Samsung's attempt to "gamify" Bixby is another good idea that isn't executed well. Basically, it rewards you for using the assistant with experience points and levels. It's a clever way to encourage people to actually use Bixby, which, over time, will also make it a smarter assistant. Raising your level also unlocks rewards, like a new background for your phone. Still, it wasn't too long before I got annoyed with the Bixby rewards pop-ups. They cover a significant chunk of the bottom of my phone's screen, and would inevitably get in the way. Being forced to tap through unnecessary notifications just to see the information I'm requesting from my AI assistant isn't a step forward.
When all of Bixby's features click -- when it listens and interprets what I'm saying properly and then translates that into a specific function -- it can feel like magic. But that's easily outweighed by the frustration I had getting it to work properly. And, after all, what's the point of a futuristic AI assistant if it's actually harder and more irritating to use than what we've already got? Bixby has potential, but Samsung has a long way to go before it's something you'd want to use.
The bigger problem with Bixby: It just feels unnecessary because the Google Assistant is also installed on the Galaxy S8 and S8+. While Google's AI helper is only a few months older than Bixby, after launching in March, it had a confident debut. Its voice recognition is significantly more accurate, and it supports threaded conversations, so you can actually ask follow-up questions after making a query. Meanwhile, Bixby can't reliably answer one question, let alone handle an entire conversation.
The other big benefit with Google Assistant is that it works across other Android devices as well as the Home smart speaker. It likely won't be long until Assistant makes its way to desktops. Let's not forget, Samsung also only launched Bixby recently, so most Galaxy S8 owners are probably already attached to Google's offering.
Honestly, I would have been surprised if Samsung managed to knock Bixby out of the park at such an early stage. It's taken Apple years to shape Siri into a usable assistant, and even now it still leaves a lot to be desired. I've also learned that AI helpers on phones are significantly limited by their microphones. If you really want a voice assistant you trust, you need a far-field microphone array like you'll find on Amazon's Echo speakers, Google Home and Apple's upcoming HomePod. A decent set of mics is one reason Alexa on Amazon's Echo took off so quickly; it was better at listening to you than anything that came before it.
"I'm sorry, Bixby, this just isn't working out," I'd say if it were a real assistant I was about to fire. "I need someone with more experience." But before they'd leave, I'd add, "Get back to me in a year or so -- you've got the potential to be great."
This week Engadget is examining each of the five major virtual assistants, taking stock of how far they've come and how far they still have to go. Find all our coverage here.