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Google Assistant 101: Get to know Google's voice-activated helper

What is Google Assistant? What can it do? How do you control it? Get caught up on Google's version of Siri or Alexa.

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Andrew Gebhart
Google Home Assistant
1 of 22 James Martin/CNET

Hey Google

Google's digital assistant is just called Google Assistant. The name lacks the catchy personal touch of Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri, but Google Assistant is more widespread than either of its competitors and arguably smarter than both

Google Assistant is built into most modern Android phones, Google's smart speakers, a few third-party smart speakers, and a variety of other third-party devices like smoke detectors and smart displays. 

For the most part, you command Google Assistant with your voice, like with Alexa or Siri. Say the word, and Google Assistant will play music, control your smart home, search the internet, and more. 

Click through and we'll help you get familiar with all things Google Assistant so you can impress your family with your voice-activated powers at your next gathering. 

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2 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Google Home

Google Assistant debuted in 2016 alongside the company's first smart speaker, called Google Home. To start, it was just built into Google Home and the company's smart phones, called Google Pixel.

Then and now, you primarily interact with Google Assistant using your voice. 

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3 of 22 Chris Monroe/CNET

Google's smart speakers

Google now offers three smart speakers -- Google Home Mini, Google Home Max and the original Google Home. They're technically "always-listening" so you can issue a voice command to them without needing to touch it to wake it up.

That said, they won't record everything you say at all times. They'll only record and respond after you get their attention with the preset phrases called wake words. 

For Google Assistant, those wake words are either "Hey Google" or "OK Google." For example, you can say "Hey Google, when is the next summer Olympics?" and your speaker will wake up and give you an answer. 

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4 of 22 James Martin/CNET

Google Assistant on phones

As for phones, Google Assistant isn't limited to the Google Pixel anymore. In fact, it's built into most modern Android phones, and you can download it as an app for Apple's iPhones

Like with smart speakers, you can activate it with the wake words. You can also hold the home button on Android phones and it'll listen for your commands. 

On your phone, you don't have to talk if you don't want to. Hold the home button, then tap the little keyboard icon on the left to type your command or question. 

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5 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Privacy

After you wake it up, Google does record what you say. You also link your Google Assistant to a Gmail account when you first set it up, so it can have access to information like your name and calendar. 

According to Google, they'll mostly use these recordings to help the company improve the performance of its assistant, but it will share your personal info with third parties if you give your consent. 

Head here for all the details on Google's privacy policy

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6 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What is it good for?

Now, let's talk about what all you can do with Google Assistant once you're up and running. For the most part, Google Assistant can do the same tasks whether you're talking to it on your phone or a smart speaker. Your Assistant can obviously display more info and interact with apps like Google Maps more directly when you're on your phone. But unless otherwise noted, as I go through Google Assistant's abilities, I'm talking about its abilities on all compatible devices. 

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7 of 22 James Martin/CNET

Listen to the music

One of the most common uses for Google Assistant, especially on smart speakers, is listening to music. You can ask Google Assistant to play a specific song, an artist, a type of music, or give it a few lyrics and ask it to search for and then play the song you're quoting. 

On smart speakers, you can select different streaming services as your default. So if you ask for a song, Google will look in Spotify or Pandora first, depending on your preference. 

Once the right song is playing, the premium Google Home Max will make it sound great. 

Google Home Mini
8 of 22 James Martin/CNET

Bluetooth and Chromecast

The more affordable Google Home Mini doesn't have the same sound quality as the Google Home Max. It still sounds fine for its size, but handily, you can ask your Assistant to play music on your own sound system. Google's smart speakers can stream the music to your speakers through the company's music streamer called Chromecast or over a Bluetooth connection

You can also use Google Assistant to control your TV if it has a Chromecast video streamer or Chromecast built-in. 

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9 of 22 Josh Miller/CNET

Google in the smart home

You can also use Google Assistant to control your smart home. Google recently announced that the Assistant works with more than 5,000 devices and every major smart-home company, so if you have a smart-home gadget, you can probably control it with Google Assistant. 

