Apple added its Siri assistant to the iPhone 4S model in 2011, giving users a hand-free way to schedule appointments, play music, look up information and perform other basic tasks. Less than a decade later, digital assistants are in a plethora of digital devices, including computers, smart speakers, dashboards and watches, and they can help you ease into the day and keep the household running smoothly.
While the assistants can make life more efficient, it can take time to learn all their abilities. If you received a smart speaker as a gift and don’t know where to start, or you’ve just dabbled with the assistant app on your phone and want to make it useful, here’s a quick introduction to life with a digital companion. Also, we have some pointers for protecting your privacy.
Your first assistant is likely to be the one that came with your phone, tablet or computer, like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana or Samsung’s Bixby. If your assistant isn’t already on, you’ll need to enable it in the device settings and do a few exercises so the software learns your voice.
Amazon’s Alexa program can be found on certain phone models from LG, Motorola and Sony — in addition to a wide variety of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers, Windows 10 PCs, wearable gear like earbuds and, soon, smart eyeglasses. You’ll need the Alexa Android and iOS apps to set up most Echo hardware.
Voice-activated assistants upload recordings of your requests for processing and require some of your personal information (like contacts and location). They are always listening for their wake words. If this makes you nervous, you can take a few steps to keeps tabs on your data.
In your assistant’s settings, you can decide if you want to have it constantly listening for commands or wake with a button press. You should also be able to review recordings and your request history, manage how your data is used, and tell your assistant to forget or delete a request.
One of the quickest ways to learn the abilities of your assistant is to just say, “What can I ask you?” On a device with a screen, you may also see a series of suggestions. Simple commands include asking for the weather forecast, inquiring about traffic conditions or checking your schedule.
Manufacturers’ sites have detailed instructions. Apple offers help in using Siri, Google has the details on its Assistant, Microsoft provides an overview of Cortana’s powers and Samsung invites its users to learn what Bixby can do. Amazon hosts a handy Alexa User Guide.
Voice assistants on smart speakers have also become the control hubs for wirelessly connected devices like light bulbs, streaming TV boxes, thermostats and other smart home appliances. When shopping, just make sure the gadget you’re considering is compatible with your chosen assistant.
Amazon dominates the smart speaker market, but Apple has its HomePod speaker and Google makes several Home and Nest devices. Samsung’s Galaxy Home speaker for Bixby is in the works. And if you’re on the go, Alexa Auto, Android Auto with Google Assistant and Apple CarPlay with Siri suggestions keep your companion riding along. (Microsoft is steering Cortana away from apps and hardware and into more Office 365 integration.)
Like other software platforms, assistants also work with third-party apps — often referred to as “skills,” “actions” or “capsules.” These apps greatly expand your assistant’s power, like ordering a pepperoni pie from your favorite pizza chain for home delivery.
For Siri on iOS devices, open up the Siri Shortcuts app in OS 12 and later and tap the Gallery icon to see a series of preconfigured actions you can assign. You can also create automations and design your own Shortcuts.
Google’s site has a guide for vocally using apps and creating routines. Microsoft’s site has a page of Cortana skills to sample. Samsung’s “Bixby Capsules” can also run routines on certain devices.
Amazon’s site has an Alexa Skills guide for the assistant’s thousands of voice apps — or you can just say, “Alexa, help me get started with skills.” By linking Skills together, you can also set up Routines for multiple tasks at one command — like easing you into the day with your favorite morning news podcast, turning on the smart coffee maker and gently increasing the brightness on your connected lighting system. Alexa, originally inspired by the voice-controlled computer in “Star Trek,” even has an official “Star Trek” skill and can speak Klingon on command.