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In my Scientific American column this month, I wrote about the public's growing unhappiness with the dictation features of Siri, the speech-recognition feature of the latest iPhone and iPads. It strikes many people as hopelessly inaccurate—when it works. Often, the cellular network is so clogged that your utterance doesn't get transcribed at all.
Hope is not lost, however. You can get better results—if you're willing to delve more deeply into understanding how Siri works.
- Hold the phone close to your head. You get better accuracy this way than when the phone is farther from your mouth because its noise-cancellation circuit works better in this position. (You'll also reduce the risk that people will think that you're talking to yourself like a crazy person.)
- Use WiFi when you can. When you try to dictate, but all you get is the purple, blinking "thinking" dots and then no text appears, it's because your Internet connection is weak or the cell network is congested. That problem virtually vanishes when you have a solid WiFi connection.
- Beware background audio spikes. Siri does surprisingly well in loud environments—as long as it's a steady dull roar. Sudden, irregular noises, though, throw her off.
- Speak the punctuation. You can say almost anything: "comma," "semicolon," "dash," "open quote" and "close quote," "colon," "new line," "new paragraph," and so on. (If your saying "exclamation point" keeps getting transcribed as "excavation point," emphasize the second syllable: "exclamation point." Weird, but it works.)
- Capitalize by voice. If you say "cap" before a word, the first letter of that one word is auto-capitalized. For example, you can say, "I'm going to the cap post cap office" to get "I'm going to the Post Office."
- Make corrections. Often, the iPhone knows perfectly well when it might have gotten a word wrong—it draws a dashed underline beneath words or phrases it's insecure about. You can tap that word or phrase to see the iPhone's alternative interpretation, which is often correct.
Trust the auto-formatting. Siri automatically inserts dashes into phone numbers (you say, "2125561000," and she types "212-556-1000"); she formats two-line street addresses without your having to say "New line" before the city; she handles prices automatically ("six dollars and thirty-two cents" becomes "$6.32"). She formats dates and Web addresses well, too; you can even use the nerdy shortcut "dub-dub-dub" when you want the "www" part of a Web address.
Siri recognizes email addresses, too, as long as you remember to say "at sign" at the right spot. You'd say, "harold (underscore) beanfield (at sign) gmail (dot) com" to get firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Use Voice Control. Before Siri and the iPhone 4S came along on, previous iPhone models had a far simpler feature called Voice Control. It could perform only two tasks: dial the phone (you could say "call Frank Simpson" or "dial 555-1212") and control music playback ("play some Beatles").
Obviously, that's nowhere near as powerful and useful as Siri. But unlike Siri, Voice Control didn't rely on an Internet connection; all of the processing took place right on the phone. And that was a huge advantage.
No need to mourn Voice Control if it sounds appealing. If you go into Settings -> General -> Siri and turn off Siri, then the Voice Control feature returns, even to the iPhone 4S. Hold down the Home button to trigger its listening mode.