google assistant hero

In a world filled with virtual assistants, Google Assistant is one name you probably recognize. The market is full of Google Assistant-enabled devices, but what exactly is it, what does it do, and should you use it?

A Brief History

Google Assistant had very humble beginnings. It debuted in May 2016 as part of Google’s new messaging app, Allo, and the original Google Home speaker. The speaker is where the Assistant’s abilities first really shined. People could simply use their voice to access Google’s vast knowledge base.

Google Assistant in Allo.

Shortly after its initial release, Google Assistant launched as a built-in feature on the original Google Pixel smartphones. A few months later, it started to arrive on other Android smartphones and Wear OS smartwatches. By 2017, Google Assistant had launched as an app for the iPhone and iPad.

Google Assistant is now the successor of the company’s previous virtual assistant, Google Now. While Google Now focused primarily on surfacing information without your input, the Assistant added the important capability of having two-way conversations.

google home hub
Google Nest Hub Josh Hendrickson / How-To Geek

The virtual assistant was mainly only available on smartphones and smart speakers for the first few years. But in 2018, Google Assistant branched out to devices with displays. Google Assistant can now be found in phones, speakers, cars, smart displays, watches, and home devices, and more.

What Can Google Assistant Do?

Google Assistant has a long list of features and abilities. At its most basic level, it answers questions. You can ask simple things, like, “What’s the capital of Michigan?” or “How old is Michael Jordan?” When you perform a Google search on your computer or phone, you’ll often see a box at the top of the results—this is where Google Assistant gets its answers.

google knowledge graph

Google Assistant is even more useful when it comes to personal results. If you allow it to access your Google account and other services, it can provide more than just general information. For example, you can ask if you have any events on your calendar, get the local weather forecast, send text messages, and more.

Google Assistant is also incredibly useful with smart-home devices. It can communicate with a number of popular smart home brands, including Philips Hue, SmartThings, Nest, Ring, WeMo, and many more. Just look for the “Works with Hey Google” or “Works with Google Assistant” logo.

Of course, it also connects with other Google products, like the Chromecast.

works with google

After you connect any of these devices, you can then control them via Google Assistant. That means you can say “Hey Google, turn off the lights,” or, “Hey Google, watch ESPN on living room TV.”

Another thing that comes with smart-home integration is the Google Home app (Android/iPhone/iPad), which becomes your central hub for all the devices.

Physical devices are only one part of Google Assistant’s vast library of skills. It can also connect with apps and web services. You can use it to make a grocery list, read recipes aloud, listen to radio stations or news headlines, and so much more.

Google Assistant can also do all of these things on smartphones and tablets. Additionally, it can open apps on your device, read notifications aloud, make calls, send texts, and more. Even without all the fancy smart speakers and home devices, Google Assistant is a handy tool.

Google Assistant can do … a lot.

A complete list of Google Assistant’s capabilities is far too long to cover here. Most people won’t ever use even half of the things it can do. The great thing about that, though, is it can likely do something useful for anyone.

Is Google Assistant Always Listening?

One of the biggest concerns about Google Assistant is how much it “listens” to you. When you think about how it works, it makes sense that it’s “always listening.” After all, if it wasn’t, how would it hear your voice commands?

The good thing is you don’t have to use the “OK Google” command to launch Google Assistant. Devices that rely on voice input (like smart speakers) do require this, but many other devices do not.

For example, if you use Assistant on your phone, you can turn off the “OK Google” detection setting and only launch it manually. Some devices also include physical mute switches, so you can turn off their listening capability.

google nest mini

However, if you do use voice commands to wake Google Assistant, it is always listening. The important thing, though, is it isn’t always recording. Google Assistant only records when it hears the “OK Google” or “Hey Google” commands.

It’s similar to how dogs understand language. They can be trained to recognize their name and other commands. They also have ears, though, so while they hear everything you say, they only actually understand a few words.

Google Assistant is always listening, but unless you use the magic words, it won’t record or understand anything you say.

RELATED: How (and Why) to Opt-In to Google Recording Storage

Google Assistant Privacy Controls

Even when you know Google Assistant doesn’t record everything, you might still be uncomfortable with what it does record.

The good news is Google has several tools to help you control what Google Assistant saves about you. You can even use Google Assistant to delete your activity. Below are a few examples of commands you can use to do this:

  • “Hey Google, delete my last conversation.”
  • “Hey Google, delete today’s activity.”
  • “Hey Google, delete this week’s activity.”

To dive even deeper, visit the Assistant activity page in your Google account. There are options to delete your activity automatically after 3, 18, or 36 months.

turn on auto delete

If you’re concerned about privacy, utilizing these tools can allow you to take advantage of Google Assistant’s features, while still maintaining some control over what it records.

Google Assistant is an extremely powerful and complex product, which makes it both incredibly useful and slightly disconcerting. It can definitely make your life easier, but you’ll have to make some privacy concessions. It’s up to you whether that trade-off is worth it.

RELATED: How to Stop Your Google Home From Recording All Your Conversations

Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as Managing Editor at XDA-Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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