Along with its yearly hardware refresh, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have brought us the company’s latest software endeavour and likely major player in the smart assistant space – Bixby. The system is a marked improvement on the old S Voice and has the impressive Google Assistant firmly in its sights.
Samsung calls Bixby a “multi-nodal intelligent service”, by which the company means that its assistant works not just with voice, but with text and camera inputs too. One of Samsung’s goals has been to ensure that touch and voice controls can achieve the same results.
Activating your new smart assistant is also a little different than before too. Rather than saying “OK Bixby” or “Hey Bixby”, you press on the dedicated Bixby button instead – located just below the volume rocker on the phone’s left side – and state your request. Samsung says that it thinks these repeated voice activation requests are an unnecessary step for the user.
Starting with the familiar voice commands, Bixby is able to perform the tasks that you would probably expect. Requesting information about the weather, making calls to contacts, and opening apps are all in working order. Users can also create reminders or set a picture as a wallpaper with a simple voice command, rather than having to tap through multiple menus.
What’s more impressive is the assistant’s integration with other Samsung apps. During the demo we saw, Bixby was able to create a new photo album with a specific name the user requested after selecting a few photos from the gallery and speaking a quick command. So, Bixby is able to take inputs from one of Samsung’s apps, such as an image or piece of text, and perform more complicated functions with them using a voice command.
In total, Bixby will be integrated with 10 Samsung apps at launch, including phone, contacts, camera, Bixby Vision, weather, gallery, and the settings menu. Other Samsung apps will follow later, but the company plans to open Bixby up to third party developers at a later date as well.
It’s this tighter integration with Samsung apps where the touch and imaging aspects of Bixby come into play. Bixby Vision, which can be accessed from the Samsung camera app or from Bixby Home, empowers users to perform searches based on images. The results can pull up location search results, shopping listing, and business or people results, depending on what you’re looking at.
For example, Bixby can find information about a landmark and other businesses nearby, pull up online shopping prices for a book you’re interested in buying, and even give you details about wine vintages, flavors, and food pairings.
This doesn’t just apply for real-time pictures either, Bixby is able to perform the same searches on images that are already saved in your gallery, even ones that you’ve edited or applied a filter too. Again, this is done by simply tapping the Bixby Vision icon. This integration even applies to Samsung’s web browser. You can look up a high resolution picture of a person or object, long press and select “Bixby Search” from the menu to look up additional information. Users of Google’s Now on Tap will probably be quite familiar with the type of results on offer here.
Coming full circle, Bixby isn’t just an assistant for the occasional task, as it now appears to be a part of Samsung’s home screen too, in much the same way as Google Now used to be. Navigate over to the Bixby Home page, either by pressing the Bixby button or swiping left on your home screen, and you’re presented with a selection of “cards” from a much wider variety of apps. Samsung Health shows you your steps taken and today’s exercise, news cards offer up the latest headlines, and thumbnails of your latest pictures appear near the bottom. The usual assortment of email, contact, calendar events, and even alarm cards can be spotted in the mix too.
Users are able to toggle these cards on and off to pick and choose the type of information that they would like to see. Third party application support already appears to be present and these cards can be downloaded if you want to add features that don’t come pre-installed, such as social networks or additional news outlets.
Samsung’s new smart assistant isn’t without the expected teething issues though. During our demo it wasn’t super snappy at performing some of the requested tasks and we bumped into the occasional voice command that wasn’t recognised. That said, Samsung is still working on its software and it will no doubt continue to improve with time. Even today, Bixby offers up a compelling set of virtual assistant features that looks poised to offer Google Assistant a run for its money. But we’ll wait until we can spend more time with the handset before rendering our final verdict.
Bixby will be available with the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus straight off store shelves in Korea with the US following soon after. European consumers will have to wait until the latter part of 2017 though. Korean and American English will be supported at launch but various other languages will be rolling out “soon”.