The Samsung Galaxy S8 arrived with many new features and upgrades, but perhaps one of the most significant is Bixby, a new voice control interface and assistant. Samsung has high hopes for the successor to the often underwhelming S-Voice, but what does this newcomer bring to the table? We find out whether Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Assistant should be worried. Also see our Galaxy S8 review and Galaxy S8 Plus review
What is Bixby and what does it do?
Bixby is a brand new voice assistant that debuted on the Samsung Galaxy S8. The system has been developed by the Korean tech giant to have deep integration with its phones, essentially offering a replacement for the touch interface in many instances.
Now, of course, that’s exactly what Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, and even the Amazon Echo seem to offer on their respective platforms. So what makes Bixby special?
Wider level of control
In its approach to designing the new assistant, Samsung has taken the line that rather than making a cute, witty companion – which seems to be the flavour offered by Cortana and Siri – that proffers casual information such as the weather or the last five films Bill Murray starred in, it will instead be a replacement for, and compliment to, the touch interface on the device itself. This is achieved by making the software burrow down to deeper levels of functionality within the operating system and apps.
‘When an application becomes Bixby-enabled,’ states Injong Rhee, Samsung’s Head of R&D, Software & Services. ‘Bixby will be able to support almost every task that the application is capable of performing using the conventional interface (ie. touch commands). Most existing agents currently support only a few selected tasks for an application and therefore confuse users about what works or what doesn’t work by voice command.’
Also see: Where to buy Galaxy S8
Paired with this comprehensive control ability comes another important factor, one which Samsung is calling Contextual Awareness. From the information provided so far this seems to suggest that the touch and voice interface will be completely interchangeable. So, for example, if you’re looking at a photograph in your Gallery of a great night out with your partner, you should be able to select the image with a touch then tell Bixby to email it to them. The assistant should be smart enough to realise what you’re looking at and what application to use to complete the task.
Bixby is also built to be flexible with the commands you use, so there would be no definitive ‘do this precise thing’ that you’d need to remember in order to accomplish certain tasks. The system should be able to recognise your intentions from keywords in your commands and get things done without annoying you.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 will have a dedicated Bixby button so you can quickly launch the feature, and the assistant will gradually be added to many other products across its range, including TVs, air-conditioning units, and basically anything that contains a microphone and internet connectivity.
Is Bixby better than Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant?
At launch in the UK we didn't get quite the Bixby we were expecting. Bixby Voice has so far been unavailable in the UK, though it will be rolling out from 22 August.
If Bixby behaves with the intelligence and competence that Samsung suggests then it will be a very impressive addition to the Galaxy S8. The thing is, we’ve seen and heard plenty of claims in the past from companies boasting a revolutionary breakthrough that will change human existence forever. Then when it arrives it’s a bog-standard product with only a new colour scheme to differentiate it from its rivals.
Bixby could be an innovative way to streamline interactions with our devices, but at launch the software will only be available on the Samsung Galaxy S8, and even then only with a handful of ‘Bixby-enabled’ applications. We’re betting that these apps will be the bespoke offerings that usually come preinstalled on Samsung devices, and this causes a big problem.
With Samsung targeting inconsistencies in the way other voice assistants work, as Injong Rhee stated above, the fact that Bixby will only be available on certain apps at launch means that there will be immediate confusion over when and where the assistant will function. This could be solved in time as developers code-in support for Bixby, but so far Samsung has only stated that it hopes to eventually release an SDK (Software Development Kit), meaning Bixby enabled apps are likely to be in the minority for a while yet.
So it's very much a wait an see kind of deal. But we have to say that the idea of Bixby, backed with a determined and focussed Samsung, could be a very interesting product.