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Voice commands offer a convenient hands-free method for interacting with your smartphone, but the technology comes with certain limitations; there is only so much you can tell your phone to do. Navigating to specific apps, making phone calls or adding appointments to your calendar are the easy, standard tasks. If you crave additional functions, pay attention to the OS your phone uses and the third-party apps you order.

Built-in Voice Control

  • The Siri voice command functionality on the iPhone 4S isn’t quite as talented as one of those droids from “Star Wars,” but it’s the next best robot. The device can understand a wide range of commands, add data to your apps, take dictation for text messages and emails, and answer questions about the weather.

    Earlier iPhones featured limited voice control systems with small vocabularies, so you couldn’t order them to do much more than place phone calls or control your music. The voice control functionality on Android and Windows Phone 7 phones hasn’t evolved much beyond those earlier iPhone models, but they do accept dictation for composing emails or for setting your alarm clock. As of March 2012, the BlackBerry offered only limited functionality, such as commanding the device to place phone calls or report the battery level or other system information.

    Activating voice recognition on all of these platforms follows a similar process, although some of the steps may vary slightly. A long button press launches the built-in voice recognition on most phones, while a tap on an icon opens a third-party app. In most cases, third-party apps require a second tap to record voice commands or take dictation for processing.

Third-Party Dictation Apps

  • Each smartphone platform offers third-party apps that can augment your phone’s built-in capabilities. On BlackBerrys and iPhones without Siri, you can use Dragon Dictation for dictated text recognition; the iPhone app produces text that you can copy into another app. Dragon Dictation for BlackBerry goes one better by inserting the dictation directly into an email message.

    With Dragon Go! you can dictate instructions for Internet searches on the iPhone, Android and Windows Phone 7. Android touts the Iris app as its answer to Siri; however, as of March 2012, this app remained a work in progress, and it lacked many of the features Siri users take for granted.

    The Android Market regularly adds new apps to its inventory. If a built-in Android functionality or the Iris app doesn’t provide the extras you require, access the rating tools in the Market and explore the top-rated alternatives.

Making Dictation Useful

  • While you can dictate text messages and emails on the Siri, Android or the Windows Phone 7, there are distinct differences in convenience among the devices. Starting an email or test message using Siri is as simple as commanding, “Email (Recipient’s Name) that…” Your ability to start a message on the Android will depend on the OS your phone employs. On Android 2.1 and higher, you bring up the “Speak Now” box by tapping the microphone key on the onscreen keyboard or by swiping your finger across the keyboard from left to right, then speaking your command.

    Windows Phone 7 offers a more standardized experience across the platform: you press and hold the “Start” button, then say your voice command. You also can say or tap “Help” if you want the phone to provide some voice command examples.

    With all three phones, learning the vocabulary a particular app understands can maximize the command dictation function. The Android OS automatically displays a hints screen when you hold down the voice control button, and Macworld publishes hints for using functionalities on the Siri. The Siri also can learn the vocabulary you use, and it will become more adept at deciphering your commands the more you use it. For third-party apps, check the in-app documentation or refer to the software developer’s website for vocabulary information.


  • No matter what phone you use, even the most advanced voice-control app will demonstrate a limited ability to understand spoken commands. After Siri released the iPhone 4S, PCWorld ranked the device first among smartphones in the category of natural-language recognition system. This means you can ask for things in many different ways. Future upgrades to both mobile operating systems and cloud-based speech recognition will likely close the gap between platforms. However, if you expect your smartphone to respond to your commands like a professional valet, you’re setting the bar way too high. Even though the technology continues to evolve rapidly, you still have to learn which command sets and phrasing work best on each platform.


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