The Great "Voice Search" Face Off

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The Great


Voice-remotes-thumb.pngAfter years of reviewing streaming media products and services, I must confess that I've developed a strong case of text-input-o-phobia. Some days, the thought of having to navigate yet another dreaded onscreen keyboard to painstakingly input a movie title one letter at a time was just too much to bear. The streaming media device du jour would beckon, and I really wanted to come hither and enjoy an afternoon with "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," but good lord, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Then voice search arrived on the scene. "You mean all I have to do is push a button on the remote and speak the name of the movie? Or the TV show? Or the director I love? Or my favorite actor? And the results will just appear right there on the screen?" It was an anxiety-curing revelation.

Voice search existed before Amazon's original Fire TV player arrived on the scene, but I'd say that box, along with its popular Gary Busey commercials, really ushered the concept into mainstream consciousness. It helped that Amazon's voice search worked really well from the get-go--certainly better than what we had seen from the first crop of smart TVs that tried to integrate voice control.

Now, voice search has become a standard and expected feature on streaming media players. In recent months, I've reviewed all the latest high-profile players--from the NVIDIA SHIELD to the Roku 4 to the second-gen Amazon Fire TV to the fourth-gen Apple TV--and they all include voice search. One obvious take-away from those reviews is that not all voice-search functions are created equal.

In the area of content searches, Roku has long been held up as the standard, thanks to its universal search capability that will show you multiple services through which you can stream any given title. Roku shows no preference for one service over another--you know, the way Amazon prioritizes its Amazon Video/Prime service, Apple emphasizes iTunes, and Android TV pushes Google Play.

The addition of voice search to the Roku platform just made the universal search function that much better, but is it still the clear-cut winner? That really depends on what you're searching for. Roku's search is still excellent for searching movies, TV shows, actors, and directors, but it has yet to evolve beyond that. What if you want to search for a broad topic, a certain game, or a recent sports score? How do music searches fit into the picture? The voice-search capabilities of Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, and NVIDIA's SHIELD have evolved to go beyond just video content.

Since I'm still in possession of all four of the boxes mentioned above, I thought it would be interesting to put each model's voice search to the test in one big face off. Where does each player excel, and where does it fall short? A direct head-to-head comparison might prove helpful as you try to decide which player will best meet your particular search needs.

Below is a list of phrases I spoke into the supplied remote for each streaming media player, followed by the results I got. For movie and TV content searches, I've listed which streaming/download services appeared in the results. For music, since I subscribe to both Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music, I was able to get the full search results in those platforms; if you don't subscribe to these services, your results will be more limited. Finally, I moved on to lifestyle-oriented searches, such as weather, sports, and news.

Let's see how they did.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
Apple TV: iTunes
Amazon Fire TV: Disney Movies Anywhere
Roku 4: Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play
NVIDIA SHIELD: Disney Movies Anywhere

"Raising Arizona"
Apple TV: iTunes, HBO Now
Amazon Fire TV: Amazon Video, HBO Go
Roku 4: Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, Fandango Now (formerly M-GO), CinemaNow, HBO Go
NVIDIA SHIELD: Google Play, HBO Go

"Shrek"
Apple TV: iTunes, HBO Now
Amazon Fire TV: Amazon Video, HBO Go
Roku 4: Amazon Video, VUDU, Fandango Now, CinemaNow, HBO Go. I had to do a text search because the Roku remote could not understand the word "Shrek."
NVIDIA SHIELD: Google Play, HBO Go

"Big Bang Theory"
Apple: iTunes
Amazon Fire TV: Amazon Video
Roku 4: CBS All Access, Amazon Video, VUDU, Fandango Now, Google Play
NVIDIA SHIELD: Google Play

"Quantico"
Apple TV: iTunes, Hulu, ABC app
Amazon Fire TV: Amazon Video, Hulu
Roku 4: Amazon Video, Hulu, VUDU, Fandango Now. I had to do a text search because the Roku remote could not understand the word "Quantico."
NVIDIA SHIELD: Google Play, Hulu

"Marvel's Daredevil"
Apple TV: iTunes, Netflix
Amazon Fire TV: Amazon Video
Roku 4: Amazon Video, Netflix, Fandango Now
NVIDIA SHIELD: Google Play

"Popular movies"
Apple TV: I got a list of the following titles: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Daddy's Home, The Hateful Eight, The Big Short, The Revenant, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and more
Amazon Fire TV: I got a list of the following titles: Maya, The Ghost Train, Shake Rattle & Rock!, To Make a Farm, PerfectMatch, The Red Corvette, etc. (none of which I've ever heard of, by the way).
Roku 4: "Sorry I couldn't understand that."
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed by a variety of YouTube clips, iHeartRadio music, and Hulu clips with the words "popular" or "movies" in them.

"Disney movies"
Apple TV: I got a list of the following titles: Zootopia, The Finest Hours, Tomorrowland, Cinderella, McFarland USA, Big Hero 6, Into the Woods, and more.
Amazon Fire TV: I got a list of the following titles: Aladdin, The Good Dinosaur, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Don't Look Under the Bed, A Goofy Movie, Big Hero 6, Descendants, and more.
Roku 4: It showed me the Disney Movies Anywhere app.
NVIDIA SHIELD: I got a list of the following titles: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and more--followed by a variety of YouTube clips, iHeartRadio music, and Hulu clips with the word "Disney" in them.

"Angry Birds"
Apple TV: It automatically launched the Angry Birds Go game that I had already downloaded.
Amazon Fire TV: I got a list of the following titles: The Angry Silence, Shoot the Messenger, The Angry Beavers, Billy the Exterminator, Cupcake Wars, Primeval: New World, and more.
Roku 4: I got a list of the following titles: Angry Birds Toons, The Angry Birds Movie, and Angry Birds Stella.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me The Angry Birds Movie with an option to watch the trailer through YouTube.

