Apple promises a lot from Siri. The company advertises this "intelligent assistant" as a major selling point for new iPhones and iPads. Ask a question out loud, and Siri digs up an answer; dictate an appointment, and Apple's software will jot down the date for you. At least, that's the idea.
"It never understands my voice," says Amanda Soloway, an iPhone owner and student in the University of Washington's Master of Business Administration program in Seattle. "I think there was one time that I got it to work. I got it to put something on my calendar. But by the time Siri figured out what I was saying, I could have just done it myself."
Ms. Soloway echoes the complaints of many unhappy Siri users. In specific cases, Apple's robot-voiced helper can be quite a crowd pleaser. (Ask it to "tell me a joke" or "what's '2001: A Space Odyssey' about?") But when it comes to legitimate utility, Siri is often lacking.
Things look even worse for Siri now that Google is trying to beat Apple at its own game. The iPhone's Google Search application recently got a big update that unlocks voice search. The free app works much like Siri. Press the microphone icon, say your query aloud, and Google attempts to sniff out an answer.
Both Google Search and Siri do well with questions like "What's five pounds in US dollars?" or "Who won the Cowboys game?" Apple and Google programmed their software specifically to handle common inquiries such as these.
However, if Siri doesn't know the answer to your question or can't figure out what you're saying, then Apple passes the buck. For example, ask Siri "Who painted the Mona Lisa?" and it will reply, "Would you like me to search the Web for 'Who painted the Mona Lisa'?" If you agree, then Siri hands you over to Google.
Why not just start with Google? In our tests, Google voice search delivered answers faster than Siri could, it had an easier time figuring out what we meant, and the Google Search app didn't require an awkward handoff for tough questions.
That said, Siri is built into Apple's products, so it can access parts of the device that Google simply can't. The Google Search app can't text-message friends. It can't access your calendar. It can't function in a hands-free mode. Siri can.
However, if you want quick answers to life's little mysteries, try out Google Search. It's available in the iTunes store.
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.
[Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the December 24 issue of the Monitor weekly magazine.]