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Bixby Voice review: A story of unfulfilled potential

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Last updated: September 25th, 2017 at 16:54 UTC+02:00

The aim of this Bixby Voice review is to determine whether Samsung has done a good enough job with its new virtual assistant. There are some things that set it apart from the competition. It leaves a lot to be desired in other aspects. Bixby Voice right now is a story of unfulfilled potential. There is a long way to go before it can be crowned king of the virtual assistants.

First, some background. Samsung introduced Bixby with the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ earlier this year. Bixby Voice, the conversational assistant, was delayed for a few months. It was finally released for users across the globe last month. Bixby Voice only has support for English and South Korean. It’s also available on the Galaxy Note 8.

In case you’ve not done it yet, here’s how you setup Bixby on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8. It will take around ten minutes or so. You will help Bixby learn your voice and your pronunciation style by speaking generic sentences.

Bixby Voice Review

Bixby Voice review: A story of unfulfilled potential

You summon Bixby by pressing and holding the dedicated key. It’s not a simple listening trigger, though. You have to keep holding the button until you’re done giving Bixby a command. There is an advantage to this. You can make a long query and even stop in the middle of one to think, and the voice assistant won’t cut you off.

However, the fact that the Bixby button needs to be kept pressed makes voice control less useful. Many users will simply opt to use their hand to actually tap on the device instead of waiting for Bixby to respond.

Samsung says that Bixby can do anything in response to a voice command that the user can do by tapping on the display. Granted, Bixby outshines its competitors in some areas, but it hasn’t matured enough to compete with established rivals like Siri and Google Assistant.

Hotword hopscotch

Bixby Voice review

You can also use the “Hi Bixby” hotword to access the assistant. The hotword is always on so it works even when the phone is locked. Simple queries like “What is the weather like today?” work without unlocking.

However, if you ask it to tell you the time in another city, Bixby will require you to unlock your phone first. You can set up a voice password when configuring Bixby and speak it out loud when prompted to unlock the phone.

I found this to be a very useful feature when I’m at my desk. I don’t have to take my hands off the keyboard if I want to unlock my Galaxy S8+ and check something quickly. However, I’m not impressed with Bixby’s ability to pick up the hotword. My experience with it has been hit or miss.

More often than not, though, it has forced me to raise my voice just to get the hotword to register with Bixby. I have the wake-up sensitivity turned up to high and yet sometimes in near-silent rooms, it simply fails to register the hotword in the first attempt. It’s like I’m playing hotword hopscotch.

When it does listen, the voice recognition can also be hit or miss. It happens frequently enough that you’ll definitely notice it. Even if you’re speaking slowly and clearly, Bixby can often take its time to pick up on your command. Sometimes, it just won’t catch a few words.

You’ll notice that it has a tendency to do this when there’s a lot of ambient noise. It will get better slightly once you use it for a considerable amount of time. I use Bixby Voice on a daily basis and yet I still experience this time and again. There’s a lot of room for improvement here.

Two is better than one

There’s a fullscreen Bixby interface that has a glassy background and displays answers on frosted cards. This interface pops up when you ask Bixby to rap, beatbox, answer a factual question, tell you about the weather, search the web, and more.

The “pop up” interface is what you’ll see most frequently. Adorned with the Bixby logo, it’s essentially a chat bubble that animates in response to queries. It offers quick options to teach Bixby how to respond to certain commands.

Control freak

Bixby does a good job of controlling different applications. For example, you can command it to launch WhatsApp and send someone a message, open Google Play and install Spotify, or tell it to show you pictures you took in New York City (or to just open the latest picture saved in the gallery).

Most of Samsung’s native apps have support for direct control via Bixby but the company has also enabled support for some third-party apps as well. More will be compatible with Bixby Voice in the future so this is a step in the right direction.

Bixby is exceptional at letting you control system functions. You can command it to turn on the blue light filter, do not disturb mode, adjust the screen brightness, change the volume, and even change the system language.

What irks me is that Bixby won’t allow you to change default apps if you don’t want to use a Samsung app. For example, if you’d rather use another text messaging app instead of Samsung’s native app, Bixby won’t help you send a text unless you make Samsung’s app the default once again. Why does it have to be a control freak to this extent?

