The Bixby button on the side of Samsung’s fantastic Galaxy S8 is finally getting its most important feature: voice support. The company has started rolling out an update to enable Bixby Voice for Galaxy S8 and S8+ owners in the United States who signed up to test Samsung’s rival to Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana. It’s in very early beta — this is day one — and Samsung will be putting more work into the feature before Bixby Voice is widely released. That’s a very good thing, because the outlook is pretty rough at launch. If you’re going to actually start pushing that Bixby button several times a day, Samsung’s got real work to do.
First things first. If you registered to be a beta tester, make sure you’re running the current version of Bixby by going to its “about” screen. Download any updates that appear there. I also had to clear the data and cache for Bixby apps in my S8+’s settings screen before Bixby Voice appeared. Once it does, you’ll get a tutorial that involves teaching you how to trigger the voice feature and then teaching it to recognize your voice.
You can activate Bixby Voice either by saying “Hi Bixby” (“hey” also seems to work) or just holding down the Bixby button while you talk, walkie-talkie style. From there, you can ask it the basics like the weather or the time in London or to set an alarm. And right there — the core fundamentals — is where Bixby starts to stumble out of the gate. It can definitely tell you the weather without issue. No problem. But things go downhill from there.
For one, it’s often slow and noticeably sluggish compared to Google Assistant. Ask Bixby what time it is somewhere and it’ll launch the whole clock app and then read off the answer. Identifying the president of the United States, a simple ask of Siri or Google Assistant, seems to be a confounding challenge for Bixby. The best it will do is punt you to a Google search. Often times, it completely fails to answer the question altogether. There doesn’t seem to be any knowledge base that it’s pulling answers from. If you’re not asking it to do something on your device, Bixby needs help.
Even the essential task of text messaging someone is surprisingly hard to pull off. For one, you’ve got to use Samsung’s Messages app as your default SMS app. And if you don’t word things exactly right, it won’t happen. “Text mom and ask ‘how are you’” sent me to a Google search. “Send a text to mom and ask ‘how are you’” worked — but still necessitated a few taps to fire off the message. What’s the point of voice, then? Google Assistant nailed it with a single attempt.
Those local tasks are still the best thing about Bixby in these early days. If you’re using it to change settings on your phone — or just do something on your phone — Samsung’s assistant is often helpful since it can toggle fairly obscure settings with a simple command. Samsung says there are over 3,000 commands it can perform. It can change between the S8’s display modes, for example, or open an app in split-screen view immediately. Google Assistant and the iPhone’s Siri can do some of this stuff (turning off Wi-Fi, taking a selfie, turning on your flashlight, etc.) but they don’t get quite as granular or specific.
Samsung’s own apps work best with Bixby Voice, but there’s also a Labs area that shows which third-party apps Bixby is capable of controlling. Right now, those include Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Uber, Gmail, Google Maps, and others. Spotify isn’t there, so while Bixby Voice can open the app, it can’t yet actually start playing anything unless you’re using Google Play Music. There’s a preferred structure of speaking to Bixby Voice, as I mentioned early. Almost always, it’s “open (app) and [do this task].”
Samsung has touted the promise of multi-step commands as a unique Bixby Voice strength. For example, you can say “Open Uber and rate my driver 5 stars” or “Open Instagram and post my most recent photo” and Bixby will do that. You’ll see the app open and progress through the necessary screens all on its own. Neat. A phone reacting to your voice commands and controlling apps entirely on its own is certainly a neat trick. Also, a new “shortcuts” feature in Bixby Home lets you say a simple command to string together multiple actions. I could see that being helpful as Samsung improves Bixby’s reliability and speed. Fixing Bixby’s actual voice recognition will be critical, as right now it’s nowhere near good enough to trust for an accurate tweet or Facebook post.
To help get there, Bixby Voice has a somewhat strange XP system that awards you points the more you use it, which is an attempt from Samsung to pull in more and more user data. You can “level up” and unlock things like new background colors for the Bixby interface.
Gamifying the experience makes sense because Samsung definitely needs all the feedback it can get. I’m guessing the response to this beta, at least initially, will be very mixed. It’s worrying to see the rough shape that Bixby Voice is in two months after the Galaxy S8 shipped.
Compared directly against Google Assistant, Bixby Voice is in for some embarrassing showdowns. Until things get better, a lot of people will be asking “What’s the point?” I’m not really sure Bixby Voice saves you much in the way of time since it often runs through the same menus and screens you would with your finger when performing tasks.
Samsung will say that Bixby is intended to help users in ways that are much different than Assistant, and you’ve always got the option of using Google’s product simply by holding down the home button. Some of what Bixby can do is definitely cool, but that functionality alone isn’t something Bixby can rely on while fumbling the common questions or requests from people accustomed to Siri and Google Assistant. We’ll see where it goes from here.