Image credit: Koren Shadmi/Engadget

One week with Samsung Bixby

It has potential, but can't yet compete with Apple, Google or Amazon.

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    Image credit: Koren Shadmi/Engadget

    Nobody wants an assistant they can't trust. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't put my faith in Samsung's Bixby. It's the newest entry in the crowded field of virtual assistants, and its youthful inexperience shows. After living with Bixby on the Galaxy S8 for a week, I couldn't wait to kick it to the curb. To its credit, Bixby has some intriguing features that make it potentially more functional than the competition. But it's simply too early for it to compete with more established assistants like Siri and Alexa.

    Let's start with what I liked: It's nice having a single button dedicated to Bixby on the Galaxy S8 and S8+. It was particularly useful in noisy areas, where the "Hey, Bixby" voice command couldn't easily be heard. But I also found it more useful than just holding down the home button, as you do to access Siri on iOS devices. Because Bixby has its own button, you don't have to worry about your phone doing something you don't want -- like heading back to your home screen -- when you just want to ask about the weather.

    So why couldn't I trust Bixby? For one, it's incredibly unreliable. Sometimes Bixby would have no problem hearing my requests. Other times, even in near-silent rooms, it would take a few extra seconds to start listening to me. Saying, "Hey, Bixby, what's the weather?" would occasionally only register the word "weather." I wasn't speaking quickly, to be clear; instead, it seemed as if Bixby was just taking its sweet time before it actually started paying attention.

    Even when it was actually listening, Bixby would often garble my requests. It was particularly baffling when I was repeating the same command; "What's on my schedule?" would often be interpreted in completely different ways. Bixby was so unreliable that I pretty much gave up on using it outdoors or anywhere with even slight ambient noise. And before you ask, yes, I did my best to train Bixby properly. Toward the end of my testing, after the assistant had probably listened to hundreds of my commands, it started to get a bit more accurate. But even then, it would still have the occasional brain fart that made me want to throw my phone out a window.

    If Bixby can't listen or accurately interpret what I'm saying, it's pretty much doomed as an assistant of any kind. Still, I give Samsung credit for trying to innovate a bit with BIxby's ability to control different apps. You could, for example, tell it to open Google Play and install Spotify, and Bixby will do all the work for you. Samsung baked this sort of direct control into its core apps, like Phone and Gallery, but it also supports plenty of popular third-party apps, like Google Maps, Uber and Twitter. It's especially helpful for apps with complex interfaces; for example, telling Bixby to open Yelp and search for nearby burger joints is much simpler than tapping through the app as you normally would.

    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.

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