The same is true for the web browser. Bixby will always open Samsung Internet in response to voice commands. The links in Bixby interface will not stick to your selection for the default web browser; they will always be opened in Samsung Internet. It restricts user choice and that’s not indicative of a good user experience.

It’s a good indication that Samsung wants to make more third-party apps compatible with Bixby. The Bixby Labs program lists experimental support for third-party apps like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Twitter and Tumblr. I hope that it reconsiders its stance on default apps.

Conversation skills, or lack thereof

Bixby’s conversational ability does leave a lot to be desired, though. While it can provide answers to questions like “Who is the president of the United States?” by tapping into Google Search, it’s unable to hold a contextual conversation.

If you follow up that question with “how old is he,” Bixby won’t have an answer for you. If you ask the same question to Google Assistant, which is already present on quite a few of Samsung’s Android devices, it will remember that you previously asked it about the president and now want to know his age.

Ecosystem envy

In this day and age, it’s not just about how the voice assistant performs on your device. The assistants are an integral part of a wider ecosystem that contains a plethora of other products and services. Take Google Assistant, for example.

When you ask it to save a reminder, it will save the reminder in the cloud. The reminder will then be accessible from Google Inbox, the Google app, Google Calendar on iOS, Chrome OS and the Web wherever the user is signed in with their Google Account. Not to mention the fact that the Assistant can also be used to control a wide variety of smart home devices and is available on several different platforms.

Bixby just doesn’t have that kind of reach. If you ask it to save the same reminder, it’s going to do that in Samsung’s native app. That reminder won’t be accessible to you on any other platform. This is true for almost all functions in which Bixby stores some information. It’s going to be stored on the handset and your data will essentially be tied to that device.

There has been no indication that Samsung wants to build a web portal or cross-platform apps that will address this. It hasn’t opened up Bixby enough to compete with its established rivals and that’s where you feel Bixby’s potential is being wasted. This will leave you with some serious ecosystem envy.

Gamification needs work

In order to get people to use Bixby frequently, Samsung has relied on gamification. Users are rewarded points for using the assistant. They can rack up experience points and increase their level. Not only does this make Bixby smarter because the more you use it, the more it learns but it also unlocks rewards. The rewards aren’t something to be excited about, though, as you only get things like a custom background for your phone.

The idea hasn’t been executed as well as it should have. The pop ups for Bixby rewards cover a big part of the phone’s display and you immediately feel that they get in the way. You have to tap on unnecessary notifications just to do what you wanted to in the first place. It adds unnecessary interactions and it’s not a good user experience at all.

My favorite Bixby feature

Quick Commands is my favorite Bixby feature. You can configure a variety of actions that Bixby will complete in response to a custom command. For example, if I say “Goodnight” to Bixby, it turns on the blue light filter, sets an alarm for 10 am and turns on the do not disturb mode. It makes the user’s life easier so full marks to Samsung for Quick Commands.

Thoughts on Bixby

Granted, Bixby’s rivals had their fair share of shortcomings when they first emerged on the scene. Bixby hasn’t been around for a long time so it’s going to take some time before these issues are sorted. Samsung will expand Bixby to additional devices, and it’s also going to launch a smart speaker, which will enable interactions with more smart devices.

That being said, given the extra time that Samsung took to polish Bixby, it would have been better if the lingering issues that we still see had been resolved. Samsung should have also made it simpler and reduced the number of unnecessary interactions. It leaves a lot to be desired when there are times that Bixby won’t just respond to the hotword that it’s supposed to be always listening for.

If you want a virtual assistant that’s faster at returning results, has more third-party integrations, is better at voice recognition, can be accessed on more devices and offers a proper ecosystem, then Google Assistant has no competition on Android. It’s going to take a long time before Bixby is capable of replacing Google Assistant.

Conclusion

In conclusion of our Bixby Voice review, let there be no doubt that Bixby is full of potential. Samsung has taken a step in the right direction but now it needs to do more if it wants Bixby to be a truly great virtual assistant.

What is your take on Bixby Voice? Has it lived up to your expectations, or do you think it needs more work? Do let us know in the comments!

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