I’ve been testing the Samsung Galaxy S3 out this week, in time for its much-hyped launch. It’s everything you could hope for in a new phone-that’s-not-an-iPhone. Almost. It’s big, it’s bad, it’s stupid fast.
But although nearly every reviewer has come out with the same 4-4/5 score for the Samsung Galaxy S3, there’s something very important most have overlooked about S-Voice, Samsung’s riff on Siri.
Let’s cut to the chase: you almost certainly know by this point that the Samsung Galaxy S3 is a great phone. The screen is dazzling, it’s supremely thin, and Android 4.0 runs like a dream on it.
My concerns that the phone would outstrip competitors by a country mile, however, have proved unfounded this time round. Last year was the year of the Galaxy S2, but this time around, I think I still prefer the HTC One X’ software and polycarbonate design. Although its screen is just a smidgeon smaller than the Galaxy S3’s 4.8-inch wide panel, it feels much more manageable too.
But if it’s a powerhouse you want, you won’t beat the Galaxy S3 for benchmark prowess. And here’s my concern: for all Samsung’s talk at its Earls Court launch event about how “human” this phone is, the company’s failure to grasp the concept of usability is still in evidence throughout the phone.
S-Voice is symptomatic of this: let’s pick it apart. It’s not that S-Voice doesn’t do a lot. In theory, it doesn’t do that much less than Siri, and can even manage some things Apple’s personal assistant can’t, like launching apps.
And yet, S-Voice still seems a bit rubbish. But a lot of reviewers have tried to put that in context by also noting that Siri is still a bit tits as well. That’s CNET’s conclusion after some exhausting testing.
As rigorous – and entertaining – as this testing is, it doesn’t really tackle the basic issues of interacting with S-Voice in the first place.
Have you tried activating S-Voice? It’s bloody annoying. The double tap of a home button from the homescreen is useful, but then there’s the stupid command word. “Hi Galaxy,” you say, by default (you can change this), to get it to listen. Why? What the hell is the point of this when I’ve already launched it? Just sodding listen.
The command does serve another purpose, admittedly. You can launch S-Voice from the lock screen by saying your command, potentially a nice idea except that to turn on the lock screen to get it to listen you need to press the power button anyway, making it a funny kind of hands-free.
Now, let’s compare to Siri. Siri is long press away wherever you are. It’ll even appear on the lock screen, only preventing more privacy-intruding commands like sending messages.
But it’s also even smarter. Long press on the headphones when the screen is off and you can send messages and emails. Hold it up to your ear and you’ll hear the ‘dum-dum’ as it activates it. Then you can tell it who to call. Hold, then say who to call – that’s a paradigm shift, and a mighty handy one.
By contrast, Samsung is still treating S-Voice as an app in itself, not a means to enable everything else.
Then there’s the language. S-Voice is rather bad at recognising language (With our RP accents, it returned the following answers to “Is the moon made of cheese?”: “Sue Burgess”, “Green Cheese”). But it gets worse: there’s no promise that it’ll get any better.
S-Voice doesn’t understand natural language on the same level as Siri. Firstly, the list of commands is an admission of failure: give people the idea of what they can ask, not what they need to remember. Ask it if you need an umbrella tomorrow, and it won’t deliver you the weather forecast, just ask if you want to search the web for that.
And even when it does get that you want to know the weather, it hits you with a vast and incomprehensible number of tables on everything from the temperature in Kelvins to the barometric pressure (I think, anyway – it’s hard to interpret all of them). I just want to know if it’s going to flipping rain or not.
This may not matter all that much now, but this is a crucial distinction when it comes to developing the next generation of computer input tech.
Which expensive consumer electronics device are you going to buy in five years’ time, the one that comes with instructions, or the one that doesn’t need them?
There’s also the question of support. Yes, Siri is in beta right now; yes, there’s lots Apple needs to add and introduce worldwide. But it has improved over time. You can teach it names. In the US, you can search Bing and Yahoo instead of Google if you like.
And most significantly, Apple is promising it will get better. Tim Cook, the CEO of the world’s most secretive tech company, said this week in an interview that Siri has “unbelievable potential.”
“There’s more that it can do. And we have a lot of people working on this. And I think you’ll be really pleased with some of the things that you’ll see,” he said at the All Things D conference.
Does Samsung’s CEO promise this? Nope. We don’t know if we’ll see it on any other devices, if it’ll work with more apps, or if Samsung will ever deign to improve it.
F stand for future – and Fail
So let’s recap: S-Voice apes Siri, but without all of the features that could make it much more useful in the future. It’s an app in itself, it can’t be bothered with natural language and there’s no promise of improvement.
In other words, this is the bad old Samsung: hardware for hardware’s sake, with little thought for “human” usability. Pity it’s part of such a great phone.
Do you agree? Let’s hear where you stand on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S-Voice in the comments below.