"Crossy Road"
Apple TV: It automatically launched the Crossy Road game.
Amazon Fire TV: It showed me the game, but did not open it automatically.
Roku 4: I had to do a text search because the remote could not understand the word "Crossy." I got no results.
NVidia Shield: It showed me the game, but did not open it automatically.

"Watch ESPN"
Apple TV: It automatically launched the Watch ESPN app that I previously loaded and began live TV playback.
Amazon Fire TV: It gave me "E.S.P.N." as the result, with a list of movies like Creepshow, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, Dawn of the Dead, Dead Reckoning, and more.
Roku 4: It showed me the Watch ESPN app, but did not automatically open it.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed by a variety of YouTube clips from ESPN First Take, along with random iHeartRadio and Hulu clips.

"Netflix"
Apple TV: It automatically launched the Netflix app.
Amazon Fire TV: It showed me the Netflix app, but did not open it automatically.
Roku 4: It showed me the Netflix app, but did not open it automatically.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me the Netflix app, but did not open it automatically.

"Play music by Fitz and the Tantrums"
Apple TV: A random Fitz and the Tantrums song began playing to start an artist shuffle in Apple Music.
Amazon Fire TV: A random Fitz and the Tantrums song began playing to start an artist shuffle in Prime Music.
Roku 4: The remote could not get the word "Fitz" and just kept giving me "and the tantrums." When I did a text search, I got no results.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me a list of Fitz and the Tantrums songs with links to YouTube music videos.

"Play music by Peter Gabriel"
Apple TV: A random Peter Gabriel song began playing to start an artist shuffle in Apple Music.
Amazon TV: It automatically cued up a Peter Gabriel song from my Amazon Music library.
Roku 4: Nothing found.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It automatically cued up the "Sledgehammer" music video in YouTube.

"Play 'Bad' by U2"
Apple TV: It played this song from my iCloud library.
Amazon Fire TV: It played this song through Prime Music.
Roku: Nothing found.
NVIDIA SHIELD: It automatically cued up a "Bad" music clip in YouTube.

"Will it be hot tomorrow?"
Apple TV: A banner popped up along the bottom of screen, reading: "Hot? No, the high temperature should only be about 66 degrees F." Below that was a nine-day outlook.
Amazon Fire TV: A full-screen overlay popped up that showed the next day's weather with a seven-day outlook below it.
Roku 4: Nothing found.
NVIDIA SHIELD: A full-screen overlay popped up that showed the current weather with a four-day outlook beside it.

"Did the Lakers win?"
Apple TV: A banner popped up along the bottom of screen, showing the score from the game on the previous day with the text, "The Lakers were defeated by the Celtics yesterday, the final score was 107 to 100."
Amazon Fire TV: A full-screen overlay popped up with the same Lakers-Celtics score, showing the box score for each quarter and when the next game is scheduled.
Roku 4: Nothing found
NVIDIA SHIELD: A full-screen overlay popped up with the same Lakers-Celtics score, showing the box score for each quarter and when the next game is scheduled.

"What is the Texas Longhorns football schedule?"
Apple TV: A banner popped up along the bottom of screen, saying that Texas will play Notre Dame on September 2, 2016 at 6 PM.
Amazon Fire TV: "Sorry, I couldn't find the answer to your question."
Roku 4: Nothing found
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me a variety of YouTube clips related to the Texas Longhorns, along with random iHeartRadio, Hulu, and Disney Movies options.

"Show me today's stocks"
Apple TV: A banner popped up along the bottom, sating "Here's how the markets did" with a ticker.
Amazon Fire TV: It automatically began playing the "Latest NPR Hourly News Update" from TuneIn.
Roku 4: Nothing found
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me a variety of YouTube clips related to stocks, along with random iHeartRadio, Hulu, and Disney Movies options.

"Watch CNN"
Apple TV: It gave me a random list of movies like Natural Born Pranksters, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Get a Job, The Hateful Eight, and more.
Amazon Fire TV: It gave me a list of titles, including Blackfish, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Fareed Zakaria GPS, and State of the Union: Jake Tapper.
Roku 4: It listed only "CNN Ones to Watch (2014-2015)"
NVIDIA SHIELD: It showed me a variety of YouTube clips related to CNN, along with random iHeartRadio, Hulu, and Disney Movies options.

Here are a few observations I take away from these searches:

Apple's Siri search can accommodate the broadest range of search subjects, and it launches apps automatically.

Roku's search still provides the most content options, but it needs to branch out to other areas. When I reviewed the Roku 4, I mentioned that the microphone in the supplied remote was not great, and this test further confirmed that. The Roku remote is the only one that had trouble understanding me. Voice search works much better through the Roku mobile app, using your phone or tablet's microphone.

Amazon has a generally good and broad search, but there are some odd algorithms in place that cause it to list odd results when it doesn't understand a broad request like "Popular movies."

With the NVIDIA SHIELD platform, you have to download certain apps like Disney Movies Anywhere or HBO Go before they will show up in search results. This search is strongly tied to YouTube and gives you a lot of results, although many of them aren't entirely relevant to the search term.

Which voice search tool do you use? Does it work the way you need it to? What quirks have you found? Let us know in the Comments section below.

 

Additional Resources
My Search for Higher-Quality Soundtracks in Streaming Movies
at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Five Questions to Consider before Cutting the Cord 
at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Six AV Trends We're Thankful for at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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