Samsung is finally rolling out the English-language version of its Bixby voice assistant to U.S. phones, the company said Wednesday.
As good voice control becomes a major point of competition among tech firms, Samsung is under some pressure to show that Bixby can match or even go beyond existing voice assistants.
Samsung's take on the voice assistant — and its bid to compete with other companies' offerings including Apple's Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana — was central to its promotional pitch when the Galaxy S8 and S8+ were first announced. The company bragged that Bixby would be able to handle more complex tasks than other assistants and that users would be able to control a wide variety of apps with their voices.
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But when the phones hit U.S. store shelves in April, they rolled out without its voice features. (Bixby also has some camera-based features that launched on time with the phone.)
Samsung said that the delay was due to Bixby's inability to grasp the English language, which is a pretty big problem for software that's supposed to be able to understand conversational commands.
A Wednesday news release from Samsung indicates that it's solved those problems and that Bixby will be able to do some fairly complicated tasks.
I had a chance to test it out. While Bixby has some promise, the service is far from a Siri-killer.
There are some things Bixby does that Siri (or other voice assistants) can't, particularly when it comes to controlling the phone. I can say “Bixby, turn screen brightness to 5 percent” and the phone will open my settings and dim the screen for me. Asking Siri the same question pulls up a shortcut to the brightness slider but won't actually change anything for you.
Bixby will not only take a selfie for you, it will also let you “delete my last photo” if the shot doesn't turn out the way you want it to. Siri doesn't have that kind of control over its apps.
Other queries, however, don't go so smoothly. Maybe I'm mumbling, but of the 30 or so queries I threw at Bixby, I had to repeat or correct more than half.
For me, however, the biggest problem with Bixby is that it's inconsistently implemented. It works best with a handful of Samsung apps, though users have the option to turn on a “Labs” setting that adds integration with outside apps such as Pandora or Twitter. In both cases, however, I found myself having to repeat my commands or rephrase them. Bixby, while capable of pulling off more complex tasks, is much more strict about the way you have to say things.
It also doesn't seem to be quite as quick as Siri or Google Assistant on mobile. The lag between a “Hi Bixby” command and its execution can drag on, certainly to the point where I feel as though it might be faster to do it myself. It's true that Bixby, like most smart assistants, might learn over time. Right now, the promise of something truly useful is there, but it's not showing up in normal use yet.
Galaxy S8 and S8+ users in the United States and South Korea can start using the assistant's full English-language capabilities starting Wednesday, as soon as they download an update to the Bixby app on their phones.