iPhone App Review: Voice Actions

iPhone App Review: Voice Actions

August 2nd, 2011 by

Years ago I had a cheap Motorola flip-phone that had extensive voice-activated features. The iOS platform has yet to come anywhere close to what my old “dumb phone” could do, including only some very basic calling and music-playing commands in the baked-in voice function.

Voice Actions from developer Pannous attempts to fill in the missing features for the iPhone’s voice-activated functions. Send an email or SMS, start a web search by voice, set alarms and reminders, play music and place calls, even translate text just by tapping the microphone and stating your request.

How It Works

The app has a simple interface: a black screen with an icon of a microphone. Tap the mic and the app asks you to state your request, and green pulses appear around the mic to let you know that it is listening. Once you’re done talking the app is “Thinking” and the mic turns red. It will process your request and present what it thinks is the most likely request you were after. If your request included a built-in command (like placing a call, sending an email or text) then it will ask to confirm the person you wanted to chat with and bring up the relevant screen. You can also ask for information and it will send that to a Google search, switching you over to mobile Safari to complete the request. You can even ask if to translate something (“Translate I Love You into Spanish”). It will show you the Spanish spelling and pronounce the words for you in a machine-generated voice.

Other features include the ability to create a calendar entry via voice, find weather forecasts, and you can even set a general reminder (“Remind me to order a pizza in ten minutes.”), and a pop-up and tone sounds reminding you of… whatever you wanted reminding of.

Pros And Cons

Voice Actions is a wonderful idea for the platform, and the execution in this case is approaching greatness. It has a few bugs and quirks, but overall is a great app.

While I don’t ordinarily like apps that have “everything and the kitchen sink” type functionality, in this case I think it is the right way to go, as long as the results can be kept solid and reliable. For the most part Voice Actions produces expected results from all of your voice requests, so long as your pronunciation is clear and understandable. My requests for searches were recognized perfectly, reminders always worked well, and translations were recognized and supplied almost instantly. Some basic search results (facts-and-figures type searches) even show up in the app itself, read aloud by the machine person.

If you have friends with non-standard names then the app might have trouble pulling them out of your contact list. My wife’s name was never recognized, and the options the app gave me to select from whenever I tried to email or text her never included her name. A nice feature to add would be the ability to “teach” the app a strange word or name by selecting or typing a word or name and then saying it out loud a few times. I don’t know if that’s possible but it would be nice.

The app also crashed once or twice, but there is an update in the App Store pipeline with stabilization fixes. The crashes were not common and the app starts so quickly that it’s little more than a minor annoyance. The greatest problem with the app is that when sending an email or text you cannot actually be “hands-free”, since you have to tap to finish sending the resulting draft. This is most likely a limitation of the iOS platform and is probably a good security consideration, so there isn’t much at this point the developers can do.

Overall

Voice Actions is a great app with even greater promise. The ability to use it as a voice-activated information retrieval service, as well as its ability to add calendar entries and vocalize translations, puts it above free alternatives like the Google search app. In my opinion the developers should push further down this road and improve the app’s recognition ability and accuracy, and minimize the app’s need to switch out to Mobile Safari to show search results. For now it’s a solid app to fill the gap left open by Apple’s own anemic Voice Activation feature.

At $9.99 the app is quite pricey, but if it’s something that you’ve been looking for then you may find that worth it.

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