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Samsung beefs up Bixby with more conversational capabilities

The digital assistant remains behind Alexa and Google Assistant in the voice-computing race.

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The Bixby assistant appears on a Samsung phone.

Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung is making its digital helper more helpful.

The tech giant's Bixby voice assistant is becoming more conversational and personal, part of an effort to make the service more useful, the company said at its Unpacked press event in New York on Thursday. Samsung used the event to introduce its latest phone, the Galaxy Note 9.

For example, if you ask Bixby for concert tickets on Labor Day weekend, you can then switch the date without having to mention concerts again. The contextual awareness is a feature that Google has already highlighted in its Google Assistant.

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Samsung has had difficulty generating enthusiasm for many of its software products. The company relies on Google's Android to run most of its smartphones and tablets, and its own Tizen operating system has struggled to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, Samsung has scrapped many of its homegrown services, like the Samsung Media Hub and Milk Video.

But as voice computing becomes central to smart home technology, Samsung needs to find ways to offer its own voice capabilities in order to prevent itself from being frozen out of the next big wave in tech. On Thursday, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Home, its first smart speaker, making a more capable Bixby critical to generating sales for the new device.

Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo speakers remain the leader in smart speakers, with the Google Assistant-powered Google Home in second place. Apple's new Siri-powered HomePod are a distant third.

Samsung introduced its latest version of Bixby in October, which included improved natural language capabilities. Still, Bixby remains behind Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant in features, with both competitors well ahead in partners and apps.

In addition to greater contextual awareness, Bixby will be able to remember your preferences, so if you ask it for nearby restaurants, it will suggest your favorite cuisines. Also, Bixby will integrate in more apps and services, such as Google Maps and Uber, so it can be more useful in more scenarios.