Siri leaves beta, enters manhood

(CNN) -- When Siri, the voice "assistant" on the iPhone, made its debut in 2011, it was welcomed as futuristic way to interact with our gadgets. You could ask it simple questions, banter and flirt, or launch applications with one push of a button and without slogging through touchscreen menus.

Two years later, Apple is giving Siri a major overhaul as part of Thursday's upgrade to its iOS 7 mobile operating system, and it's marking the occasion by finally dropping Siri's "beta" label. (Calling software beta usually means it is still a work in progress and that the company is ironing out any bugs.)

What else has changed in the full-fledged, non-beta Siri? The most obvious update is that it has added an option for a male voice. iPhone owners in the UK already had a male Siri voice, but this is the first time it will be available in American English and German, with more languages expected to get their own male versions in the near future.

The voice gender can be swapped on the phone by going to Settings > General > Siri. The female voice has also been improved to sound a little more natural.

Though Siri's new male voice is a few octaves lower, the words and answers seem to stay the same. Guy Siri still has the same canned responses to joke questions like "What are you wearing?" ("Aluminosilicate glass and aluminum. Nice, huh?") and the phrasing of its answers to real questions doesn't seem to change between the male and female settings.

Visually, Siri has been overhauled so its design on the phone's screen is more in line with iOS 7's flattened look. Instead of a dark gray background sliding up from the bottom, it throws a translucent blurred background over whatever screen is on your phone when you launch Siri. It shows a single wavy line that moves as it registers your voice.

Siri has added Twitter and Wikipedia integration, so you can ask to see recent tweets about a hot news story or see the Wikipedia entry for something specific without leaving the Siri interface. You can ask to see what's trending on Twitter, tweets for a specific hashtag, or simply, "What's going on?"

Siri has also expanded its powers to include control of common iPhone settings, something that was noticeably missing in beta Siri. You can now turn settings like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on and off, change your screen brightness, turn on Do Not Disturb or view a specific app's settings. If you use the new iTunes Radio feature, you can vocally express your enthusiasm or displeasure with specific songs to customize music stations.

One of the biggest challenges facing new Siri is some serious competition from Google.

Slowly and with less fanfare, Google has been building up its own powerful natural-language voice search in recent years. Although it lacks a catchy anthropomorphic name, Google Voice Search takes on many of the same tasks as Siri. In addition to typical Google search results, it pulls answers from Gmail, Google Calendar and other Google accounts the way Siri does from the e-mail, contacts and calendar apps on the iPhone.

Google Voice Search is less chatty, but by cutting out extra words it is sometimes faster to return an answer. It cannot be used to control phone settings or launch applications on an iPhone, but if you are a Google Account user it is a legitimate alternative for tasks like calendaring.

The competition between the two companies helps explain the new Siri's most unfortunate change. Siri has dropped Google as its default search engine of choice and switched to Microsoft's Bing. When a question can't be answered by Siri itself or a Wikipedia entry, it will pull up web results from Bing directly in Siri. Unlike in Safari, there's no way to switch the default search engine to Google.

Keeping answers in Siri does save time, however. Previously a Siri Web search would launch Google in Safari, requiring you to unlock the phone.

But don't dismay, Google fans. You can still ask Siri to "Google" something, and it will launch Safari and do a regular Google search.


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