What is the Google Assistant?

Google Assistant is the search giant’s voice-activated virtual assistant that features in the Google Home and many Android phones alike. Designed to answer questions, manage and plan your day, control your smart home, plus plenty more, this is one of the most prominent personal assistants in the world.

Like its competition – Amazon Alexa, for example – Google Assistant runs entirely in the cloud. That means that any device with which it integrates will have pretty much the same functionality. For that reason, this guide contains all of the latest Google Assistant features and updates. Hardware is reviewed separately.

Related: Google Home vs Amazon Echo

Google Assistant – Which devices use the smart assistant?

Google is expanding its range of products that have Google Assistant built in. Now, the personal assistant is available on Google’s own smart speakers, plus third-party speakers from the likes of Panasonic, Android smartphones and tablets, and even smart cameras.

Smart speakers:

  • Google Home
  • Google Home Mini
  • Google Home Max
  • Sony LF-S50G Smart Speaker
  • JBL Link 20
  • Panasonic SC-GA10

Android devices:

  • Running Android 5.0 or higher. See our latest smartphone reviews for more information.

Other devices:

  • Nest Cam IQ

Google Assistant – Personal assistant capabilities

If the Google Assistant has one advantage, it’s that it’s powered by Google’s services, from search to maps and beyond. Out of the box, then, it’s fair to say that Google Assistant is that bit smarter than its rivals.

Ask for the nearest pizza restaurant, for example, and you’ll get an up-to-date list. Ask for driving directions to Heathrow Airport, and you’ll get the latest driving instructions from your home location (unless you ask otherwise), complete with an estimated time of arrival. Google can send the directions to your phone, too, provided both devices are signed in with the same Google Account.

Google Assistant Guide - Features, entertainment, smart home and more

To do this, you need to set up Voice Match via the Google Home app. Select Devices and you should see a blue banner that says ‘Link your account with Voice Match’. Then, provided your phone and Google Home device are linked, you can say something like, “OK Google, directions to Heathrow”, followed by, “Send to my phone”.

You’ll then receive a pop-up notification on your handset. Multiple users can configure Voice Match, returning personalised information such as calendar entries, just as with Alexa.

Google Assistant Guide - Features, entertainment, smart home and more

Results can be pulled from search consistently, too, whether you want to know who stars in the Avengers movies, how far away the moon is, or just when the next bank holiday is – the Google Assistant routinely delivers the best results.

And, unlike Alexa, the Google Assistant more often understands exactly what I ask of it. The former often suffers the odd blip of either not understanding what I’ve asked or returning irrelevant information. The gap between the two has certainly closed, but the Google Assistant is generally better.

Of course, the Google Assistant offers up all the things you’d expect of a personal assistant. That includes setting timers and alarms, providing up-to-date weather forecasts, and pulling information from your calendar. The last one is true for anyone bar G Suite account holders; if you pay for your Gmail and other services, the Google Assistant can’t read any of the information at all. That’s plain odd, as Amazon Alexa has been able to do this since day one, and there appears to be no good reason why Google still can’t do the same.

Conversationally, the Google Assistant is easier to talk to. I find that natural language is interpreted better and more accurately than with rival systems. Plus, Google understands context, enabling you to continue a conversation. Ask, “What’s the weather like today?” followed by, “And at the weekend?”, and you get weather reports for today and tomorrow, without having to repeat the entire conversation.

Admittedly, the number of times that this becomes useful is limited, but it’s just an example of how the Google Assistant is that little bit more natural to converse with.

Google is expandable with Actions, which are developed and automatically integrated into the system without needing to be installed. That’s good news, but there isn’t a central store of available Actions to view capabilities – and Alexa, so far, is expandable and does more.

I slightly prefer the two-word wake-up phrase for Google (“Hey Google” or “OK Google”), since it means that Google Assistant rarely wakes up by mistake; this is a constant problem for Alexa. That said, both of Google’s wake-up phrases are a bit of a mouthful.

Google Assistant – Voice calls and messages

The Google Assistant is the first to let you make free calls to local landlines and mobile phones via Google Home devices. Calls can be placed to local businesses (“Hey Google, call Papa Johns”) or anyone in your personal address book. Even better, you can set the outgoing number as your own mobile phone number, so it looks as though you’re calling from your own phone.

Google Home calling works brilliantly with both the main Google Home and Google Home Mini, with call quality matching the best mobile calls. It’s hugely convenient, too, as you can quickly make a call without having to reach for your handset.

