Like Siri? Sonalight Brings Powerful Texting-By-Voice To Android

The talk of the town may be Siri these days, but Android fans know full well that voice recognition has been baked deep into the OS for quite a while. Granted, Google hasn’t really improved on Voice Actions in over a year now (fingers crossed that Ice Cream Sandwich will include some of the nifty intelligence that makes Siri so impressive), but it does allow third-party developers to hook into the voice API, sometimes with compelling results.

Sonalight Text by Voice is one such app that’s launching on Android Market today, and it’s particularly useful. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you can both send and receive texts via voice, dictating how you want to respond to each message without ever having to look at your phone. If you’re one of those people who insists on texting while driving, please do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and check this out.

If you’ve watched Apple’s demo videos for Siri, then the app will seem a little familiar. There’s a lot that Siri can do that Sonalight doesn’t — you can’t ask it to check your calendar, for example, nor can you do any of those nifty Wolfram Alpha data lookups. But for straightforward texting, it’s taking a similarly intuitive approach.

Fire up the app, and you’ll be told the three magic words: “Text by Voice”. Say those, and the app will ask you who you’d like to text. Say a name (you can just say a first name if you’d like), and the app will look for that name in your phone’s contacts, then read their full name aloud. Confirm that this is the right person, and you’ll be asked to say your text message. Once you’ve done that, the app will read it back to you and ask you if you’d like to send it (if the transcription messed up, you can also say your message again).

And receiving a message works as you’d hope. As soon as the message comes in, the app will say “text message received” and read it out to you, then ask if you’d like to repeat it, reply, or ignore it.

Once you’ve open the app, it’ll keep running in the background until you explicitly exit. Even when the phone is locked, you’ll still be able to create a new text message by saying “Text by Voice”, and incoming messages will keep being read aloud — which means you can activate it, toss it on your passenger seat, and not have to fumble with the device for the rest of your drive.

Of course, there have been several handless-texting apps available on Android for some time now. So what makes Sonalight’s product different? Cofounder Spenser Skates says that the competition does fine reading text aloud, but that it tends to be clumsy when it comes time to respond. Sonalight has also put a strong focus on ensuring the initial setup process (or lack thereof) is as straightforward as possible.

I’ve tested the app and have had good results, even when I’m sitting several feet away from the phone (on my two-year old Nexus One, no less – cue grumbling iPhone 4 owners). My only major gripe: I have a tendency to start speaking before the app has given me its ‘beep’ cue, which it does when it’s ready to start listening to me. Sometimes, for example, I’ll say “yes” when it’s only halfway done reading a message to me — and then nothing happens.

Skates says this is common, and that it’s an issue they’re working on. He explains that the application doesn’t start listening to user input until it’s done ‘talking’, because it has to do echo cancellation during voice input. They’re working on a fix.

The only other issue I see is the app’s monetization plan. Right now the app is a free download — each month you can send twenty texts by voice, and you can receive an unlimited number. If you want to send more voice texts, you have to pay $20 for an unlimited year’s subscription. I think this is too much upfront (I’d rather pay something like $2 a month, or buy a bucket of 100 texts for a few dollars). But Skates says that the service will be experimenting to figure out the best approach, so this setup may change. Update, 11/3/11: The company has now removed the fees — you can send unlimited texts, free of charge. There’s still a $4.99 premium option if you’d like to remove the signatures the app appends, and the company is working on additional premium features to offer in the future (the core texting functionality will be free from here on out).

Also worth noting: the twenty free texts append a link to the app to the end of your message (if you upgrade, this will be removed, though not til an update goes live later this week).