type cover. This has the same chicklet-style keys that the Type cover has, but is on a thicker platform, which for me make it feel more stable. The touch style keyboard is the thinnest and cheapest keyboard, but it has a fabric skin on it and there is no tactile response to the keystroke. For me, as a writer, I must have that tactile response. These keys on my type cover are actually better than many of the ultra books I have tested. The downside of these covers is that the other parts of the keyboard are wrapped in a flimsy covering that feels like paper and I suspect will start to split and peel eventually.

The stylus works well and has an eraser feature which is pretty neat. One simply flips the stylus over and rubs the other end over the tablet to erase, just like a pencil, when used in an app that supports it. It does not default to mouse function in desktop mode, though. It does a very good job of selecting and Windows has altered the file explorer to provide check boxes when selecting, which is easy to do with the stylus. Another stylus-related feature is the Windows journal app, which allows for handwritten note taking using the stylus, including doodles and sketches. The handwriting can be converted into text very effectively by the journal. No easy feat considering the state of my chicken scratch.

Microsoft boasts the Surface has 10-point touch capabilities in the screen. I understand the benefit of multi touch, which allows pinch to zoom and rotation and a host of other features, but why call out the number ten? How could one put all 10 fingers on the screen at the same time? Little Hands? Who’s holding the tablet then?

The Surface Pro 2 is quite heavy, especially when you add on a keyboard. This is a fact that is not necessarily a bad thing if it is used as a notebook, but can be hard to hold for reading. Add in the fact that the battery in the Power Type cover also adds 20 percent more weight as well and it gets quite heavy; about 20 percent heavier than my old Asus Transformer Prime.

The reason I bought it was because it has a 10-inch screen. Most people would balk at the small size, as laptops usually run 13-17 inches with some models running as large as 21 inches, but I like being as portable as possible and I really primarily use it as a writing tool. I looked at several ultra books, since they were cheaper (less expensive) but they were cheaper (flimsy). The Yoga came in a close second, but I didn’t like holding the keyboard flipped backwards.

Now for a tablet, the Surface is quite pricey. The 128 gig SSD Pro 2 version runs a grand by itself plus 120 to 200 dollars for the keyboard depending on which keyboard you get. I got the one with the extra battery to help the tablet last longer. My Asus had that feature, which in that case doubled the battery life, but in the case of the Surface, only provide 50 percent more battery life. Is it worth the extra 60 bucks for the battery? I dunno, but with both batteries fully charged, the surface lasted 12 hours of constant word processor use with some internet and video thrown in. The battery control panel doesn’t accurately report the status in either control panel. This is confusing and frustrating as I never know exactly how much battery life I have left at any given time.

Now, the biggest issue with the Surface is none of the things I have yet mentioned. No, the biggest hurdle is the interface; the surface uses Windows 8—an operating system I have spent the past year decrying as terrible. One might wonder if I have changed my viewpoint on this subject since I did spend more than a thousand dollars on a device running this pariah of an OS. The caveat I claim here is that I have always said, and I still maintain, that Windows 8 was designed for touch screen devices like tablets and cell phones and the surface is one such device. As it has a very responsive touch screen, Windows 8.1 is functional using the metro interface. With the latest updates to 8.1, the legacy desktop interface is still there, one simply has to look for it and with the new version, it is only a touch away. Most of the features of traditional windows are still there and if one still uses a mouse and keyboard, one might forget for a moment that it is on a tablet.

With the pro version, legacy windows apps such as Word 2007 and Photoshop CS4 run like they always have, in desktop mode. Microsoft is busy trying to build a library of metro interface apps so the users will have an iPad-like experience with an app store that runs in the touch metro interface. There are two versions of Internet Explorer, one that runs windowed like IE has for years, but also a touch-optimized version, which puts the address bar in auto hide, drops it to the bottom of the screen and changes up the UI entirely. Instead of clicking a back button, or even hitting the backspace key, one simply swipes from the left to go back.

The other version of the Surface was initially called the Surface RT, but Microsoft dropped the RT from the name. It has an atom processor and runs a stripped down version of windows that supposedly drops support for legacy apps. I cannot verify that as I have the Pro, but that was the main reason I got the pro. I need to use the apps I have already paid for. I see no reason to pay Microsoft a monthly fee to use Office, which is the current model for Office 360. Adobe has followed suit with a monthly charge of $40 to use Creative Suite.

It occurs to me though, that even as much as the Surface does, it probably should not be the only computer in anyone’s network. It has a SSD running from 32 to 512 gigs, depending on how much one wishes to shell out. Microsoft is graciously throwing in a year’s worth of Sky drive for cloud backup, but unless one has some money, either an external USB drive or some network storage solution would be best in addition to the Surface.

So far, after a week of using it, I am loving the Surface. I am mad at myself for waiting this long. This device has my whole hearted recommendation. Even Windows 8 gets a nod, given that it is on a touch screen and has 8.1. Just be prepared for a bit of a workout lugging it around.

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