Google's version of Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana is Google Assistant. It has made incredible progress since its 2016 launch and is probably the most advanced and dynamic of the assistants out there.
Google has spread Assistant far and wide, not only on its own hardware, but through partnerships with other companies that sees Google Assistant in a huge range of devices, from fridges and headphones to speakers and cars.
Here's how Google Assistant works and what you need to know about Google's AI.
What is Google Assistant?
Google Assistant is Google's voice assistant. When it launched, Google Assistant was an extension of Google Now, designed to be personal while expanding on Google's existing "OK Google" voice controls.
Originally, Google Now smartly pulled out relevant information for you. It knew where you worked, your meetings and travel plans, the sports teams you liked, and what interested you so that it could present you with information that mattered to you.
Google has long killed Google Now, but Assistant lives in the same space, fusing these personalised elements with a wide-range of voice control. Google Assistant supports both text or voice entry and it will follow the conversation whichever entry method you're using.
What can Google Assistant do?
Google Assistant offers voice commands, voice searching, and voice-activated device control, letting you complete a number of tasks after you've said the "OK Google" or "Hey, Google" wake words. It is designed to give you conversational interactions.
Google Assistant will:
- Control your devices and your smart home
- Access information from your calendars and other personal information
- Find information online, from restaurant bookings to directions, weather and news
- Control your music
- Play content on your Chromecast or other compatible devices
- Run timers and reminders
- Make appointments and send messages
- Open apps on your phone
- Read your notifications to you
- Real-time spoken translations
Continued Conversation means you don't have to say "Hey Google" for follow-up requests. Instead, once you've started talking to Google, it listens for a response without needing a trigger phrase all the time. Google can also recognise voice profiles for different people, so it knows who is talking to it and can tailor the responses accordingly. You can also ask for multiple things at the same time.
As Google Assistant knows you and understands context, it will react in an informed or smart way. That's important as it gives voice control a lot more power and moves it on from only reacting to specific phrases or commands. In the future, Google says that Assistant will be able to call and book appointments for you. It's designed to be more than just reactive.
Other features include the ability to check in to your flight (airline and destination dependant), as well as the ability to book a room with some partners and there's an Interpreter Mode on Google Home devices and smart displays too. With it, you can ask Google Assistant to help you conduct a conversation in dozens of languages. Just say "Hey Google, be my Spanish interpreter" to start Interpreter Mode and get real time spoken and (on Smart Displays) written translation to aid the conversation.
Google Assistant in Google Home devices forms the foundation of smart home control. It's compatible with a wide range of devices, so you can control heating, lights, and a lots more with your voice.
Which devices offer Google Assistant?
Google Assistant originally launched on the Google Pixel smartphones and Google Home, but it is now available to just about all modern Android devices, including Wear OS devices, Android TV, and Nvidia Shield and in some cars if they offer support for Android Auto.
Smart home devices like Philips Hue, Nest products and Ikea's Tradfri range, for example, can be controlled by Google Assistant and not just through Google Home, but wherever you happen to interact with Assistant. Assistant is truly everywhere at this point, walking a path that's very similar to Amazon's Alexa.
Google Assistant on phones
Google expanded its Google Assistant service in 2017 so that it would be available on more mobile devices. That saw the roll-out of Assistant to most Android phones, with all recent launches offering the AI system. Even devices that offer another AI system, like Samsung's Bixby, also offer Google Assistant. Essentially, if your phone has Android, your phone has Google Assistant, so the user base for Google Assistant is huge.
It's possible to have Assistant respond to you even when your Android phone is locked too, if you opt-in through your settings and you can also opt in to see answers to personal queries too.
Google Assistant is also available on the iPhone, although there are some restrictions. So, Google Assistant is no longer the preserve of Pixel phones; it's something that all Android users and even iOS users can enjoy.
Google Maps app
Google Assistant can help you navigate in Google Maps, on both Android and iOS devices. With your voice, you can share your ETA with friends and family, reply to texts, play music and podcasts, search for places along your route, or add a new stop, all in Google Maps. Google Assistant can also auto-punctuate your message (on Android and iOS phones) and read back and reply to all your notifications (Android only).
Assistant works with many popular messaging apps and SMS, including: WhatsApp, Messenger, Hangouts, Viber, Telegram, Android Messages and more. When driving, Google Assistant can auto-calculate your ETA from Google Maps and can send to friends too, if you have an Android device.
Just say, "Hey Google, take me home" to open Google Maps and get started.
Google Home devices
Google Home is the company's direct competitor to the Amazon Echo. Google Home is essentially a Chromecast-enabled speaker that serves as a voice-controlled assistant. It's the first port of call for Google Assistant in the home and it's an expanding ecosystem. There are currently four devices currently available in the Google Home portfolio including the Google Home, Google Home Max, Google Home Mini and the Nest Home Hub. Google is also launching the Nest Hub Max in July.
You can ask Google Home devices to do anything you'd ask Assistant to do on Android phones, but moving into the home really puts the emphasis on other services and functions, like smart home control, compatibility with Chromecast to send movies to your TV, and a whole lot more.
- Google Home vs Google Home Mini vs Google Home Max
- Google Nest Hub vs Nest Hub Max: Which should you buy?
