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iOS 7: Siri starts to shine

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Siri, Apple's intelligent assistant. While Siri hasn't yet become as smart or as useful as 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 (which might be a good thing), Apple has quietly added some new features to Siri in iOS 7 that turn it from a useful but sometimes frustrating beta app to a really helpful assistant.

Siri's new interface fits into iOS 7 better than the previous incarnation did in iOS 6. It literally fades into view on top of whatever you're looking at when you invoke Siri. You'll find that Siri answers your questions faster and usually more accurately.

Apple also has Siri check more sources than ever before, such as Bing, Wikipedia, and Twitter. That means that not only do you get more answers, but it's easy to get a second opinion on an answer. And most of those answers no longer show up in a third-party application – instead, they're displayed in Siri's new and beautiful user interface.

Siri's new user interface

In line with iOS 7's new look, Siri now sports a different appearance. When you invoke Siri by either lifting your iPhone to your ear or pressing your iOS device's home button for two seconds, a line appears on the screen. That line turns into a "sound wave" (image above at right) mimicking your voice pattern when you begin talking – it's Siri's way of telling you it is listening to you.

Once you've spoken, that line curls up around the Siri microphone icon and then "spins" to indicate that it is looking for a response. If you don't talk for a while, Siri plays the familiar two-tone prompt and then begins listing a number of things that you can ask it. In the past, this list was scrollable with a finger. Now, hints show up five at a time and then fly off the screen.

New voice and ability to select gender

Siri has a new, more natural voice. To my ears, it speaks somewhat faster and with a more human-like sound.

The biggest change to Siri's voice in iOS 7 is the ability to select a gender. In the United States, Siri has always been female, while iOS users in the United Kingdom have always heard a male voice. Voices of both sexes are now included for English, French, and German, so if you feel like a different voice might be more pleasant to your ears, you can switch it quickly and easily.

To do so, launch the Settings app, tap the General button, then tap Siri. The gender setting is set by tapping on Voice Gender, at which time a selection of male or female can be made if it's available for your language. If you decide that the new voice is less clear to you or just doesn't please you, a switch back to the other gender is just a tap away.

Selecting a different language

Siri has become quite the international gadabout, now available in 19 different regionalized languages. Remember that changing the language not only changes the voice prompts that you'll receive from Siri, but it will also expect you to be speaking to it in that specific language or regional accent. In other words, you can't speak to Siri in English and have it respond to you in Mandarin Chinese.

The languages and regionalizations that are available to you include:

  • Chinese – Hong Kong Cantonese, Chinese Mandarin, and Taiwanese Mandarin
  • English – United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia
  • French – Canada, France, and Switzerland
  • German – Germany and Switzerland
  • Italian – Italy and Switzerland
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Spanish – Mexico, Spain, and United States

Switching Siri languages is done in Settings > General > Siri. A tap on Language presents a list of the available languages for you to select.

New Siri Features

Siri has some new features that have become apparent during our time beta-testing the new operating system. Here's a sampling of what we've found:

Ability to set the timer to the second

Previously, it was only possible to set the timer to whole minutes, for example "Set a timer to three minutes". Now Siri responds to commands like "Set a timer to two minutes and 41 seconds" properly instead of acting confused.

Controlling your device settings

It's nice to know that while designing iOS 7, Apple really listened to some of the complaints that have been around since the original iPhone came out in 2007. For example, Control Center makes it easier to turn Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off without having to go into Settings. But what's even more exciting is that iOS 7 brings some settings to the realm of hands-free by adding them to Siri. Here are some of the many settings that Siri can control or at least query:

With iOS 7, being able to set your iPhone to Airplane Mode while boarding a flight with your hands full is as easy as invoking Siri and saying "Turn on Airplane Mode". Siri warns you that it will stop working if you turn on Airplane Mode, and even asks for reassurance that you really do want to cut yourself off from the rest of the Internet.

Finding out what your friends are doing

iOS has been integrated with Twitter for a while, but now Siri is getting in on the act. No, Siri doesn't have it's own Twitter account now, but you can interact with your Twitter friends through Siri and find out what's trending.

