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My Vacation with Siri

August 2014

Siri, the friendly female voice on my iPad, told me to turn north. Fine, except that I had no idea which direction was north. It was a cloudy day, I'd been making lots of turns, and was clueless which direction I was facing.

"Siri, what direction am I facing?" I politely asked, thinking that would help me know which direction was north. But Siri was uncomprehending.

So I turned right. Siri, who's always very patient with wrong turns, immediately told me to turn at the next street. The subtext: you turned the wrong way, you ninny.

All I wanted was to get to a Chinese restaurant. I had pulled into a parking lot, picked up my iPad, and said, "directions Chinese food." Siri asked which of two Chinese restaurants. I picked the buffet, and immediately Siri gave me a map and began speaking directions.

But because I wasn't moving, Siri had no idea which direction I was facing. Hence, the instruction to turn north.

This and a few other glitches aside, Siri was a perfect companion on my recent road trip in South Dakota and Minnesota, and along the Mississippi in Iowa and Wisconsin. This is one of those instances, like word processing for example, when you wonder how you ever got along without it.

GPS has been around for some time now, but in my mind Siri takes it to a new level, just because it's so convenient.

Compare Siri with Tom Tom, one of the top commercial GPS software programs for the iPhone and iPad. I paid $50 for it but found the complicated menu structure difficult to use. When I was in Germany last summer, I spent 10 minutes trying to do the simplest thing. I gave up and was able to achieve with Siri what I wanted in less than 30 seconds.

With Siri, you just ask her. Siri understands what I want and then brings up information or Apple's Maps app to give me what I need. These sorts of features are increasingly available in all smartphones.

You can make a request of Siri such as, "directions to Lanesboro, Minnesota," and Siri reponds, "Getting directions to Lanesboro." Then Siri shows an overview map with the route plotted on the map, and pins for your current location and intended destination. That view disappears after a few seconds and switches to a 3D view that shows you the road ahead with an arrow indicating your location and the direction you're heading. You can tap to toggle between the 3D view and the overview.

As you drive, Siri speaks out directions, typically warning you well in advance of upcoming turns. "In a half mile, turn left on Greenleaf avenue," she'll say. Then she'll repeat when you're a quarter mile away. And again a couple more times, such as, "In 50 feet turn left." Then when you arrive at the intersection, she'll say, "Turn left."

If you somehow miss your turn, as I did a couple times, she doesn't say "recalculating" as other GPS devices do. She simply starts giving you new directions. That's class.

You can make requests such as, "restaurants in McGregor" or "Indian restaurants in Prairie du Chien" or "nearby hotels" or "directions to Super 8 in Decorah."

Sometimes when I was trying to decide which town I would spend the night in, I'd ask Siri the population to get a sense for how big the town was. I'd simply ask, "What's the population of Lanesboro?" and Siri would know.

I have to admit that I would sometimes ask for directions even as I was driving. I didn't need to take my eyes of the road. My iPad would be on the seat beside me, and I'd pick it up, hold down the Home button, and make my request.

For example, I had asked for directions to Dubuque. But then when I was about five miles away, I realized I should ask for directions to the Super 8. Lucky thing I did, because Siri immediately routed me around the edge of town so that I drove in on the side of town where the hotel was. Otherwise I would have been driving through the middle of the city.

Of course, there are a lot of other great apps for local information, such as AroundMe, which shows nearby hotels, restaurants and more, with a brief indication of price and rating. But Siri was my best all-purpose tool this vacation. I don't know how I would have gotten along without her.

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© 2014 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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