Around 3 months ago, Samsung took the stage at Unpacked 2017 to announce their new Galaxy S8 phones. During their keynote, the company spent around 10 minutes hyping up Bixby, their contribution to the newly-crowded virtual assistant space. Bixby was billed as “a new way to interact with your phone.” Essentially, Bixby aims to be a combination of Google Now’s feed, Google Assistant’s voice and personal assistance capabilities, and a Google Goggles-esque image recognition system.
Bixby is so important to Samsung, that the feature was even given its own prominent hardware key — and methods to remap it were struck down.
Sadly, when the Galaxy S8 launched on April 21st, the Bixby Voice portion of the software was nowhere to be seen. The hardware key on the side of the phone simply, slowly, opened a feed of suggestions, apps, weather, daily steps, and trending twitter, and some flipboard fluff. Samsung shipped the phone with the promise of the voice portion of Bixby to be updated later, rendering much of that hardware button functionality and purpose effectively obsolete up until the day Bixby Voice would finally come to consumers. Just yesterday, the early access for Bixby Voice began. Let’s take a look through here and see how it stacks up.
Initial Bixby Voice setup is fairly straightforward. Simply head to the Galaxy Apps store and update a dozen or so Samsung apps or services.
You will also be prompted to download certain “Bixby Labs” enabled apps. These are third party applications with Bixby functionality that isn’t fully guaranteed to work right, as again, this is early access of a clearly-unfinished service. After everything is up to date, the next time you (perhaps accidentally) press the Bixby button you’ll be prompted to set up Bixby Voice. Right now, Bixby is only available in US English and Korean.
After the setup Bixby runs through some demo commands and explains how to use it. You can either wake the device by saying “Hi Bixby,” or pressing the Bixby key, saying instructions, and then releasing the key. Having both methods of interaction is definitely a nice touch. In my usage I’ve found that using the side button is a more reliable and intuitive way to use Bixby, plus I like to make use of the hardware I paid for.
Bixby Voice itself is capable of some interesting system level manipulations. Users can lower their notification shade, turn off bluetooth, turn on vibration, clear notifications, buy a theme in the Samsung Theme store (yeah, really), turn on Accessibility Settings, and more. Toggling settings isn’t particularly exclusive to Bixby, but these are truly neat and useful additions and seem to work well for the most part.
The Bixby app encourages, at least beta users, to help improve the software and give kudos when the software gets it right. To this end, there is a level section complete with XP and rewards like themes for users that fully engage with and participate in the software. It remains to be seen if these features will make it to the final release.
Mainly, with Bixby, a user is encouraged to use an “Open [app name] and [perform a task]” way of asking for help. This winds up being the main potential differentiator between Google’s Assistant and Bixby. After using the service for a while, you begin to notice it feels like watching the software actually use the app, rather that just outputting an answer.
This sort of modular “app using” paradigm could eventually make Bixby very powerful and versatile. This early on however, it winds up making the application feel clunky and slow at times. Additionally, Bixby happens to do something I didn’t ask for far more often than I would deem acceptable. Simple sports questions wind up opening a Google search (in the Samsung Browser,) and asking directions or facts greets me with a “I can’t do that yet” screen. The fact that I can not trust Bixby to get it right coerces me into not even bothering to try in the first place. Granted, the Bixby Voice capability is still in Beta. Which brings us to our next point…
There are some things that Bixby does well, and even with the Beta nature of it all, I can see some potential for the service, in particular its more exclusive functionality. For example, in the image above, I asked Bixby to open YouTube and search for specific videos, and that it did — this kind of voice commands works with settings and specific app layers as well, and it’s kind of awesome to see it in action. But far too many voice commands are simply picked up incorrectly by Bixby both during the language recognition and during the understanding of the command. Even regular usage shows that Bixby’s functionality is limited. Many simple questions you would expect Alexa or Google to reply to, are simply ignored or dismissed, by Bixby with the justification ” It’s still beta”. At the very least, you could have those questions re-routed to Google searches (and some are), but instead the service tries to understand, and often fails by misunderstanding the query altogether. A funny example shown below is when we asked Bixby whether OnePlus was cheating on benchmarks, and the client responded we had to do some “number crunching”, and proceeded to open the Calculator app. Of course, the issue here is Bixby must have picked up “one plus” and not understood the query for the question it was. (Google Assistant didn’t have the same issue recognizing “OnePlus”, and instead did a simple web search.)
It’s now late June, and Bixby Voice is just now in Beta, and a pretty flaky one at that. If this software existed in a vacuum, then there wouldn’t be any real issue with this, but it doesn’t. The Galaxy S8 already has a superior voice assistant, and that’s Google Assistant which lives on these phones with a long press of the home button. Google I/O just informed us that Google Voice recognition hit 95% accuracy and anecdotally, Bixby isn’t even close. I’ve had to correct what Bixby heard over a dozen times in just one real day of use, and I’ve hit that “Let’s improve” far more than I expected, especially considering this was supposed to be a crucial flagship feature.
Samsung is decidedly late to the Virtual Assistant party even if you look inside the Galaxy phones themselves, and at this point, I can’t really see myself using Bixby over Google Assistant at all. The fact that the company’s service can be dismissed as just another piece of bloatware — that is, a service that can be good and useful by itself, but that’s worse than on-device alternatives – is indicative of just how disappointing of a project it’s been so far. I have no doubt that the service will improve, but I also know that the competition is improving as well, and the few things that make it interesting will soon be adopted and incorporated in competing services, and probably with better execution. We’ve complained about Google Assistant’s slow-paced evolution time and time again, but seeing Bixby first hand makes one realize Google’s progress was certainly no easy feat.
The biggest Android smartphone from one of the richest OEMs has tragically launched in a state of incompleteness, needing to persuade users into testing through a rewards system, hoping that they won’t simply go back to using Google Assistant for most of their queries, and good-old manual navigation for all of their tasks. As it’s stands, summoning Bixby is slow, voice recognition is iffy and its natural language understanding is flaky, and then the output can be either incorrect or slow to roll out. All of this makes the service far too slow and clunky to operate and adapt into daily, routine usage. It also makes me doubt whether the commitment to designing the device’s hardware around Bixby was a smart decision. Ultimately, Bixby might get better in the future, and it’s, indeed, “still in beta” — but it arguably should have launched with the phone. The fact that months later it is incomplete to the point where using it is a handicap to one’s user experience goes to show that making a voice assistant is not easy, and that making a voice assistant that’s pleasing to the user is even harder. For now, I’ll stick to Google Assistant, which I see in a different light after once more being disappointed by Samsung software.
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