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In 2024, researching something online can down two paths: You can start a Google Search, or you can ask a verbose question to an AI chatbot like ChatGPT or Gemini. Ideally, you’ll do both, and jump back and forth between webpages served up by Google and answers from ChatGPT, checking for AI hallucinations and finding the most reliable sources.

What if there was one tool that could do both? That’s the niche Perplexity AI aims to fill. 

Perplexity merges search and AI

Perplexity AI merges online search with popular existing AI models in a way that’s potentially really useful. A key limitation of certain AI models, including ChatGPT, is they are trained on data that’s a year or two old. (At least, the ones that can’t connect to the internet.) They can’t give you the latest insights from new scientific papers, or even chatter on Reddit. 

Perplexity has its own search engine that delves into the web and scrapes the latest information. Then it does something even better: When it provides you with that information, it cites the sources, like a reliable search engine would. That way you can determine whether they are likely to be trustworthy without doing the extra legwork of directly verifying every fact and figure.

Perpexlity AI search result with sources and AI text.

Credit: Khamosh Pathak

Perplexity still works like a chatbot: You create a new thread, input a prompt, and refine it with followup questions. You are free to rename or delete threads along the way as well.

The search results populate directly inside the UI of the chatbot. You will see a section for sources at the top, so you can quickly open a website to check whether it’s what you’re looking for. Perplexity also shows you images and YouTube videos when relevant, so you can rely on those visual cue as well. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to find a solution to a technical issue, or are, say, looking up ingredients for a recipe. 

When you start a search, you can use one of the “Focus” features to only search particular parts of the internet. For example, you can search academic papers online to discover scientific answers, or you can only search on Reddit to see a condensed report on the prevailing opinions on a subject. 

Combine all this, and you get an experience that’s better than using just Google Search or ChatGPT alone. I’ve been testing Perplexity AI for a couple of weeks now, and it has now become a habit to start researching a new topic from within Perplexity rather than heading down one of those separate avenues.

Five AIs are better than one

If you choose to pay $20/month for Perplexity Pro, the app will offer you a buffet of popular AI models to choose from. You can pick your default option for all queries, and switch between them on the fly. Let’s say you got a response in GPT-4 that you don’t like; you can ask Perplexity to rewrite it using Claude’s Opus model, or try Perplexity’s own Experimental model to get faster answers to simpler queries. 

AI models for rewriting the same answer.

Credit: Khamosh Pathak

By default, Perplexity uses an enhanced version of GPT 3.5 for things like language processing and generative text. The Pro plan provides you with access to Open AI’s GPT-4 Turbo, Claude’s latest Opus models (limited to 5 searches a day, at which point you’ll drop down to Claude 3 Sonnet), Mistral’s Large models, and Perplexity’s Experimental model.

Pro Search for anyone

Pro search asking follow up questions.

Credit: Khamosh Pathak

Perplexity has a small toggle in the prompt box labeled Pro. Turn it on, and it kicks everything into high gear by using GPT-4 by default. Before giving you an answer, it might even ask you to clarify using a follow-up question. Then, Perplexity sifts through the interwebs to find what it judges to be the best resources. Free users can get additional Pro queries every four hours, while subscribers get 600 Pro searches a day. If you’re paying for the Pro model, you can just keep the Pro feature turned on all the time, since you’re unlikely to surpass 600 queries in a single day.

It’s not the only one

Perplexity isn’t the only AI search game in town. While Google Search’s Generative AI feature is still slow, Gemini is starting to catch up, as it also lets you double-check results by running a Google search. Microsoft Copilot, on the other hand, works in the same way as Perplexity AI, giving you sources along with the generated text. Copilot uses ChatGPT-4 Turbo in the free tier as well, whereas Turbo is limited to Perplexity Pro searches.

That said, Microsoft Copilot is dependent on Bing search, while Perplexity uses its own search engine. Copilot works best in Edge, though it’s also accessible on the web and via mobile apps. Microsoft Copilot is also quite fast in giving you answers.

Ultimaitely, which tool to choose comes down to the experience. If you like using Microsoft Edge and are all-in on Microsoft products, using Copilot as a research tool might be the best bet. But if you want a minimal, fast experience that’s customizable that works well on any platform, give Perplexity AI a shot.

A good jumping off point

Perplexity AI with sources, links, map, and media.

Credit: Khamosh Pathak

Overall, Perplexity AI provides a good jumping off point for anything you’re researching. Its answers are generally direct and to the point, and they make excellent use of formatting—you’ll find responses split by headings, bullet points, and organized paragraphs. 

But it’s important to note that Perplexity is best as a research tool to find answers, facts, and information, rather than to generate text. While it has a generative text Focus, it is not great at outputting creative text. In my testing, I found its copy to be a bit bland and uninteresting to read compared to what you’ll get from tools like Copilot, ChatGPT, or Gemini, or even dedicated writing tools built on GPT-4.

On the plus side, Perplexity’s free plan will actually be enough for most users. Even on the free plan, GPT-3.5 does a decent job of bringing together the best results from the web in a reader-friendly interface. But if you want to use the AI tool for research and work, the $20 upgrade is a great deal. You essentially get a super powered web search and access to GPT-4 and other LLMs for the same price as ChatGPT Plus. 

Perplexity AI is available on the web, and can be accessed using mobile apps and a Chrome extension. It’s also a default search engine option in the Arc browser.

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