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.

Three 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?

Assistant is Google's voice assistant. At launch, it 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 personal information that mattered.

Google has long killed Google Now, 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
  • 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 - something that other systems are also beginning to offer.

You can also ask for multiple things at the same time. This, Google said, 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. It's designed to be more than just reactive.

Other cool features include the ability to check in to your flight (starting first with domestic flights with United Airlines), as well as the ability to book a room with partners like Choice Hotels, AccorHotels, InterContinental Hotels Group, Priceline, Expedia, Mirai, and Travelclick. Google is also adding adding support for Google Keep, Any.do, Bring!, and Todoist, so you can check your notes and lists with Google Assistant.

We especially like the new Interpreter Mode, which began rolling out in early 2019 to Google Home devices and Smart Displays. 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.

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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.

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Google Assistant on phones

Google expanding 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.

One cool new feature is the ability to - after opting-in through your settings - have Assistant respond to you even when your Android phone is locked. You can also opt in to see answers to personal queries. This is feature is coming to all Android devices in early 2019.

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

Assistant can now help you navigate in Google Maps for Android and iOS. With just your voice, Google said 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. Your Assistant can 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. And when you’re driving, Assistant auto-calculates your ETA from Google Maps and can send to friends (Android only).

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 likely to be the first device that people think of. There's an expanding ecosystem, however, with three other devices currently available, including a new Google Home Hub 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

Google's Android Wear 2.0 update delivered Google Assistant, putting Assistant into wearables running that version of Android.

Android TV

Meanwhile, Android TV also offers Google Assistant on a number of devices. Sony offers Android TV across its models, and Google Assistant started to arrive for them in November 2017. 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.

Set-top boxes like Nvidia Shield TV also support Google Assistant.

And later this year, Assistant will be able to work with even more popular media and entertainment devices, including TVs from Samsung. So, you’ll be able to use your voice to turn on the TV, change volume and channels, and switch between inputs. DISH’s Hopper family of receivers will also now have the Google Assistant built in. At CES 2019, new partners launching Android TV devices with the Google Assistant include Sony, Hisense, Philips, TCL, Skyworth, Xiaomi, Haier, Changhong, JVC and Toshiba.

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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.

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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.

There's also the JBL Link View, which 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, too. It launched at Google's October 2018 hardware event.

Cars

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.

Google is also working with Anker and JBL to build Google Assistant into car accessories. The new 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.

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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. Assistant works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. And, at CES 2019, Google announced new smart home device would arrive from Whirlpool connected appliances, GE’s smart microwave, and August security products.

There's a full list of Google Assistant partners here, but here's a rundown of some of the important compatible devices:

  • Canary
  • Hive
  • Honeywell
  • iRobot
  • LG appliances
  • Logitech
  • Nest
  • Netatmo
  • Osram
  • Philips Hue
  • Ring
  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Tado
  • TP-Link
  • WeMo
  • Whirlpool

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. It really is powerful.

What is Google Assistant Connect?

Google recently launched a preview of Google Assistant Connect.

This 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.

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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.