Google is taking on Alexa, Siri, and Cortana with its own voice assistant: Google Assistant.
Google first unveiled Assistant at Google I/O in May 2016, launched it on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL phones, brought it to Google Home and then Android Wear 2.0, before it started it rolling it out to other phones running Android.
More than year on from Google Assistant's launch, Google has spread Assistant far and wide, not only on Google's own hardware, but through partnerships with other companies. That sees Google Assistant in a wide range of devices, from fridges to headphones, speakers to 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-controlled smart assistant. It's was originally an upgrade or 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 work, and it knew your meeting locations and travel plans, the sports teams you liked, and what interested you so that Now could present you with personal information that mattered. Google has long killed the Google Now brand, but Assistant very much lives in the same space, but fuses these personalised elements with a wide-range of voice control.
The "OK Google" or "Hey, Google" side covers voice commands, voice searching, and voice-activated device control, letting you do things like send messages, check appointments and so on on your Android device, just like Apple's Siri on an iPhone or iPad, but reaching far beyond that, with a bot-centric AI experience, designed to give you conversational interactions.
Because Google Assistant knows you and understands context, it can react in an informed or smart way. That's important as Assistant spreads its wings, because it gives voice control a lot more power and moves it on from only reacting to specific phrases or commands.
And Google Assistant is now in everything and can control everything, with a full list of Google Assistant partners here.
Which devices offer Google Assistant?
Google Assistant launched on the Google Pixel smartphones and Google Home in 2016, before expanding to just about all modern Android devices. It's available on Android Wear devices via Android Wear 2.0, Android TV via Nvidia Shield and others and Android Auto. At launch, Google said Assistant would be exclusive to the Pixel phones, but it was soon available on all Marshmallow and later phones, and even the Apple iPhone.
With Google offering its own range of smart speakers - Google Home - it moved into a new realm, allowing Google Assistant to work with third parties to bring other products under the control of the smart AI. That allowed devices like Philips Hue to be controlled by Google Assistant and not just through Google Home, but wherever you happen to interact with Assistant.
But it isn't a one-way street from Google platforms to other devices, as Google Assistant is also integrated into smart speakers, headphones, appliances, and just about everything else you can think of.
Assistant is truly everywhere at this point, walking a path that's very similar to Amazon's Alexa.
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On older Android smartphones
Google started rolling out an update in February 2017 for Android 7.0 Nougat and 6.0 Marshmallow phones. Since then, pretty much every phone has offered Google Assistant, sometimes alongside other AI offerings.
Android L phones and Android M and N tablets
In December 2017, Google announced it is expanding its Google Assistant service so that it will be available on more mobile devices. It's coming to Android Lollipop phones as well as Android Marshmallow and Nougat tablets. It'll be available on Android Lollipop phones where Google Assistant is already available, like the UK.
With this major expansion, Google said over 50 per cent of Android users across the world will have access to Google Assistant on their devices. Also, now, for the first time, it's coming to Android M and N tablets. With Google Assistant on tablets, you can do all the usual stuff: set reminders, add to your shopping list, and more.
However, it's only rolling out to tablet users with the language set to English in the US. It will be coming to more languages next year, Google said.
Google Home devices
Google Home is the company's direct competitor to the Amazon Echo and launched in the US in November 2016, since then, it's been made more widely available. It launched in the UK in spring 2017, with a British accent. 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 likely to be the first device that people think of. There's an expanding ecosystem however, with three devices currently available from Google themselves.
You can ask it to do anything you'd ask Assistant to do on Android phones, but moving into the home really put that emphasis on other services and functions, like smart home control, compatibility with Chromecast to send movies to your TV and a whole lot more.
Following the launch of the Amazon Echo Dot, Google unveiled the Home Mini in October 2017. The Mini can do everything the regular sized Home can do, but in a much smaller package. It can be connected to other speakers and hi-fi systems to play through them, too.
The Home Max is much larger than the Home and Google's answer to the Apple HomePod. It's designed with music playback in mind and so features two 4.5-inch woofers alongside two 0.7-inch tweeters. Ultimately, it offers all the functionality, but delivers a much bigger sound.
Android Wear, Android TV
Google's Android Wear 2.0 update also delivered Google Assistant, putting the Assistant in wearables running that version of Android, while Android TV also offers Google Assistant on a number of devices.