As long as a friend's contact card has a Twitter name on it, you can ask Siri what they're up to:

Want to know what's trending on Twitter? Just ask Siri "What's going on?" You can also follow favorite hashtags by asking, for example, "Find tweets with the hashtag TUAW".

Unfortunately, this social Siri searching doesn't work for Facebook yet. Ask Siri what a friend is saying on Facebook and you'll get an apologetic response that "I can't search Facebook".

Telling your friends what you're doing

No more typing on the little virtual keyboard to tell your friends on Twitter and Facebook what you're currently doing – now Siri posts those all-important social network updates for you.

For Facebook, posting information to your wall is as simple as either saying "Post to facebook" or "Write on my wall" followed by whatever you want your friends to know. Siri asks you to verify your message, and then posts it.

Hands-off tweeting is also a reality in iOS 7. You can send a tweet just by prefacing your message with the word "Tweet", and even add a hashtag by using the word "hashtag" followed by whatever the hashtag happens to be.

Better integration with Yelp and OpenTable

Siri's been working on becoming close friends with the servers at Yelp and OpenTable databases. For you, this means that it's easier than ever to find a good restaurant and in many cases, even make reservations.

For example, let's say that you're suddenly craving a Fire Chicken Burrito and margaritas and want to find a good nearby Mexican restaurant. While Siri has always provided restaurant listings, it now works hand in hand with Yelp to give you ratings, reviews, and even the hours that the restaurant is open.

For the over 25,000 restaurants that use the OpenTable reservation system, Siri can now make a reservation for you. Choose a specific place or just a type of restaurant, let Siri know how many people are in your party and what time you'd like to eat, and it will get you a list of available restaurants and reservation times. A few taps, and your reservation confirmation is in your email.

Playing back voice mail

Here's a new feature that's quite helpful when you're driving a car and using a hands-free system or headset. No longer do you have to grope for your phone and attempt to tap your way to your unheard voice mail messages –- you can just ask Siri to play them back for you.

At the end of the message, Siri politely asks if you'd like to call that person back or play the message again. You can reply with "Call back" or "Play the message again" to have Siri perform either of those actions, or just say "No" to move on.

Checking missed phone calls and returning calls

There's nothing worse than not being able to answer a phone call because you're busy or in an unsafe situation like driving. Now you can ask Siri to list recent missed calls.

If there's a name associated with a call, you can ask Siri to return the call to that person. It's yet another way that Siri is making it easier for you to keep in touch without touching the screen.

Controlling iTunes Radio

iTunes Radio is a fun new addition to iOS 7. You can listen to a huge variety of tunes on an array of stations that you can create. Siri's in on the act and plays your favorite stations on demand.

Not sure what song is playing? Just ask Siri and you'll get an instant answer.

Controlling Music

Siri used to live in your iPhone next to another app that could control your music playback – Voice Control. Now Siri's taken over that job and Voice Control has retired from Apple, collecting a healthy pension check and surfing all day at Mavericks.

To listen to music in your library, all you have to do is ask Siri. In the mood for pop music or some other genre?

Need to pause the music for a minute while you talk with someone? Just tell Siri "Pause" and the music is paused. When your conversation is over with, say "Resume" and the music starts up again where it left off.

Siri can also play a shuffled list of all of the songs by a particular artist if you just ask it to "Play songs by [name of artist]".

Conclusion

While brevity keeps me from saying too much about Siri's new capabilities under iOS 7, I encourage our readers to work with the intelligent assistant more often now. Siri has seemingly migrated from a sometimes buggy beta app to a more polished helper, and that makes a huge difference in how the service will be received by users.

Parts of this post are excerpted from iOS 7 Quick Guide, an upcoming Amazon Kindle/iBooks ebook title. The book is targeted at experienced iOS users who want to hit the ground running with iOS 7. The authors, Yoni Heisler, Erica Sadun, and Steve Sande,

Yoni Heisler, Erica Sadun and Steve Sande wrote iOS 7 Quick Guide, an upcoming Amazon/iBooks eBook. It's aimed at experienced iOS users who want to hit the ground running for iOS 7. They're sharing some of their tips on TUAW in a series of posts about the iOS 7 upgrade.



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iPhone

Apple has quietly added some new features to Siri in iOS 7 that turn it from a useful but sometimes frustrating beta app to a really helpful assistant.