Samsung’s Galaxy S9 deserves better than Bixby

Bixby is, by far, the most frustrating part of the S9. It’s true, of course, that no voice assistant is perfect, but a full year after Samsung’s smart assistant debuted on the Galaxy S8, it still feels unfinished.

Of course, the company’s made some significant progress, and a slew of artificial intelligence startup acquisitions point to an offering that’s going to continue to get better. It was inevitable that Samsung was going to be playing catch up for a while, given the multi-year head start of Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and even Cortana.

It didn’t help, either, that the assistant stumbled out of the gate. The S8 launched with a devoted Bixby button, a show of commitment to the service, moving forward — but it was lacking far more basic functionality.

Here in the States, Bixby didn’t have voice control, relegating interaction to what essentially amounted to a trumped up content hub located a swipe away from the desktop. That functionality, thankfully, came a few months after launch.

It’s as if Samsung decided the best way to take on the competition was to try to do everything all at one: translation, product search, those weird makeup effects. But Bixby’s attempt to be everything to everyone has left in lacking in some fundamental areas, a year after launch. As a voice assistant, Bixby is still lacking.

Much to the chagrin of the rest of the TechCrunch team at Mobile World Congress, I attempted to use Bixby every opportunity possible during our week in Barcelona. The “Hi Bixby” wake phrase is pretty hit or miss. The phone warns that setting it to maximum sensitivity will potentially result in false positives, but honestly, that’s the one way to make sure the assistant hears you.

Bixby also had quite a bit more trouble understanding standing me than Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana. And the results weren’t nearly as consistent as the others. In most cases, it was a lot easier to just type something into Google, defeating the whole purpose of using a voice assistant. And, if I’m being nitpicky, Bixby’s voice itself leaves something to be desired.

Of course, Bixby is bigger than just voice. The S9 brings a number of additional Google Lens-like updates, including the ability to live translate text, identify food “Not Hotdog”-style and even try on different shades of makeup through the magic of augmented reality.

The actual usefulness varies wildly from offering to offering. Text translate, for one, is potentially extremely helpful, but the results are pretty hit or miss.  At this point, it seems that Bixby is more a broad umbrella than a cohesive assistant, where Samsung is putting every interesting new software addition.

It’s telling that Samsung Mobile chief Dj Koh was eager to talk about Bixby 2.0 as the S9 was launching — it was his way of saying not to worry, the assistant is going to better. And that is almost certainly the case, given the rapid clip with which it’s snatching up AI companies. Meantime, however, it feels one of the places key places in which one of consumer electronics’ key innovators is playing catch up, big time.