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10 of 22 Chris Monroe/CNET

Get connected

To control your smart home with Google Assistant, you'll need to link your device. For example, with the Nest Thermostat, you'll need to link your Nest account to your Google Assistant. Then, you can issue a command to your smart speaker like "Hey Google, turn the temperature up two degrees," and it will work. 

At this point, Google Assistant can control thermostats, smart lights, smart switches, smart locks, sprinklers, security systems, large appliances and even some cars. They even added a few more compatible device types at the company's recent developer conference

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11 of 22 Chris Monroe/CNET

Help in the kitchen

Aside from controlling music and the smart home, Google Assistant has lots of other abilities. You can ask it general trivia questions, sync your calendar, and ask it to create appointments, and you can even ask it for cooking help. 

Your smart speaker can walk you through lots of recipes with step-by-step directions, and it works well. You can pause, skip forward and skip back as you need to. 

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12 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The mute button

All of Google's smart speakers have a physical mute button if you don't want the microphone listening even for the wake words. You can also do some basic functionality like control the volume and play or pause your music with a tap. 

13 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Learning your voice

You can actually train Google Assistant to recognize your voice. Each Google smart speaker can remember up to six distinct voices, so it can customize responses based on who's talking and you can ask about your calendar without getting your significant other's info. You can even make purchases verified only by your voice. 

Be careful when enabling that feature. We found we were easily able to fool Google's voice recognition and Alexa's similar feature

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14 of 22 Screenshot by Rebecca Fleenor/CNET

Picking the right voice

You can pick how your Google Assistant sounds. The company just rolled out a bunch of new options, including John Legend. 

15 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Devices galore

While we thought the original Google Home looked a bit like an air freshener, Google Assistant's now built into devices of many shapes and sizes. 

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16 of 22 Chris Monroe/CNET

Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini is my favorite of the bunch, because it includes all of the same smarts as Google Home for an affordable $50 price. 

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17 of 22 Josh Miller/CNET

Smart displays on the way

This summer, Google will launch a line of smart displays, including these two from Lenovo. The displays will listen for voice commands like a Google Home, and will use the screen to help illustrate the answers to your questions. 

You'll be able to make video calls on the screen or watch TV using YouTube's TV service

Expect displays from Lenovo, LG and JBL this July. 

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18 of 22 Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Third-party speakers

Google Assistant isn't just in Google's proprietary speakers anymore. 

The Tichome Mini put the Google Assistant into a portable, waterproof speaker. We also quite like the JBL Link series of speakers as they combine all of the smarts of Google Assistant with great sound quality.

Third-party speakers can do all of the same tricks as Google Home with one main exception -- you can use Google's speakers as a speakerphone but can't make calls from third-party devices.

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19 of 22 Sarah Tew/CNET

Sonos One

The Sonos One smart speaker will uniquely offer access to both Amazon's assistant Alexa and Google Assistant. It's also a great-sounding smart speaker. 

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20 of 22 Chris Monroe/CNET

Nest Cam IQ

Google Assistant finally branched out from speakers and phones with the Nest Cam IQ. Nest's smart cam actually has microphones built in, so you can talk to Google in your cam. 

We'll be seeing a wider variety of Google Assistant devices soon, including a smoke detector, so you'll be able to give voice commands to your ceiling. 

21 of 22 Claudia Cruz/CNET

Open to developers

Part of the reason that'll we see more Google Assistant devices soon is that Google has opened up the Assistant's software to developers. That's allowed developers to create unique abilities and games for existing speakers -- called Google Actions -- and create unique hardware, too.

Google helped show off the possibilities of the open Assistant with a cocktail mixer you can control with your voice. 

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22 of 22 James Martin/CNET

Google Assistant is ready to help

Google Assistant keeps getting new features, such as grouped commands called Routines and the kid-centric "pretty please" feature.

If you have a device with Google Assistant built in, start by saying "Hey Google..." then just ask the first question that comes to mind. I'm guessing it'll have an answer for you. 

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