Smart assistants: a guide for beginners and the confused

New to the world of smart assistants? We talk you through the basics – what are they and how can they make daily life easier and more efficient?

Smart assistant: Google Nest Learning Thermostat
(Image credit: Google)

What is a smart assistant? And what do they actually do? If you feel as though everyone knows the answers to these questions, apart from you, this feature was written with you in mind. 

We're here to cut through the jargon and help you decide whether a smart assistant is something you want to incorporate into your life. To do so, we'll take a closer look at the most popular smart assistants – that's Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri – in a bid to help you understand what it is that you can expect from incorporating smart tech into your life. 

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What is a smart assistant?

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A smart assistant – also known as a virtual assistant – is a form of software installed in a smart device (such as a smart speaker or a smart phone) that can perform tasks or services, or answer questions. They're essentially the link between us and smart technology software and are essential for controlling smart plugs, smart thermostats and similar devices.

In order to communicate with your smart assistant, you'll need a smart speaker for it to 'live' inside of. Popular smart assistants include Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. Read our reviews of each for more information.

What can smart assistants do?

1. Give you hands-free control

Voice control allows you to interact with your smart assistant, without lifting a finger. Whether controlling wider smart technology or searching the cloud through the internet to find exactly the information you need, this handy feature makes daily life easier and more efficient.

Though you can change from these default settings, here’s how to get chatty with your smart assistant. Just follow these 'wake words' with the request you need:

Google Assistant: 'OK Google…'

Apple Siri: 'Hey Siri...'

Amazon Alexa: 'Alexa...”

Microsoft Cortana: “Hey Cortana...'

Samsung Bixby: 'Hi Bixby…'

You can also usually wake up the assistants at the press of a button – depending on the device you’re using. On an iPhone for instance, you can long-press the Home button to wake up Siri.

2. Answer your questions

One of the main uses for a smart assistant is to get instant answers to questions you may have, with the assistant searching the internet to find the information you need, before speaking it back to you. Simply use the wake word, and follow it with your question. 

So far, Google Assistant tends to be the smartest helper for this sort of task due to its ability to tap into the vast knowledge of the Google search engine. But, all assistants are getting better at answering questions all the time. 

Alexa even lets you download 'Skills', which are app-like voice control programmes for fulfilling specific requests, like calling an Uber app or checking your commute time.

3. Become your digital DJ

By tapping into services such as Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal, smart assistants can become your own personal DJ.

So long as you have a subscription to one of the services, you can ask the assistant to play any of tens of millions of songs available. Amazon Music – available with Alexa – is even capable of figuring out what song you’re after just by you telling it a few lines of lyrics.

4. Get recommendations

Over time, your smart assistant will get to know your preferences and routines, offering recommendations for things to do, places to visit, or music to listen to. 

Again, with its deep knowledge and links to your online search history, Google Assistant is great for getting tailored recommendations which can be surprisingly accurate.

5. Place calls on your behalf

Need to make a phone call, but have no free hands? Simply activate the assistant and, provided you’ve given it access to your contacts book, you can have it place a call for you.

In the future, using the new Google Duplex feature, you’ll even be able to let the Google Assistant take and make calls for you, cleverly speaking on your behalf to make bookings and appointments. Futuristic or what?

6. Help you with your shopping

Getting some fresh air is really good for you – we wouldn't recommend you sit on the sofa all day if you can help it. But, sometimes, when the rain is pouring and the wind is howling, there’s no facing the outside world.

If you’ve got some important shopping to do, why not let Alexa handle it for you? With just a voice request (provided you’ve switched on the setting in your Amazon account), you’ll be able to shop any of the items available through Amazon by just asking and following the instructions. 

Amazon’s returns policy is very generous if you make a mistake, but do keep in mind that you should be careful using this feature – remember to activate pin protection if your Amazon Echo device has an Alexa smart assistant that’s being shared by a whole household. 

7. Establish home automation

This is where things start getting very futuristic. If you’ve got a range of smart devices in your home (perhaps smart connected lighting systems, such as Philips Hue; or a TV with a smart streaming device, such as the Amazon Fire TV stick attached), you can use the smart assistants to control all these elements, using your voice, in your home.

Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant can dim your lights, lock your doors, change the temperature on your smart thermostat and much, much more, provided that you’re using equipment that supports the many third party manufacturers out there.

If you're looking to expand your smart home system, we'd recommend checking out the following guides:

8. Get to know your routines

Once you’ve got the above smart home equipment installed, you can start getting really creative. Using 'Routines' or If This Then That (IFTTT) apps, you can make all the devices speak to each other to make them trigger functions in sequence from a single command. 

For instance, you could programme your smart home gear to respond to the phrase 'Alexa, I’m home', thereby turning the lights on, turning up the thermostat and setting a Wi-Fi connected kettle to boil. Genius.

Discover more in our guide to the internet of things.

9. Set reminders

Perfect for the forgetful types, smart assistants have the capacity to set timed reminders with just a simple spoken request. This will fire off an alarm and notify you of what needs doing, and when. 

When you make a reminder using a smart speaker, it’ll also intelligently transfer it to your phone too, so you don’t forget anything while you’re out and about either.

Many of the assistants can also integrate with existing task list and reminder apps on your phone or computer. Alexa, for instance, works incredibly well at turning voice requests into items to tick off in the superb Todoist app once the pair are synced up. 

10. Handle translations and conversions

Travelling abroad and need to know how to say 'hello' in German, or figure out how many yen to a pound? Smart assistants are worldly know-it-alls, capable of translating dozens of languages from across the globe, and able to give you the most up-to-date currency conversion rates. It’s just one of the reasons why they’re such useful travel buddies for the solo adventurer. 

11. Read a bedtime story

Hey, we're not saying you should substitute perching on your little one's bed to read them their nightly story with a smart assistant doing the job, but it's really worth knowing for the times you're late back from work or away on an adults-only trip.

We talked about Alexa Skills above – and one of them is that you can not only have stories read to your child, you can personalise them so that, via the smart speaker, the stories can mention just about anything they'd like, including their names. Careful though, they might prefer Alexa to you. Find out more about Alexa Story Teller here.

12. Give you medical advice

Yes, it's true, and it's official NHS advice, too. Amazon have teamed up with the NHS, and now if you ask Alexa anything health-related, you'll get answers based only on official NHS guidelines. Especially useful for minor ailments, it can save you time calling your GP practice, or 111.

Would we substitute it for real medical advice from a human? Probably not, but for the odd minor ailment, it's a good first stop, and is aimed at alleviating pressure on the health services, which is no bad thing. 

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Gerald is Home Tech Editor for the UK's largest tech site, TechRadar. When he isn't writing about the latest tech he is living it and can often be found gaming (but only on a 4K HDR screen with 7.1 surround sound of course...)