I tested Gemini as my Pixel assistant again, and it's gotten better - but there's a catch

Android users who take their privacy seriously but don't want AI to have access to the totality of the things they've saved to Google Drive need to pay attention to this.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Google Pixel 8a Displays
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

I've been using Android since its first iteration, and I remember those early releases felt like they weren't quite ready for the masses. They were clunky, poorly designed, bereft of certain features, and prone to stalling or freezing.

Eventually, Android found its footing and has become one of the most flexible, user-friendly mobile OSes on the market. That doesn't mean Google hasn't made a misstep here and there.

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Such is the case with the migration from Google Assistant to Gemini.

When I first tested Gemini, I concluded that Google rolled it out too soon -- many important features simply weren't available. For example, during the first few weeks of testing, Gemini couldn't create a calendar appointment. Google has since added the feature. In fact, Gemini now supports the following:

  • Create/modify alarms and timers.
  • Make phone calls.
  • Send messages and read incoming messages.
  • Control various features on your device (such as the flashlight, Bluetooth, or open specific apps).
  • Control smart home devices.
  • Broadcast messages on connected devices within your home.
  • Read a webpage out loud (requires Pixel 8 or later).
  • Get help with your Pixel (Pixel 8 or later).
  • Set reminders and create calendar events.

Gemini's new features are promising, but there is still one big sticking point for me. 

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I used to create Google Calendar appointments using Google Assistant. When I attempted to do the same thing during those first few weeks of using Gemini as my assistant, I'd get a notification asking me to tap on my avatar in the app, choose Extensions in the drop-down menu, and turn on the Workspace extension.

Why was this not enabled by default? Ah, but there's a bit of a snag here. Let me backpedal for a bit.

I stopped using Google Drive in part because I don't necessarily trust that Google (or some third party) won't use my work to train its AI models. Given that I'm also a novelist, keeping my work safe from such things is rather important to me.

When you go to enable the Google Workspaces extension, you'll see that it can "Summarize, find, and get quick answers from your own content to fuel your personal journey." This description doesn't instill confidence in me that Google isn't going to use my content for its own purposes.

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Furthermore, because the Google Workspaces extension requires access to Gmail, Drive, and Docs, I'm even less likely to enable the extension. As such, if Google discontinues Assistant in favor of Gemini, as I expect it to, I'll miss out on features that were once part of Google Assistant.

How is that okay?

Essentially, Google is saying that, unless you give its AI access to your content, you won't get the most out of the new Android assistant. I guess I'm out of luck.

Anyone who takes their privacy seriously and doesn't want AI to have access to the totality of the things they've saved to Google Drive, written with Google Docs, or communicated with Gmail, will find themselves in the same boat.

Sadly, this limits Gemini (currently) to Google Flights, Google Hotels, Google Maps, and YouTube (unless, of course, you create content on YouTube). I'm guessing that if I leave the Workspace extension disabled, I'll find Gemini less than helpful. I'm just going to have to be OK with that.

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That doesn't make Gemini a tool to avoid. It's powerful and will continue to become even more powerful. For those who aren't concerned about having their work used to train Google's AI, you can enable Workspace integration and get even more powerful features from Android's new assistant.

I can't say that I'm thrilled about the changes but, at the same time, I've always had a propensity for doing things manually. Yes, I do use Google Assistant and will use Gemini, but I will refuse to give it access to my Google Drive account and the documents within. 

Even with this limitation, I'm finding Gemini to be the logical successor to the traditional digital assistant.

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