26 November 2008

Google mobile voice search review. Much ado about not very much, but you'll use it anyway

Judging by the amount of noise on iPhone sites, you'd think that the voice search function in the latest version of Google's iPhone application was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Let me tell you why it isn't.

Do you have voice recognition on your computer? Of so, do you use it to browse the web? For most people the answer is probably "no". Sure the software and hardware exists and is probably even built into your operating system, but most people have come to the conclusion that it's not a good idea.

Ah, but the iPhone is a mobile device, I hear you say! Voice recognition saves all that typing, and is surely much safer in the car. And here you would be right, assuming it worked really well, but in my experience, it only works 'okay' rather than 'really well'. And you'll look an idiot in public talking into your search engine, especially after spending all that time telling everyone how easy it is type on the iPhone virtual keyboard.

As for safety in the car, you still have to unlock the iPhone (one touch), go to the home screen to find the app (two touches), launch the app (three touches), look at the screen long enough to find the small 'Voice Search' button, touch it (four touches), speak, wait, look at the search field to see whether it has recognised your voice correctly, and if not, look at the prompts to touch the screen again and try again. Then you have to read the tiny text in the google page that opens. If my phone is mounted on my car holder, I can't read the text on this screen, nor even see the Voice Search button, so I'd have to hold the phone closer to my face to execute the search and comprehend the results. And bear in mind that voice recognition will work far less well due to background noise in the car.

Bottom line is, there is no way this process could be considered safe in the car, and certainly in South Australia it would (rightly, I think) be illegal.

But how well does the voice recognition even work? I tested a few words and phrases at a distance of about 40 cm and here is a sample of my results:

I said "supermarket". It heard "chicago".
I said "supermarket" in an American accent. It heard correctly.
I said "podiatrist". It heard correctly.
I said "newsagent". It heard "mutations".
I said "newsagent" again. It heard "musicians".
I said "paper shop". It heard correctly.
I said "chemist". It heard "tennis".

I said "drugstore". It heard correctly.
I said "chiropractor". It heard correctly.

I said "pharmacist". It heard correctly.

I said "I feel like a massage" in an American accent. It heard "flexamerica".

I said "where did I put my car keys". It heard "when does my car keys".
I said "where did I put my car keys" in an American accent. It heard "where to put my car keys".

I said "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". It heard correctly.
I said "google voicemail". It heard "google boise idaho".
I said "shall I compare thee to a summer's day". It heard correctly.

On that evidence the voice recognition works well enough to be entertaining but only moderately useful; it responds better to Americaan accents  than my Anglo-Australian, but more than that, it seems to respond better to American vocabulary; and it seems to like Shakespeare.

Is it safe for use in the car? No. Is it all that useful? Not really. Will I use it anyway? Yes, because it's fun. And like so many applications on the iPhone it's an example of clever technology only partially solving a problem no-one had in the first place. And that's kind of cool in a geeky way. Just like the Lightsaber or Zippo Lighter iPhone apps, no-one who actually 'gets' the iPhone should have to ask why.

23 November 2008

How to use Google Streetview on the iPhone

Nice to know we have Street View on Google Maps in the iPhone 2.2 update, but how does one use it? I zoomed around my district unable to see any streets marked with the tell-tale blue which indicates Street View is available, although I know that it is in my area. I then tried my current GPS location, again to no avail. Colour me stupid, but it took my quite a while before I twigged.

The secret is, you need to search for somewhere. Once you do, that location is marked with a red pin, and if Street View is available, the label on that pin will have an icon on the left of a little white man in a red circle. God knows why a man indicates Street View, but ours is not to question why. It will look like this:

Then when you touch the icon for the little red man, you'll be taken to Street View, with your screen rotating accordingly. You'll see your place on the map in the bottom right corner, even indicating your direction of virtual travel, which is pretty cool:

Quick thoughts on iPhone 2.2 firmware update

I suffer from a disease known as 'early adoption'. Knowing that iPhone firmware 2.2 was due out yesterday I connected my iPhone to iTunes and periodically hit the update button all day until I got a result. Of course, I had read all the rumours beforehand as to what was in it, so there were no surprises. But my first reaction was still one of being underwhelmed.

Let's be frank, for most people there's nothing earth-shattering in this update. None of the major flaws of the phone are addressed. So there's still no multitasking for 3rd party apps, no cut and paste, no decent folder organisation for all your applications, the diary functionality is still pretty poor and the email app still won't open mime attachments. But all of that was to be expected. That said, I am immediately struck by a few improvements that really do make life easier.

The first is the new feature where clicking the home button on any home screen takes you back to the first home screen. This may not seem like much, but I find it a major time saver that also lets me get back to my primary applications without having to look at the screen, a major failing of touchscreen devices as a whole.

Other neat additions include some major changes to the App Store which make it much more usable and in-line with the iTunes version. For example, whereas you could previously only see one screen shot of an app, you can now view and zoom in on all of them. The categories screen now has icons which make navigation easier, and you can break down your view by "Top Free", "Top Paid" and "Release Date" like you can on iTunes. The Updates screen now has an "Update All" button which fixes a major annoyance and time waster. All in all the App Store is a much nicer place to be now.

The mail app has several claimed improvements. The only one I've noticed so far is that wide HTML emails now seem to wrap to the screen better. The claim that "isolated issues with scheduled fetching of email" have been fixed remains to be tested. Since the update my iPhone still does that random thing where it downloads heaps of old email, and forgets the most recent ones. A very annoying bug and I think it hasn't been fixed. Anyone else experiencing this?

There are also claimed improvements to the stability of Safari, and if that's true then they're much needed. I also haven't had a chance to test the new features in Google Maps. Further reports as I play more.