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Bixby feels more like a return of the old Samsung than a path to the future

Bixby feels more like a return of the old Samsung than a path to the future


Goodbye, Bixby

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Samsung Galaxy S8

After months of delays, Bixby, Samsung’s new voice-powered assistant, is finally rolling out to the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus in the US. Billed as one of the highlight features of the S8, Samsung sees Bixby as the being in the center of future device interactions, whether that device is your phone, TV, washing machine, or something else entirely.

I, along with thousands of others, have been testing Bixby for weeks as part of Samsung’s public preview program, and I have a very different view from Samsung. Instead of seeing Bixby as the future of how I interact with my phone, it feels more like a return of Samsung’s old ways.

Samsung’s mobile strategies have changed dramatically over the years. When the Galaxy S line first launched, Samsung tried to force its customers to use its own apps and services instead of the ones that Google provided with Android. This resulted in devices that had many duplicate apps — multiple browsers, email apps, music players, messaging apps, and so on — that users couldn’t remove. In addition, Samsung loaded its phones with gimmicky features, such as weird ways to share images with other Samsung owners, that rarely got used or didn’t work as well as they were advertised to.

This practice reached its peak (or nadir, depending on your perspective) with 2014’s Galaxy S5, which many would point to as Samsung’s worst Galaxy S device. 2015’s Galaxy S6 brought a new design and new approach: Samsung actually started removing features from its phones, simplifying its interface design, and letting Google’s apps do much of the heavy lifting. Subsequent devices continued this trend, and though there are still a few duplicate apps on the S8, there are far fewer than what came loaded on Samsung phones just a few years ago.

But now, the one app you can’t escape on the S8 is Bixby. Sure, you can choose to not use it, but the S8 has a dedicated button on the side that can only be used to open Bixby. At some point, whether intentionally or by accident, you will open Bixby on the Galaxy S8. In a stroke of infinite genius, Samsung has actually turned its software bloat into physical hardware bloat.

Samsung managed to turn software bloat into physical hardware bloat

This wouldn’t be a problem if Bixby was actually good, useful, or at least different from what Google already provides with Android. The Bixby Home screen, which appears when you press the button, is yet another riff on the Google Now concept that we’ve seen manufacturers try for years. I’ve found Bixby’s reminders to be no more useful than Google Assistant’s, and in some cases, like when I asked Bixby to remind me about something when I arrived at a specific location, it just didn’t work.

Bixby Vision, which is integrated into the camera app, is basically another take on Google Goggles, which Google itself will be integrating into the Google Assistant at some point. It, too, has had limited utility in my experience. There just aren’t that many times when I need to take an image of something to search for it. (I attempted to use it to identify a specific light bulb the other day, and it failed miserably, without even recognizing that I was holding a light bulb.)

And then there’s Bixby Voice, which is the heart of the Bixby experience. Samsung touts Bixby Voice as a way to interact with your phone more than a virtual assistant, but in reality, the line between the two is far blurrier than the company describes. You can ask Bixby Voice for weather information, facts, upcoming appointments, and so on. You know, all of the stuff that you can also ask the Google Assistant to do.

Bixby’s big difference, as Samsung would like you to believe, is that you can also ask Bixby to open apps and perform actions on your device. You can ask Bixby to open the settings app and turn up your screen’s brightness, or ask it to send the picture you’re looking at in the gallery app to your significant other through a text message. Ideally, it will do these things automatically, without requiring you to manually switch apps or type in a contact’s info.

Using Bixby Voice is not any faster or easier than doing things the traditional way

But in practice, using Bixby Voice to do things on your phone is not any faster or easier than just tapping the touchscreen the old-fashioned way. It takes so long for Bixby Voice to launch (whether I press and hold the Bixby button to activate listening mode or use the “Hi Bixby” wake command) and hear what I’m saying that I could have performed the task three times by the time it has processed what I said and performed my action.

Further, there are many times when I ask Bixby to do something and it either doesn’t understand me or just doesn’t do what I expect it to. Just this morning I asked Bixby to “take a screenshot and share it to Twitter.” It got the screenshot part right, but then it attempted to share the image in a private DM conversation instead of a public tweet. I had to start the process all over again in order to do what I could have done manually the first time.

Basically, after weeks of using Bixby Voice, I still can’t trust that it will do what I want it to. That means that I won’t use it and will continue to use my phone the same way I always have. Trust will be even more important when Samsung brings Bixby to other appliances. The last thing I need is to ask my washing machine to wash delicates and have it instead set itself to high spin and hot water modes.

It’s disappointing to see Samsung revert to old habits, especially when there are so many other things to like about the S8. The company could make this easier on its customers by allowing them to uninstall Bixby or reprogram the button to do other functions (like, say, launch the far faster and more capable Google Assistant). But it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anytime soon. Samsung actually actively blocks workarounds that are developed to make the Bixby button do something else.

I can’t help but feel like Bixby is just another riff on S Voice, Samsung’s first voice-controlled digital assistant. It may have a few more tricks up its sleeve, but it’s just as slow, buggy, and useless as S Voice, which means it will be used just as infrequently. If Samsung is as committed to Bixby as it claims, it will continue to improve it and make it better, but even if it does, that will probably be too late, as studies have shown that people tend to stop using voice assistants when they don’t do what they want.

In the case of Bixby, it appears that some things are better never than late.