Google Assistant Guide - Features, entertainment, smart home and more

Related: How to make hands-free calls with Google Home

Annoyingly, there’s no way to make calls between Google Home devices, either in-house or across the internet to friends. The only option that comes close is Broadcast, which lets you send a voice message to all Google Home devices that you own. This is a good way to get attention – shouting out to the kids to come down for dinner, for example – but full-on voice calls would be nice.

Google Assistant – Smart home

The Google Assistant lags behind Amazon Alexa when it comes to smart home support. Most of the main products (Philips Hue, the Nest Thermostat and so on) support it, but newer devices won’t necessarily have a Google Assistant Action available, with support coming later.

There are also some strange differences between Alexa Skills and Google Actions. For example, Alexa can switch the Nest Thermostat to Eco mode, but the Google Assistant can’t. However, it can turn the Thermostat back to heat mode.

In-app, the Google Assistant organises your smart devices into rooms, which makes finding them easier. You can then control devices in groups, such as turning off all devices in your living room.

Google should be smarter, though. For example, putting a Google Home into a room should let you say, “OK Google, turn off the light”, and it should understand that you mean the light where the speaker is located. Strangely, Google doesn’t pull in as many smart device features as Alexa.

For example, while Alexa can control Hue lights by the rooms that you’ve defined in the Philips app, Google Home can’t do the same thing and makes you organise everything manually. If you change where your lights are located, it means you have to change the settings in two places.

Google Assistant Guide - Features, entertainment, smart home and more

Google also provides no in-app control for smart home devices, nor does it have routines to perform multiple actions in a row. As a result, Amazon Alexa is far more advanced.

Google Assistant – Music

Google supports Google Play Music, Deezer and Spotify for streaming. For each service, you can ask to play a specific track, album or playlist. However, the usual issues arise, and it’s often easier to find the content you want using the particular music app you want, and then use Cast to send it to a Google Home or Chromecast device. Controlling playback with your voice using the Assistant is then quite straightforward.

Google Assistant Guide - Features, entertainment, smart home and more

You can group multiple devices to create a playback group. It’s a little clunky to do this and nowhere near as easy as doing the same job with Sonos.

You can control any devices that support Google Cast, too, such as many smart multiroom speakers or a Chromecast Audio. That’s quite neat and is certainly useful for pausing playback or adjusting volume. Talking to Google Home dips the volume on any speakers that you’re casting to, so your music doesn’t drown out your voice commands.

It’s a shame that currently there isn’t any Sonos integration; plus, you’ll need to buy an Echo device if you want this functionality for now.

Google Assistant – Films and TV

The Google Assistant can connect to any Chromecast or Chromecast Ultra devices you have around the home, streaming content from popular services, such as Netflix. Again, voice searching for content isn’t always accurate; it’s often best to start the playback from your phone.

However, having voice control of playback is often easier: if your phone rings, pausing what you’re watching with your voice is far easier than answering your phone and then trying to pause.

Control is also easier. With Alexa, you have to pair an Echo device to a Fire TV in the app. With the Google Assistant, you can say which device you want to control (“OK Google, pause the living room TV”).

Google Assistant – Screen-enabled devices

Using the Google Assistant on a device with a screen brings in some more options, but the experience is mixed. For example, with a phone you can ask for the weather and your display will show you a pictorial forecast for the coming week.

But, you can’t view video feeds from supported smart cameras on your phone. Instead, you can only stream video footage from smart cameras – such as the Nest Cam IQ Outdoor – to Chromecasts. It’s still a potentially neat feature, letting you quickly get a security update, but Alexa has far better support for devices with screens.

Google Assistant – Conclusion

By far the more natural voice assistant to talk to, the Google Assistant generally picks up what you’re saying with a higher degree of accuracy than Amazon Alexa. There are some neat integrations in there, too, such as the ability to send results to your phone.

Voice calls to landlines is an excellent feature, and I often end up making calls on my Google Home Mini rather than reaching for my phone.

However, the choice of devices featuring Google Assistant pales in comparison to the choice available with Alexa, and it doesn’t currently include any smart speakers with displays. Smart home control also falls behind Amazon Alexa, both regarding the range of devices and commands.

This should improve over time, but Amazon Alexa is generally the better all-round voice assistant at the moment. That said, if your smart home devices are supported by Google, and you like the idea of free voice calls via the Home devices, the Google Assistant is easier to talk to and is smarter out of the box.