Bixby, the personal assistant on the Samsung Galaxy S8, is helpful, futuristic and lacking at the same time

I have been spending some quality time with Samsung’s 2017 flagship smartphone (yes, you are allowed to be jealous). It’s feature packed, exciting and, put simply, the best smartphone I have ever used.

Of all the many features crammed into the Samsung Galaxy S8, however, none is as new as Bixby, the personal assistant that Samsung debuted back in March. That Infinity Display that I really like? Well, while it’s great and all, we’ve at least seen it in its previous life as the Edge display in Samsung’s last few premium devices before it matured into the wonder that it is right now: the best display on any phone in the market. Bixby is, well, Bixby. Like Game of Thrones fans will say, the first of its name. There may be echoes of caution among the Samsung faithful bearing in mind that a past attempt at an assistant by Samsung, S Voice, ended in a disaster.

Bixby is fresh, good-looking and helpful, at times.

It wasn’t until recently that one could type into Assistant, the personal assistant from Google. Cortana and Hound, the very able competitors to Assistant from Microsoft and SoundHound, have had this ability since day 1. Bixby, just like Assistant when it launched, doesn’t have it. And that’s not all. It gets bizarre.

Bixby won’t listen to you, yet.

If you fancy asking things like, “When is Manchester United’s preseason tour starting?” or, “Where can I find the best burgers in Nairobi?” or, “What’s the weather like today?”, you’ll have to turn to Assistant or Cortana. At least for now.

Or use Bixby cards (more on those in a moment).

Samsung plans to activate the feature (Bixby Voice) at a later date but it’s quite confounding that they’d have a personal assistant that won’t do this right off the bat.

Since Bixby is an AI-based personal assistant, I can’t wait to see it mature and offer witty yet meaningful responses to queries made. And from all indicators, it is going to be exactly that. Just a month after it (Bixby) was launched, Samsung unveiled the second generation of its Family Hub refrigerators packing, you guessed it right, Bixby! Yup, imagine being able to get recipes from your fridge based on the food items you’ve been placing in there (after all, Bixby, is continually learning, thanks to AI). That will be happening soon, according to Samsung.

Bixby everywhere

Bixby, like any personal assistant worth its salt, is omnipresent. Not the religious type but you get the drift. It’s modelled in such a way that it is everywhere that it can be.

It’s there on the home screen, it’s there in the camera app, it’s there in the image gallery and it’s constantly listening in to your app’s notifications so that it can tailor that information and present it in a meaningful manner. While one can let Bixby listen in to all apps from its settings menu, not all apps are supported as of this moment. Just Samsung’s own apps and a few outliers like the Uber app, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and a few others.

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There are a lot of other limitations to this at this point in time, though, as you will see below.

Bixby Vision

This is where the magic happens.

At Google I/O this year, the Android custodian, Google, unveiled Google Lens. While Lens is still months away, one can get something close if not similar, on Samsung’s best phone ever. It’s called Bixby Vision and it’s freaking awesome.

Just open the camera app, click the Bixby Vision icon, take a photo, magic…

Bixby looks at the captured image, references it against a library of images online sourced from popular interest-based site Pinterest using Artificial Intelligence and provides matches to the user. Augmented Reality.

Samsung Bixby Vision

Brilliant as it may be, Bixby’s matches are not as accurate as one would want, some of the time.

For instance, my cheap plastic Cliptec mouse routinely gets confused for anything from a Thermos flask to a miro case to a hair clipper to a lady’s handbag to an Apple Watch, of all things!. All in a day’s work for Samsung’s Bixby.

While it may be working in other regions around the world, in Kenya, at the moment, Bixby Vision is pretty much limited to the stock camera app. On the gallery app, where it is supposed to work as well, it is non-existent. Bummer.

When it does work, though, most of the time, it’s mind-blowing. Like on the Samsung web browser where most images that appear after a search is made on Google can be looked up, spelt or even translated.

It (Bixby Vision) will offer you options to purchase the watch you just looked up, the shoes you can’t afford, it will translate Cantonese to English and it will correctly read QR codes and so much more. With time, if it is indeed living true to its AI roots, there’s nothing that Bixby can’t grow to be. I really hope that’s the case because, with Bixby Vision, Samsung is sitting on gold. Pure gold.

Bixby Home and Bixby Reminders

Bixby Home is the social stream that provides context-appropriate information and gathers social media updates. It does so by using cards, just like Google Now.

These (cards) are what many an ordinary user will get to interact with daily if they choose to. They reside on the left side of the screen, where, traditionally, Google Now cards would be and, in the case of Samsung devices before the S8 and the new software that Samsung is rolling out, where its annoying Flipboard-powered Briefing news widget would reside.

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With Bixby, Briefing lives on but inside it. As a card one can swipe away or dismiss.

A simple swipe to the left from the Samsung launcher home screen or a click on the Bixby button located on the left of the device just below the volume rocker, lands one on Bixby cards, by default. Of course, there was a way to bypass the latter method and have it resort to launching Google Assistant instead but Samsung issued an emergency update “fixing” that even before the device could go on sale.

The one thing that Bixby excels in, even better than Google Now, the precursor to Assistant, ever did, is these cards, the small snippets of information that it presents the user. They’re great and come in handy when you’re 5 minutes from a scheduled Skype call and had been swarmed in a lengthy Excel spreadsheet with no sense of time. Like the assistant that it is, a small notification alert from the integrated reminder function will nudge you to action just in time. Like Google Calendar does, Bixby Reminders springs into action when you hang up or miss a call and reminds you to call the person back. In fact, as I later found out, Bixby Reminders sync with Google Calendar automatically. Sweet!

Samsung Bixby Reminders

One would wish it could just text the contact telling them that you are held up in an afternoon-long meeting since Bixby has access to the calendar. With AI, this should be possible and I hope it’s a feature that’s coming sooner rather than later.

Bixby’s cards provide at-a-glance information from all apps installed on the device or some select apps if the user chooses so. It will show you top videos from your YouTube subscriptions or those that are trending in your locality. It will display the latest hashtag that the ever angry fight-picking Kenyans on Twitter are using to bash African country X and the one that a politician eyeing a certain seat in the upcoming general elections has paid a bunch of college-going early 20-somethings to trend.

Since Bixby, like Google Now (and Now on Tap), knows quite a bit about you and your habits, it will suggest apps, hailing an Uber cab, your latest fitness data from Samsung’s Health app, the weather, any set alarms among a host of other things.

Still, that doesn’t compensate for the fact that, at the moment, you can only stare at Bixby’s cards, at best, instead of being able to properly interact with the assistant like you can on other digital assistants. That, right there, is Bixby’s Achilles Heel and until it’s fixed, Bixby runs the risk of being just another personal assistant on the Galaxy S8 and any other device where it will be made available on.

Emmanuel Chenze

Let's just say I know my stuff. I have 7 years experience handling, tinkering with and then writing extensively about Android stuff. Sometimes it is exciting, sometimes it is not; things can get stale with nothing new to show but I live for each one of those moments. Have something Android-related that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze@androidkenya.com