Google is taking on Alexa, Siri and Cortana with its own voice assistant: Google Assistant. It has made incredible progress since its 2016 launch and is probably the most advanced and dynamic of the assistants out there.
Two years 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 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, and it knew your meeting locations and travel plans, the sports teams you liked, and what interested you so that it 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, fusing these personalised elements with a wide-range of voice control. Google Assistant supports both text or voice entry and is happy to follow the conversation whichever entry method you're using.
What can Google Assistant do?
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.
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
Continued Conversation that 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 know who is talking to it and can tailor the responses accordingly - something that other systems don't yet offer.
You can also ask for multiple things at the same time. This, says Google, is rather difficult - in linguistics it is called coordination reduction. Mastering requests like this is probably what will power Google Assistant ahead of rivals.
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. In the future, Google even says that Assistant will be able to call and book appointments for you, designed to be more than just reactive.
Google Assistant in Google Home devices forms the foundation of smart home control, compatible with a wide range of devices so you can control heating, lights and lots more with your voice.
Which devices offer Google Assistant?
Google Assistant launched on the Google Pixel smartphones and Google Home, before expanding to just about all modern Android devices. It's available on Wear OS devices, Android TV and Nvidia Shield plus Android Auto.
Google Assistant is native to Google Home smart speakers, but it's also widely available on other smart speakers from third-party manufacturers; devices like Philips Hue 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
In December 2017, Google announced it was expanding its Google Assistant service 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, meaning the potential user base for Google Assistant is huge.
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 can enjoy.
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 likely to be the first device that people think of. There's an expanding ecosystem however, with three devices currently available from Google itself, with a new Google Home Hub offering Google Assistant with a display.
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. Google Home is a growing ecosystem of devices.
Android Wear, Android TV
Google's Android Wear 2.0 update 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. 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
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, it's now in 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. The initial launch of smart displays offering Google Assistant saw 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 has a pair of 10W speakers and an 8-inch touchscreen.
Google has its own take on the Smart Display, called the Google Home Hub, expected to be launched at the 9 October hardware event.
Google has confirmed that Google Assistant is also going to be available in some cars. It is 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. 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. 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 device, you'll be prompted to configure Google Assistant.
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 not as integrated and doesn't offer device control outside of Amazon Music.
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, while Alexa hotword support on phones is limited to some HTC and Huawei devices - and Amazon's own Fire tablets.
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 - 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 - and talking to Alexa feels nicer than talking to Google, it's a more comfortable expression.