Google is expanding its Assistant in a big way.
Previously only available on Pixel phones and within the messaging app Allo, Google released a standalone iPhone app for its digital helper during its I/O developer conference Wednesday. The app, Google said, will help users be more productive.
But, as it stands now, the iOS version of Assistant doesn’t live up to that promise. In fact, rather than a new “conversational” interface, it feels more like a clunkier, buggier version of Google’s existing (and generally underrated) search app.
For starters, Assistant’s iOS app is a confusing, disjointed, mess. You’d think the Assistant would be able to easily link up with all your other Google services, but that wasn’t the case in my initial testing.
Want to ask about your next meeting? Well, if you use anything other than Apple’s stock calendar app, you can’t. Even though I have the Google Calendar app on my phone, Assistant couldn’t tell me about anything on it.
Now, maybe that’s not entirely Google’s fault. iOS can, frustratingly, make it difficult for services to play nice with apps that aren’t Apple’s default offerings. But Assistant also failed at some basic tasks any other app could easily handle.
For some inexplicable reason, the Assistant app wasn’t able to accurately detect my current location. When I asked about the weather, it told me about conditions in San Francisco, where I live and work, not Mountain View (where I actually was). After some digging around in the app’s confusing settings menu, I think I discovered the source of the issue: location history is turned off in my Google account.
But even this explanation makes no sense. The app should be able to pull my current location from my device, not link it to an obscure setting buried in my Google account settings. Again, this is something the Google app and Assistant in Allo handle easily.
Other features, like asking Assistant to set a reminder, make a phone call, or play music, weren’t so much a total bust as they were clunky and inefficient. Once again, Google isn’t entirely to blame here, but it’s hard to get around the fact that asking Assistant to do these tasks is a significantly worse experience than just asking Siri in the first place (and I’m no Siri fan).
Assistant also has the same “personality” as it does in Allo and Pixel devices. So you can ask the more “fun” questions like “where did you come from,” and get an appropriately “Googley” response. You can also ask it to flip a coin, look into a crystal ball, or play a handful of other conversational games.
But none of this is really useful. The novelty of Google’s “personality” wears off pretty quickly and, again, many of the “fun” tasks, like coin flipping, are available via a standard Google search.
One feature that is unique to the Assistant app is the way it’s integrated with third-party services, which are essentially a chatbot layer on top of the Assistant interface. These bots can tell you about the news, nearby restaurants and other services that are integrated with Assistant.
While much more polished than the first bots we saw from Facebook last year, they’re mostly unremarkable. The bots work well enough if you want to check headlines or complete some other basic actions, but it still doesn’t feel like the most natural way to interact with these services.
One notable exception is the Google Flights integration, which is (unsurprisingly) well done. In fact, this was one of the few features I could see myself actually using since Google Flights still doesn’t have its own dedicated mobile app.
But for the most part, I found Google’s Assistant app disappointing. Too much of the app felt clunky and unnatural.
Lens could be a game changer
Of course, there are some caveats to all this. The app was only just released so early bugs like the location issue will no doubt be ironed out. It’s also possible the app could be more useful when paired with a Google Home, though I haven’t tried the two together yet.
It will also be some time before we’re able to test out the most exciting feature coming to Assistant: Google Lens. The feature, which will allow you to use your phone’s camera to analyze your surroundings, won’t roll out for awhile but Lens could easily be a game-changer for Assistant.
So while there’s a lot not to like about the Assistant app right now, there are signs of promise. Just be prepared to wait.