What Can You Do With Samsung’s Bixby?

It seems like every technology company under the sun is working on a voice-controlled assistant to go up against the likes of Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri. Samsung’s branded version gets a boost from the company’s massive smartphone market share and a somewhat less-than-graceful inclusion of an extra hardware button on its latest models. But what all can Bixby do, and how is it different from its erstwhile competitors?

It Can Be Started With a Button (or Your Voice)

Like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, Bixby can work with a voice command—in its case, the rather uninspired “Hi Bixby.” Unlike the others, though, the service also gets a dedicated hardware button on Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones, putting its functionality front and center. You can expect the feature to trickle down into Samsung’s less expensive models in the coming months, as well as ancillary gadgets like an Echo-style speaker and compatibility with third-party gadgets.

Bixby Integrates With Phone Apps and Hardware

Samsung’s voice control app is designed primarily to access the functions of the phone without having to touch it. In this area, it’s more or less the same as Assistant and Siri, with a couple of notable differences. Voice commands following “Hi Bixby” can activate Samsung apps and third-party apps, and even some of the functions within those apps. For example, “open clock and set alarm for eight AM” is something fairly basic that it can handle easily.

Samsung claims that Bixby’s Voice can perform 15,000 individual voice commands, and its list is growing all the time. It’s integrated will all of the basic apps on Samsung phones, like the dialer, weather, clock, email, and so on, along with more popular third-party apps like the Facebook Android app, Gmail, Instagram, and Twitter. In addition to baked-in commands like “what’s the weather,” Samsung has built a basic “learning” function into Bixby. This lets users train the service to recognize new and generic phrases, like “open Pandora and play my favorite station,” to activate specific functions tailored to their applications. Bixby has deep integration with Samsung’s own apps, too: for example, one of the actions it can perform out of the box is “open camera and turn on ‘Save RAW and JPEG files’ for the rear camera.” Complex stuff.

At the moment, Bixby Voice’s advantages over its competitors are debatable: it seems to be more tightly-integrated to phone hardware than Siri or Assistant, but its ability to control other apps is limited, as is its applications for more general web searches. To put it simply, Bixby lives on your phone, while Google Assistant and Siri live in the cloud.

Bixby Home Is More Annoying Than Useful

The second pillar of the Bixby interface is Bixby Home, a dedicated page on Samsung’s default launcher program. It’s accessible by swiping all the way to the left on the home screen, more or less exactly like Google’s Now Launcher. It can also be launched from any app with a quick tap of the dedicated Bixby hardware button (which can be disabled if you’re prone to accidental touches).

A left swipe isn’t the only thing Bixby Home has in common with Google’s implementation. The service appears to want to be something of an omnibus for the smartphone experience, bringing together functional apps like weather and alarms, integration with Samsung services, breaking news and sports alerts, and quick links to frequently-used apps and shortcuts.

It seems to want to be something of an ethereal home screen alternative, organically bringing up information and applications that you’ll want based on usage context. But unfortunately, it’s less helpful than it would like to be: I’ve found that simply using my preferred launcher and home screen widgets is much more practical in almost every situation. Bixby Home has something of an identity crisis: while the full-page interface for Google Assistant is all about delivering information and Siri is all about accepting commands, Bixby Home wants to do both of those things and launch apps and recommend new activities, on top of more bizarre additions like Samsung shopping rewards and a gamified “experience” system. It is, frankly, a mess. I’ve disabled the button functionality on my phone.

Bixby Vision Has Real Potential

The third portion of Bixby is the most interesting, and holds the most potential. Bixby Vision is a supplement to the stock camera app, activated by pressing the “Bixby Vision” button while shooting. The program uses AI (or so it claims) to almost instantly identify contextual information in the image, bringing up relevant web results with either a general image search or a specific shopping program. It can also analyze photos in your gallery or in Samsung’s Internet browser.

This tool can be useful if you happen to see something that you can’t immediately identify from context—say, a painting in a gallery with no label or caption, or a car that you happened to spot as you’re passing on the bus for which you can’t quite remember the model name. At the moment it mostly relies on results from Pinterest and Amazon.

This stuff is, to put it bluntly, really cool. The problem is that it’s highly contextual: the times when you’d need it aren’t altogether obvious, and it’s not something that would sell phones all on its own, the way Apple’s highly-marketed Siri does. And it’s not alone, either: Google’s Assistant will soon get extra functionality called “Lens” that does basically the same thing.

No Need to Choose

Bixby is in its infancy as a service: right now it’s only supported on three phone models, with only two languages for voice actions (Korean and English), and its integration with third-party apps and services is far behind the likes of Alexa. But Samsung is a giant in its field—in dozens of fields, in fact—and has the money and the muscle to make Bixby a competitor by sheer force of will. We’ll have to wait and see if the company doubles down on Bixby integration in its flagships for years to come, or if it’s just a novelty left by the wayside of tech history.

Google Assistant runs on Samsung phones just fine.

Fortunately, there’s nothing forcing current users of the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 to choose between Bixby and Google’s more general Assistant. Both of them are built into the Android phones, and though Google is saving some of the juiciest functionality for its Pixel devices, it’s still quite easy to use Assistant’s home button or voice activation functions.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.