Google and Microsoft are now both offering free versions of dial in 411 services, providing directions to and phone numbers of tons of destinations across the United States. Google's service is called "GOOG 411" and can be reached by dialing 1-800-GOOG-411. Microsoft's service is called LiveSearch411 and can be reached by dialing (1-800-Call-411). Ars decided to give both services a run to find out which one offered the most features and to determine which one was best able to find locations in obscure, low-population areas in addition to larger, populated areas.
In search of donuts and other comestibles
The first test was simple: to determine if both services recognized an often-mispronounced road name in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The request was for information on a Dunkin Donuts on Schoenersville (Shay-ners-ville) Road.
Google's response sounded like a male robot, and it asked if I'd like to connect to the top listing—a default Dunkin Donuts located on a different road. I decided to ask for "more results," and Google returned a list of other Dunkin Donuts locations. In this case, Schoenersville Road was the third listing for Dunkin Donuts in the area. It was frustrating to have to listen to the list while on the road, so you should plan accordingly.
After searching for Dunkin Donuts, I decided to search for something very general, "Food." This produced yet another list, "Bethlehem Brew Works" on Main Street, "Apollo Grill" on West Broad Street, etc. The listings are all among the Lehigh Valley's finest spots to eat and showed that Google must have worked with someone who happened to know these were top-rated spots. For a traveler, this could be a solid option, but it won't link you up directly to a Burger King or other fast-food joint; for that, you'll need to request a Burger King specifically.
I chose the Apollo Grill; Google then provided the address and phone number, and repeated it. You can also request a text message at any time during the call, and Google will send the information directly to your phone. The message displays the name of the restaurant, the address, the phone number, and a link to Google Maps.
A friendly voice
Microsoft's service greets you with a friendly female voice which sounds less like a robot. Like Google, it recognized Schoenersville road off the bat. If you call the number again, the system remembers your last search. For example, on our second call it asked me if I'd like the information for Dunkin Donuts, or if I'd like to begin a new search. This is a great feature—I can't count the number of times I've been driving in New Jersey or New York, where it's illegal to talk on the phone, and have had to redial 411.
I gave LiveSearch 411 a general request for "Food" also. In contrast to Google's service, LiveSearch asked me to specify the road I wanted the food outlet on. Selecting a general listing of "food" produced a list of grocery stores in the area: "Wegman's Food Market, Giant Grocery…" I preferred Google's restaurant response as opposed to a listing of grocery stores, and that's simply because I'd rather find a restaurant while I'm on the road instead of a grocery store. Of course, saying "restaurants" at the beginning of the call would have avoided this confusion.
Once LiveSearch411 found the Apollo Grill, it asked me if I'd like to have the listing sent to me in a text message, or if I'd like to share it. Sharing it would allow me to send the information to a friend; this would be very useful in multiple-car road-trips. The text message also displays the name of the restaurant, the phone number, the address, and a link to Microsoft's Live Map service.
On my third call, however, Microsoft couldn't understand "Bethlehem, Pennsylvania" despite repeated attempts. This was incredibly frustrating, because during the last two calls it had been able to understand me perfectly. The third time around, LiveSearch 411 kept asking me if I was looking for something that sounded like "Uchlem, Pennsylvania." I've never heard of the town, so I hung up and decided to redial.
I was born in a small town
I decided to search for businesses in smaller towns, to see if both services could keep up with lesser-known areas. Microsoft LiveSearch was able to find Arriba, Colorado (population 244). When I requested a Burger King, it wasn't able to find anything and its response suggested that it couldn't understand me. I suppose that's the default response for when it can't find a listing in a certain area. However, it was able to turn up a "DJ's Foodstore and Motel," when I requested "food." LiveSearch was also able to find businesses in other Colorado small towns like Blue River (pop: 685) and Aspen Park (pop: 874). Google411, on the other hand, didn't return results in Blue River or Arriba, but was finally able to find some grub in the more populated Aspen Park.
You can also use Microsoft's LiveSearch411 to check the weather and find movies, travel information, and traffic maps in a designated area. These options are not available in Google's 411 system. Choosing weather will bring you to a menu where you can choose the city and state you'd like to find the weather conditions in. If you say nothing, the system will automatically give you the weather for your current location. After finding out the weather for my area, I decided I'd like to see a movie as well. The system asked me to say "start over," if I'd like to return to the main menu. There seems to be a bug in this area of the system, as it was trying to use "start over" to identify a city and state instead of returning me to the main menu; I said "start over" five times before giving up in frustration.
Choosing travel information provides you with the following options: airlines, hotels, and rental cars. I decided I'd like to find a hotel, and the system reminded me that it would connect me free of charge. It then asked me which hotel I'd like to stay in, or offered me the option of naming a city and state. The system then found a bunch of hotels in my area, at which point I decided to end the call before it connected me.
There's no doubt from our testing that Microsoft's service offers much more than Google's, and is certainly more helpful. Unfortunately, it also has some bugs to work out—it didn't understand "Bethlehem, Pennsylvania," and didn't follow my requests to start over. Still, its offering of services beyond providing a business name, number, and address, is far superior to Google's 411 service, which offers limited information.
Microsoft's LiveSearch411 is the perfect service for anyone traveling or planning to travel, and I highly recommend it. I also loved that it remembered my last search, because I've been disconnected or had to redial 411 countless times in the past. Further, it offered to share my results with another phone user, which is a great option for those traveling in groups that are trying to reach the same destination from different cars or starting locations. LiveSearch411 was also able to find destinations in low-population and obscure areas, which is probably when 411 is needed most during a road trip.