Smart Assistants Roundup

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Products featuring smart assistants continued to sell at a blistering pace in 2018, further cementing their roles in our everyday lives and all but guaranteeing a future where interacting with a hyper-intelligent digital ghost is the norm. But, despite this continued surge in ownership, smart assistants remain an unknown quantity for many—What are they? What can they do? How do I get one? To help clear up some of the mystery, we’ve compiled a list of the top assistants and broken them down by platform, use case, and performance.

Roll Call

Depending on your interpretation, the total number of digital assistants varies. But, regardless of how you define it, the top names remain the same: Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and Bixby. Among these, definite tiers of capability exist, but, to start, it’s enough to know who the major players are.

At a Glance

Now that you know the top names, we can dive a little deeper with a broad overview.

Assistant Name

Developer

Initial Release

Voice Recognition

IoT Integration

Accessibility

Alexa

Amazon

2014

Yes

Yes

Proprietary devices, 3rd-party devices

Google Assistant

Google

2016

Yes

Yes

Android, iOS, Chromebook, proprietary devices, 3rd-party devices

Siri

Apple

2011

Yes

Yes

Proprietary devices

Cortana

Microsoft

2014

Yes

Yes

Windows, Android, iOS, 3rd-party devices

Bixby

Samsung

2017

Yes

Yes

Proprietary devices

Accessibility

Scanning our chart, it doesn’t take long to realize that, on paper, these assistants all look similar. In fact, if we take away the branding and release date, it’s genuinely difficult to tell them apart—except, that is, for one crucial category: Accessibility.

Now, when we say “accessibility,” what we’re talking about are the available options for accessing and using a specific assistant. For instance, we could say Google Assistant has very high accessibility because it’s available through multiple platforms and devices, from Android and iOS smartphones to smart speakers and displays (e.g., the Lenovo Smart Display). Conversely, you could argue that Siri has more limited accessibility, because it’s currently limited to Apple-made machines and wearables.

Accessibility isn’t the end-all-be-all qualifier when it comes to judging an assistant, but it’s probably the best place to start when trying to decide which is right for you. If you’re a Surface- or Galaxy-only household, then Siri is likely out. Likewise, if you’re Apple all the way, then Cortana and Bixby probably aren’t right for you.

But there’s more to digital assistants than just where you can use them and on what devices. There’s also the question of how well they work when called upon and to what extent they can answer your queries and obey commands—qualities we can group under the umbrella of performance.

Overall Performance

Alexa

Alexa can be accessed through Amazon’s proprietary devices, such as the Echo or Fire TV Stick, and select third-party devices, such as the Bose® Home Speaker™ 500, and seems to perform the strongest when answering queries that deal with purchasing items through Amazon. For example, I keep my Echo Dot in the kitchen so I can tell Alexa to re-order me food or add items to a connected shopping list, and it performs flawlessly. It’s also very good at setting alarms and reminders, answering basic questions (weather, sports, etc.), and accessing music through different libraries and streaming services. More involved questions and those involving context aren’t Alexa’s strongest suit but, overall, it performs very well, especially if your primary uses are basic Q&A, Amazon product ordering, and/or streaming music.

Google Assistant

The most accessible in terms of how and where you can use it, Google Assistant is also arguably the most capable when it comes to overall voice recognition and comprehension. Like Alexa, it can answer your basic queries, but it can also handle some tougher follow-up questions, or commands requiring more context and awareness. In the category of music playback, Google Assistant can be accessed through some of the market’s most media-friendly designs, including the Google Home Max and Google Home Hub.

Google Home Max

Siri

The one that started it all, Siri is the oldest—and in many ways, wisest—of the group. Its knowledge base and ability to contextualize and respond to more challenging questions rivals and, in some instances, surpasses, Google Assistant, and its voice-recognition capability is also very strong despite being limited, in most instances, to less-powerful microphone setups. Plus, it’s arguably the most congenial and recognizable of all the assistants, with a personality and voice that are firmly established within the modern zeitgeist. Siri’s one drawback might be its accessibility, which is limited solely to Apple devices, and even those aren’t staggering in number. However, what Apple lacks in quantity, it makes up for with quality, specifically the HomePod, which is one of the best overall smart speakers on the market.

Cortana

Microsoft’s digital assistant is arguably the most finicky of the bunch, performing quickly and competently with some devices and applications, not as much with others. For example, Cortana works like a dream on my Xbox One. I can tell it to power on, play a game, find a song, search Netflix for a show, and it rarely falters (I assume this high level of execution extends to all Microsoft-branded machines). However, on my iPhone, the Cortana app is more limited. It can handle basic questions and queries, but app integration isn’t as strong, and the fact you must open an app—as opposed to a dedicated button or simply calling its name—is the reason I almost never use it on my phone. Another limitation is Cortana’s accessibility and IoT support, neither of which boasts a long list of supported devices. Those hindrances aside, for Windows and Xbox users, Cortana is a very capable assistant that performs at a high level, if you stay in your designated lane.

Bixby

Samsung’s Bixby is the youngest assistant of the group, and as such, has the most catching up to do. Its accessibility is limited to select devices, such as the Galaxy S9, and even then, its app integration and overall function support aren’t extensive. Despite these growing pains, Bixby arguably is one of the most intriguing and—dare-we-say—promising of the digital assistants for several reasons. For starters, Bixby performs very well within the Samsung ecosystem of integrated apps—so much so that were this performance to extend to all mobile applications, Bixby’s overall ranking would be much closer to the top. Additionally, Bixby offers unique features the other assistants do not, such as Bixby Vision, which leverages your smartphone’s camera to translate words, identify landmarks and places, and more. This type of innovation is more promise than performance, but it’s a good indicator that Samsung is going to leverage Bixby in new and exciting ways.

So, the question is: Which is the right assistant for you? As with many of our technological queries, the answer is probably lurking nearby. Look around: What do you need? What do you own? What would improve your quality of life? Are you an Apple addict who starts the day by checking headlines, social media, or sports? Then turn on Siri and take advantage of her limitless knowledge base. Does most of your mail have an Amazon logo on it? Pick up an Echo and start ordering hands-free. Perhaps you’re writing an article on different digital assistants and you want to dictate rather than type—trust me when I say Google Assistant can handle that. Whatever your need, there is an assistant that can help. All you need to do is ask.

Want to know more about digital assistants? Send us your questions, below, and we’ll get back to you. And be sure to check out all our digital assistant products at B&H.

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