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Google Assistant is Google’s long-overdue response to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. It’s available by pushing the home button at the bottom of the new Google Pixel smartphones. It can send emails for you, recite your calendar events, open apps, tell jokes, play games with you, translate words, turn on music, provide information about movies showing nearby, help you tune an instrument, and more.
Generally speaking, after playing with the Assistant on the Pixel for a few days, I’ve found it to be better at understanding what I’m saying than Siri. That’s impressive. And, at its best, it surprises you with Googley things like miniature games that you can’t find anywhere else, quirky responses, and sudden bursts of music.
Unfortunately, it’s not always impressive. Its responses to your commands can sometimes leave you disappointed. Here are 10 qualities I dislike about the Google Assistant as it’s presented in the Pixel and Pixel XL, in random order.
- It may not integrate with all your favorite apps. Like most other smartphone users, I open a bunch of apps each day, but there’s one that I rely on more than most others: the task management app Trello. I add a new card to a board when I need to remember something. But when I asked the Assistant to create a new card in one of my boards, I was simply given a link to a guide on Trello’s website. The Assistant was similarly useless when I asked it to tweet out various things from my account. I ended up getting links to websites and apps in the Play Store. The Assistant couldn’t even start a Google Doc for me, let alone send a Facebook message to a friend or play a specific song on Apple Music. I figure all this will change after Google exposes the Actions on Google functionality in December.
- It doesn’t always know the answers to basic questions. I’m not sure why, but sometimes the Assistant is not capable of doing what you would consider basic calculations or inferences. For example, my colleague Emil Protalinski discovered that the Assistant couldn’t quickly figure out how many days there were until the U.S. presidential election. Even when Emil rephrased his query to remove the dependency on a previous query, the Assistant still fell back on a web result.
- It won’t answer questions about the phone itself. One nice feature of Siri on the Mac is its ability to tell you about the underlying hardware. There’s nothing like that here, even though Google presumably knows more about these phones than any about other Android devices because it was so deeply involved in their development. Even questions about battery life do not result in meaningful answers. If you ask it to close an app, it will reply by saying that it can’t do that. If you tell it that you want to change the wallpaper on the phone, it will give you a web result rather than bring up the right section in Settings.
- It only speaks English. If you ask the Assistant whether it speaks any other language, like Russian, it will tell you without embellishment that it does not. For the sake of comparison, at launch in 2011, Siri spoke French and German, in addition to English localized to the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Today, Siri is available in 36 countries. So Google, whose Translate service supports more than 100 languages, has a long way to go.
- It won’t support more than one Google account. Have more than one Google account, as I do? Sorry, but you’ll only be able to get information tied to the Google account with which you’re logged into the Google Assistant. You can switch accounts if you must, but you can’t get results by saying something like “Show me new emails in my work Gmail account” while you’re using a personal Google account.
- You can’t see the Assistant’s answers to your questions on a non-Pixel device. Sometimes it’s nice to remember how a chatbot responded to whatever you said. While you can look up your previous Assistant queries through Google’s recently launched My Activity site, you can’t see what the Assistant came back with. All you get is a link to a Google search result containing your query. But that search string won’t always give you what you got in the Assistant. This is one area where Google had a chance to leapfrog Siri — whose interactions are limited to the device where they occur — but apparently chose not to.
- You can’t type words into it. Sometimes talking to your phone isn’t practical. But right now, that’s the only way you can interact with the Assistant in its top position on the Pixels. Yes, you can open Allo and type something to it there, but that’s an extra step that you arguably shouldn’t have to take. I imagine that this implementation detail will be particularly frustrating to people whose voices Google tends to have trouble understanding.
- It does a poor job of providing you with certain kinds of news. Even though Google operates Google News and gets bombarded with new information all day, every day, the Google Assistant doesn’t always give you news about specific topics. Even if you specifically ask for news, the Assistant might merely turn up a web result that it considers relevant. In one case, I asked for news about the Google Home but the Assistant instead started playing pre-recorded news that Google has handy, even though it didn’t have anything to do with Google Home. If you wanted news from a specific source — for instance, if you would like Google to read you the latest VentureBeat article aloud — well, it’s lacking there, too.
- You can’t tap on a previous command to repeat it. I’m not sure why. This can be helpful in cases when Google offers you multiple suggestions but you choose one and the others disappear.
- The display turns off sometimes in the midst of conversation. For example, both times when I’ve tried the included Mad Labs game, the screen suddenly turned black, and after the Assistant finished speaking, I wasn’t sure if I had to press the microphone button to respond or if I could just speak. This isn’t the end of the world, but when you have a screen — unlike the Amazon Alexa or the upcoming Google Home — you probably want to take full advantage of it. I tend to understand and remember things best when I see them, and so for me this is irritating.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Google Assistant — I just want it to be better, and I know Google has enough artificial intelligence talent and technology to solve a lot of these problems. What I don’t know is how long that will take.
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