Vlingo: Up-Close Mobile App Inspection

  • What is it? Voice-to-text assistant that lets you speak phone, text and navigation commands.
  • Price: Free (with ads)
  • Platforms: Android 2.0.1 or higher; iOS 4.0 or higher
  • Info: www.vlingo.com

I’ve always wished that my 2008 Toyota sedan had some kind of multimedia functionality, so I was excited to try Vlingo, which integrates phone, text, navigation and other functions into a single voice-controlled application. As you might guess, Vlingo draws many comparisons to Apple’s Siri. Is it a worthy alternative? Read on to find out.

What you need to know: Vlingo is split into two modes. The app's main section lists 13 voice commands; a steering-wheel icon in the upper right switches to Vlingo's InCar Beta mode, which narrows down the available commands to functions that you’d most likely use in a car: texts, phone calls and navigation. During my testing, I found the InCar mode easier to use. And hopefully safer to use.

I tested Vlingo using a Samsung Galaxy Note running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and mounted in a car dock just above the dashboard, positioned an arm’s length away from me.

What works: The InCar mode responds to a “wake-up word” to let it know you’re about to speak a command. It recognized my voice commands as long as I spoke slowly with good enunciation. Don’t expect Vlingo to interpret casual phrases; like Ford Sync, you need to say things like, “Navigate to” or "Send text message."

Driving around smooth city streets, I was able to speak my complete home address, and Vlingo knew exactly where I wanted to go. It even found the nearest McDonald’s to satisfy my Shamrock Shake craving. Phone commands work well if you keep your contact list well-organized. (My brother appears in my phone’s list as three different contacts with different phone numbers, so I have to tap the screen to designate which number to call.)

Sending a text message is a breeze as long as you keep it short and simple (more on that later). The text function is the only feature that is mostly a hands-free experience. After you speak your message, you can say “send,” “cancel” or respeak your text. Vlingo’s Safe Reader function will read your incoming texts aloud, but you need to select each message from the screen. Since the Galaxy Note sports a massive 5.3-inch touch-screen, I had no trouble picking out which text messages I wanted to hear, but I wouldn’t recommend trying this on a smaller phone.

You can open the Android music player, and Pandora internet radio, through Vlingo, though you will still need to control playlists on the screen. (If you use a Samsung Galaxy S II or Galaxy Note, the preinstalled Voice Talk app — also powered by Vlingo — lets you call up artists and albums.) You can update your Facebook and Twitter status, too, but you will need to leave Vlingo’s InCar mode, hit the mic button and tap “Share” — not a completely hands-free experience.

What doesn’t: On city streets, Vlingo works reasonably well, but on the highway, it’s hit-and-miss. While driving down the highway at 70 mph, “Hey Vlingo” needed to be “Hey Vol-in-GO!” Road and wind noise hurt the app’s ability to understand voice commands or my dictated messages. (Yes, you could give up and touch the buttons instead, but Vlingo is marketed as a voice-to-text app, and hands-free operation is preferred in a car.) Texting to my friend, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” took more than a dozen tries for Vlingo to get it right, yet it easily understood “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” On more than one occasion, I had to scream my commands in a rare moment of desperation – “For the love of God, update social status PLEASE!”

Sometimes there was a lag between giving a command and Vlingo responding. Once you decide to repeat the command over and over, you end up precariously close to tweeting, “Update Twitter Update Twitter” to your pals.

If you’re running turn-by-turn navigation in the background, expect the GPS voice to interfere with your commands.

Bottom line: Perhaps all those years of watching “Star Trek” have spoiled me. I was excited to give verbal commands to my phone and have it respond effortlessly, just like the Enterprise’s computer. And there were a few moments when Vlingo made me feel like Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. But they were overshadowed by many other moments of pleading with Vlingo to understand my messages and repeating commands over and over. If it doesn’t work the first time, the illusion is broken, leaving me a frustrated driver. Vlingo shows plenty of promise, though, and for a free app, it’s worth checking out to see if works during your commute.

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