Google Assistant is also available on wearables running Wear OS. Using the wake words, you'll be able to ask Assistant to perform a number of tasks from your watch, such as turning the heating down, or replying to a message.
Android TV also offers Google Assistant on a number of devices. Sony offers Android TV across its models, for example. There's another dimension here though: Sony TVs not only run Android TV, but they are also compatible with Google Home and Amazon Alexa, meaning you can control your TV by talking to your speaker, as well as control your lights by talking to your TV.
Set-top boxes like Nvidia Shield TV also support Google Assistant and the list of popular media and entertainment devices supporting Assistant is constantly expanding, with TVs from Samsung also in the mix, as well as DISH's Hopper family of receivers. With Google Assistant built-in, you can use your voice to turn on the TV, change volume and channels, and switch between inputs.
At CES 2019, new partners launching Android TV devices with the Google Assistant included Sony, Hisense, Philips, TCL, Skyworth, Xiaomi, Haier, Changhong, JVC and Toshiba.
Headphones and earbuds
There's support for Google Assistant in many wireless headphones, too. Initially starting with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Google's own Pixel Buds, Assistant is now included in some models from brands like Harman, JBL, Sony, and others.
With this kind of integration, you can access the AI assistant without opening your phone - usually you just press a button and start talking to Google Assistant.
Google smart displays
The race to be everywhere in your home is on, with Google having its own take on the Echo Show in the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max - the latter of which is due out soon.
Smart displays offering Google Assistant also include companies like JBL and Lenovo. The Lenovo Smart Display is available with both 8-inch and 10.1-inch screen options, and can be flipped 90-degrees for vertical use, thanks to the universal design of the stand.
The JBL Link View meanwhile, has a pair of 10W speakers and an 8-inch touchscreen.
Google Assistant is available in some cars - like Volvo and Audi - depending on support for Android Auto, though there are also aftermarket head units too.
Google is working with Anker and JBL to build Google Assistant into car accessories. The Anker Roav Bolt and JBL Link Drive, for instance, plug into any car's socket, so you can connect your phone to your car’s stereo via Bluetooth or AUX. Once the accessories are connected, you can use Assistant hands-free, with hotword support.
Smart home devices and appliances
As we've mentioned, a lot of connected devices are now compatible with Google Assistant, from lightbulbs to fridges and everything else between. Assistant works with over 1600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices.
There's a full list of Google Assistant partners here, but here's a rundown of some of the important compatible devices:
- LG appliances
- Philips Hue
- Samsung SmartThings
These devices can be controlled by Google Assistant, meaning you can turn lights and switches on and off. You can change the heating or get an alert that your cleaning is done or a washing cycle is finished.
Google Assistant is also compatible with IFTTT, so custom recipes can be created. As we've said before, you also don't need to be talking to Google Home; you can use Assistant on your phone to interact.
What is Google Assistant Connect?
Google Assistant Connect is a platform that device manufacturers can use to bring the Google Assistant into devices more easily and cheaply. For consumers, that means you should see different types of smart devices coming soon.
For example, Google said a partner could create an e-ink display that projects the weather or your calendar, while using Assistant Connect to deliver content from your linked smart speaker.
Google Assistant will handle the so-called "higher-order computing" -- knowing what's on the calendar, checking for updates, etc.
How do I know if my phone has Google Assistant?
To check if your phone has Google Assistant, say "OK Google" or press-and-hold the home button. That's the starting point for Assistant, after which you can type or speak and have Assistant respond. Usually, during the set-up of an Android, you'll be prompted to configure Assistant.
Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa
This is always the big question: Which is better - Assistant or Amazon Alexa?
Both these platforms go head-to-head, offering similar devices as well as similar functions. The ambitions are generally the same, to be a cross-device personal assistant. Google has an obvious advantage when it comes to Android: it knows who you are, what you search for, your friends, browsing habits, the content of your calendar and where you go, all thanks to the sort of data living in Android.
Alexa, on the other hand, knows what you buy on Amazon.
But that Android advantage extends further. It's baked into the OS of many phones (not iPhone users), so you have Google Assistant with you all the time. Amazon Alexa has the smartphone app, but it's not as integrated into phones.
Google Assistant feels at home on a phone, with access to more functions around the phone - like launching apps. Google has hotword support on phones, too, while Alexa hotword support on phones is limited to some HTC and Huawei devices and Amazon's own Fire tablets.
When it comes to support, Alexa feels like it has more partnerships and hardware.
But, Google is smarter in dealing with basic functions: Alexa needs to know which light to turn on and off, specifically, while Google will just let you turn everything on or off without needing a group setting up or devices to be named.
Google is also better a routing out information, often giving you better search results. On a phone, naturally, finding address and navigation is a core skill. Alexa will find addresses and report on traffic, but that's not quite the same as getting access to real navigation and maps.
Again, the smartphone advantage gives Google an edge here.
But when it comes to home tasks, like playing music or working with those compatible devices, the experience is very close - and some degree of personal preference will come into it. Amazon has the edge with devices (there's greater variety in Echo and the system in one step ahead, with Google currently playing catch-up), and talking to Alexa feels nicer than talking to Google. It's a more comfortable expression.