Google Pixel phone packs a powerful voice assistant, but it’s no Alexa

The Google Pixel phone is powerful, but the voice assistant is pretty basic.

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I just finished “reading” the first chapter of the latest Nathaniel Philbrick book. I asked the Amazon Echo speaker a simple question: Can you read the latest book in my Audible library? Alexa obliged without any fanfare, the steady tone of a narrator taking over.

In case you were wondering, this is not possible with the latest, greatest Google device, what is possibly the best Android phone ever. The Google Pixel XL I’m testing has a voice assistant, which you can access by saying “OK, Google” or by long-pressing on the home button. It’s called, in what is either the most generic name for an A.I. ever invented or the clearest sign of the coming robopocalypse, the Assistant.

I’m impressed with how Google understands what I’m saying. I can send a text message easily. I said: “I just want to test this to see if everything works and if everything I’m saying is transcribed correctly even though I’m talking really fast” and it worked perfectly. I didn’t like how the Assistant kept bugging me to send the text, but that’s not a big issue.

In a majority of cases, the Assistant shows web search results. Hey, this is Google, after all. What did we expect? The term “Google” itself is changing to become the answers an A.I. provides after a query, not a search. We’re on a clear path to making this all work smoothly in the car, at home, and at work, but for now the Assistant is not exactly on par with Alexa and about the same as Apple Siri on the iPhone 7.

All three assistants can help with basic requests. I can set reminders, ask about store hours, and even ask for a daily briefing and to read some news clips. Things started breaking down quickly with the Assistant, though. I wasn’t able to control any smarthome devices (that’s coming with the Google Home speaker) or even order an Uber. The Assistant didn’t know anything about the Chromecast plugged into my desktop monitor (on the same Wi-Fi network -- which is powered by Google OnHub router). When I asked about reading a book, the Assistant showed me an app listing.

How about ordering a pizza? Nope. On the Pixel, you can barely look up pizza places. In my test, it showed Domino's with a rating. Siri provides more details like the full address and a map. She responds by telling me the store hours, not just when the store closes. I can shop for Amazon products quickly and easily, but the Assistant on the Pixel phone does not have any shopping features unless you count search results. You can play trivia with the Google bot, but not any interactive games like you can with Alexa.

Search results used to be the one desired outcome. For decades, we've been impressed when we talk to Google and see a list of pizza places or a Wikipedia entry. That’s not true anymore. We have cut out the middleware of search. (I’m using that term loosely.) Instead of a list of pizza places with some phone numbers, we want to order a pizza from the best place in town. In fact, we want the bot to let us know the place closes at 6PM and will try to sneak in an order. We want A.I. power and assistance. We want smart bots.

The Assistant does beat Alexa and Siri at a few things, though. One has to do with the contextualization of the conversation. If I ask about when the Minnesota Vikings play, then say “Which channel is that on?” the bot will give me the full details about all of the radio and TV broadcasts. The bot can continue carrying on a conversation, although that sometimes goes way south. When I asked about the “stars” involved the bot showed me the cast of the show Vikings, not the names of the football players. That’s a bit troubling because it segued far from my topic of conversation.

There’s hope, though. Google does a great job with my calendar so far. It can tell me each morning that I have a meeting -- the daily rundown of my day is helpful. And, this is the debut of the bot. Alexa wasn’t quite so powerful on launch day, either.

Virtual fingers crossed.

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