Sony offers Android TV across its models and Google Assistant started to arrive in November 2017, updating some models in the US before further roll-out. Nvidia Shield TV also supports Google Assistant.
But there's another dimension here: 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.
Headphones and earbuds
Google and its partners announced that support for Google Assistant is coming to many wireless headphones too. Before now, the only stand-out headphones optimised for Google Assistant were the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Google's own Pixel Buds.
Here are all the headphones lined-ed with Assistant:
- JBL Everest 710GA (available from autumn 2018)
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II (now available)
Here are all the earbuds with Assistant:
- JBL Everest 110GA (available from autumn 2018)
- Sony WF-SP700N (available from June 2018)
- Google's own Pixel Buds (now available)
Sony also quietly announced old speakers and headphones will also get support for Google Assistant via a software update. According to Sony, the following models will get Assistant:
- WF-1000X - noise-canceling wireless earbuds (see our review)
- WI-1000X - noise-canceling neckbud earphones (see our review)
- WH-1000XM2 - noise-canceling wireless headphones (see our review)
- WH-CH700N - noise-canceling wireless headphones
- WH-H900N - wireless headphones
For the models that don't offer their own connectivity, you'll need to pair them with a phone to use Google Assistant. Sony hasn't confirmed when, exactly, it'll roll out this firmware, but we'll keep you posted.
The race to be everywhere in your home is on, and as it stands, the competition is between Google and Amazon. In 2017, Amazon launched Echo Show, which was - in essence - an Echo with a display, followed by the Echo Spot, a smaller bedside version. Now, it's 2018, and Google has its own take, and is enlisting the help of third-party manufacturers to get screened versions of Google Home into your life.
These are essentially smart speakers with a high-resolution display built in, bringing a visual element to Google's Home product lineup. At this particular moment in time, there are no devices available to buy, but they are going to be launched at some point in summer 2018. At CES 2018, JBL and Lenovo both showed off their smart displays. The Lenovo Smart Display, when launched, will be 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.
Tech-wise, it has a 5-megapixel front facing camera capable of recording 720p video, as well as a Qualcomm Snapdragon 624 processor, 2GB RAM and 4GB of storage, which is only used to store the files needed for Google Assistant to work. Similar to the smaller Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link View has a pair of 10W speakers and an 8-inch touchscreen. It also has the same resolution 5-megapixel front facing camera with HD video recording.
There are also LG and Sony devices in the works.
- Google Assistant on smart displays: What devices are there?
- Lenovo Smart Display initial review
- Echo Show vs Lenovo Smart Display vs JBL Link View: New year, new smart display devices
Google has confirmed that Google Assistant is also going to be available in some cars. It will be available through Android Auto infotainment systems built directly into cars - such as in Audi and Volvo vehicles - as well as aftermarket head units - as well as working with Android Auto the app.
Smart home devices and appliances
As we've mentioned, a lot of connected devices are now compatible with Google Assistant, from little lightbulbs to massive fridges and everything else between.
There's a full list of Google Assistant partners here, but here's a rundown of some of the important Google Assistant 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 it done, or a washing cycle finished. Some of the listed devices haven't yet enabled Assistant functionality, however, but you can see the types of company that are working with Google.
Google Assistant is also compatible with IFTTT, meaning that custom recipes can also 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 with lots of smart home devices, so it really is a powerful offering.
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. On Marshmallow or Nougat devices that have the update, that long press will launch Assistant, popping up with a page asking how it can help. That's the starting point for Assistant, after which you can type or speak and have Assistant respond.
Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa
This is always the big question - which is better, Google 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 know who you are, what you search for, it knows 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 because it's based into the OS of many smartphones (not those Apple users, you'll have to deal with Siri) so you have Google Assistant with you all the time. Amazon Alexa has the smartphone app, but it's only recently added voice support on Android devices.
This update means Alexa users can talk, but it's limited to some core functions, whereas Google Assistant feels at home on a phone with access to more functions around the phone - like launching apps. Google also has hot word support, while Alexa hot word support on phones is limited to some HTC and Huawei devices.
When it comes to supporting services, Alexa feels like it has more partnerships - and the likes of the Echo Show and Echo Spot puts it a step ahead of Google, who's smart displays aren't available yet - so Alexa can show you connected camera footage and so on, which Google can't yet do. But, Google is smarter in dealing with some 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 specific 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.