Smart assistants: a guide for beginners and the confused

Find out what smart assistants are, what they can do and how to put them to best use with our expert guide

Smart assistants: google home mini with smart assistant by John Lewis & Partners
(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

Smart assistants: wondering what they are and what they can do for you? Well, have you ever wished you had your own personal butler, but realised you weren’t quite at the ‘Batman’ level of wealth to be able to afford one? They may lack the penguin suits (or arms and legs for that matter) of a live-in servant, but a wave of digital smart assistants, available through your phones, tablets, computers and speakers, can do everything but serve you breakfast in bed.

Offering voice control and access to all the information on the internet, as well as the ability to control smart home devices and your music collection, smart assistants are versatile and valuable additions to a tech-filled home. And, whether you realise it or not, you’ve probably already got one. TechRadar's Gerald Lynch gives us the lowdown and 10 great uses for smart assistants.

If you're new to the world of smart home tech, or want more advice when it comes to building a smart eco-system, head over to The Hub, our one-stop-shop for all things technology.

What is a smart assistant?

A smart or virtual assistant is a piece of software installed on a smart device (such as a smart speaker – our favourite is the Echo Dot – or a smart phone) that can perform tasks or services, or answer questions. 

Head over to our specialist feature to browse our pick of the best smart speakers, including Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and more. Read more about the benefits of smart assistant, below.

Which smart assistants are available to buy?

There are three leading smart assistants to choose from, Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, as well as some extras, which are slightly less popular. Read our reviews:

  • Google Assistant can be found on Android phones and in Google Home or Google Assistant enabled speakers.
  • Siri lives in iPhones, iPads and Mac computers, and is also in the Apple HomePod speaker.
  • Alexa is available in both Android and Apple phones and tablets, as well as some computers and the Amazon Echo speaker range.
  • There’s also Microsoft’s Cortana, which so far hasn’t proved so popular.
  • And Samsung’s Bixby, which is expected to grow in popularity in the coming months and years.

Reasons why you need smart assistants

1. You've got hands-free control

Smart assistants can work without you lifting a finger, using your device’s microphone to pick up your spoken requests or questions before searching the cloud through the internet to find exactly the information you need. 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. Have your questions answered

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 on your behalf before speaking it back to you. Simply use the wake word, and follow it with your question. 

Google’s Assistant so far tends to be the smartest helper for this sort of task, tapping 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. Use it as a digital DJ

Tapping into services like Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and other music streaming providers, smart assistants can be 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. Amazon Music, with Alexa, is even capable of figuring out what song you’re after just by you telling it a few lines of lyrics. They can also access thousands of internet radio stations in the same way. 

4. You can get recommendations

Over time, the smart assistants can get to know your tastes, habits and preferences, and offer you 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 towards your tastes.

5. It can place calls for you

Need to make a phone call, but have messy hands or your phone in your pocket with headphones in? 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.

6. Get help shopping

Getting some fresh air is very, very good for you. Don’t 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, let Alexa handle it for you – with a 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. You'll have 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. It'll 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.

9. It'll set reminders

If you’re the forgetful type, there’s no need any more to tie a piece of string around your finger in the vain hope it’ll help you remember some task or another. Smart assistants all have the capacity to set timed reminders with just a simple spoken request, firing off an alarm and notifying you of what needs doing, 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. Translations and conversions

Travelling abroad? Need to know how to say hello in German, or help figuring 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. A smart assistant can do bedtime reading

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 that you can. 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. A smart assistant can 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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