Apple’s Siri is not the only mobile virtual assistant in town. There’s Google Now for Android devices, Cortana for Microsoft’s Windows Phone and plenty of third-party “artificial intelligence” apps that try to make your mobile calendar or contact lists smarter.
The most formidable of these Siri competitors is Google Now. But even for Android power users, it can feel a bit nebulous.
Unlike Siri, which only runs on iOS, Google Now runs on a variety of devices, and might work differently across different smartphones and operating systems. And while Siri has a dedicated button, Google Now runs as a kind of intelligent layer under other applications on the phone. In other words, even when you’re not saying “Okay, Google,” Google Now will still cue up info for you.
It’s also tightly integrated into Google Search — in fact, Google Now exists within the Google Search app, which can make things even more confusing.
So, as a follow-up to Bonnie Cha’s Re/code column about Siri a couple weeks ago, this column is a series of tips and tricks that might help users understand and fully utilize Google Now.*
First, the basics
Google Now is free. It runs on any smartphone running Android 4.1 or later (and on some other devices, which I’ll explain below). If your phone doesn’t have Google Now preinstalled, you can set it up by downloading the Google Search app to your phone.
This is where you can “access” Google Now, although once you’ve opted in, Google Now will also show you alerts and reminders without your opening the app. It can also be accessed via voice control from your phone’s home screen. If you simply say, “Okay, Google,” the app launches. On some hardware, like Google’s own Nexus 5, you can also swipe left from the home screen and see your Google Now data, but this is only on certain phones. (On the Samsung Galaxy S5 that I’ve been using, a swipe from the left brings me to a Samsung-made Flipboard-like app instead.)
In many ways, Google Now works similarly to Siri. For the uninitiated: You can dictate texts and emails, ask for driving directions, have it read you your daily schedule, book reservations for some restaurants, and search for facts and trivia.
Okay, Google. Now for the fun stuff.
Google Now hasn’t solved traffic yet, but …
… it is supposed to help you with your commute. Once Google Now has figured out where you live and where you work — and it does this automatically, based on your daily habits — it will regularly show you an information “card” that estimates your commute based on time of day and location. You can make this even more precise by telling the app whether you normally get around by car, bike, walking or train.
To do this, go into Google Now, scroll all the way to the bottom of your cards, and tap the magic wand. Then, in the Customize menu, select “Everything else,” and there you’ll see an option to tell Google how you usually get around. It will begin to calculate your commute based on this information. Unfortunately, though, there’s no way to select more than one, if you happen to use multiple methods of transport.
Of course I’m always this put-together after a red-eye
Google Now is also supposed to help you look like an informed traveler, not the frazzled flier who says to a cabbie, “Um … hold on … let me check my email … I’ve got the address right here,” when you need to get to your hotel. Google Now pulls reservation information from your Gmail and from Airbnb, provided that you’re logged into that app, and it will show you a reservation card when you land at your destination. I haven’t been able to test this one yet — my reporting trip to Belize was somehow not approved — but, in theory, this should make traveling a little bit easier.
Listen up, sports fans
Love the Boston Red Sox? Or the San Jose Sharks? Or (my favorite basketball team) the Duke Blue Devils? You can tell Google Now which teams are your favorites, and it will push you news stories and real-time updates during games. To do this, go to the same customizable menu you used in tip No. 2 and tap on “Sports.” From there, you can set your teams.
Now you have no excuse for not picking up the milk
Like Siri, Google Now lets you set quick reminders for things. You can simply say, “Okay, Google … set a reminder for” whatever it is. But you can also attach a location to this reminder. So, when I said, “Okay, Google … remind me to pick up coffee filters next time I’m at Safeway,” the reminder popped up when I was in the vicinity of the grocery store. Bonus tip: Once you’ve picked up said groceries, you can use Google Now to set a timer while you’re cooking, by simply saying, “Okay, Google … set a timer for 20 minutes,” or however long you’d like it to be.
Drop a pin? That’s so 2011.
Google Now knows where you’ve parked your car. Try to let that creepy feeling roll off your back for a minute, while I explain how this works. Google Now uses your smartphone’s accelerometer to get a read on when you’ve been driving, when you’ve stopped driving, and when you’ve started walking, and from that, it determines your approximate parking spot. Still a little creeped out? It’s understandable. But this might be useful for people who often forget where they’ve parked.
Have I shown you all 76 of my vacation photos yet?
If you have auto-backup turned on for photos in your Google+ account, then the photos you take on your smartphone will be automatically uploaded to G+, and can be pulled up through Google Now based on geolocation. So if you say, “Okay, Google … show me my pictures from Paris,” Google Now is supposed to pull up all of your photos from that location. In order for this to work, you have to say “my photos” — otherwise it will show you Web photos of Paris.
In my experience, however, this didn’t work so well. I took a handful of photos in downtown San Francisco last week, which were auto-uploaded to G+, and when I asked Google Now to show me my photos from San Francisco, it told me there were no matching photos. Google says there could be technical quirks that might cause it to not work, and that the company is working to improve this feature.
While virtual-assistant software is getting smarter and smarter, most of the time you have to talk, well, like a robot in order for the app to understand what you’re saying. With Google Now, you can actually build on top of your searches to ask shorter, more natural-sounding subsequent questions. So, for example, I said to my Galaxy S5 smartphone, “Okay, Google … how tall is Michael Jordan?” And Google Now told me, “Michael Jordan is six feet six inches tall.” Next, I simply said, “Okay, Google … what about LeBron?” and the app told me that LeBron James is six feet eight inches tall. Next, I said, “Who does he play for?” and it told me the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Spreading the Google Now love
Google Now isn’t just for Android devices. It also runs on iOS through the downloadable Google Search app. The major caveat here, of course, is that it’s not nearly as powerful on iOS as it is on Android devices. For instance, Google Now on iOS won’t let you pull up contacts and call, text or email using voice commands.
“No, I meant tentacles …”
Google Now can also act as your translator. If you say something like “Okay, Google … How do I say in Spanish, ‘I need a doctor’?” the app will dictate the translation for you. This dictation feature works with most Latin-based languages — but not all languages. In fact, I tried translating something from English to Hungarian to communicate with the Google spokeswoman for Google Now, and the app gave me a text-based result, but didn’t read the phrase aloud for me.
Bonus tip: And you thought you’d never have to hear this song again
As with Siri, there are some “Easter eggs” in Google Now. Try asking it, “What does the fox say?” or saying, “Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right,” and you’ll get some fun responses. However, when you ask Google Now if it will marry you, or if it thinks you’re sexy, the responses come in the form of Google search results.
* Almost forgot about the asterisk, didn’t you? As with most of these types of software applications, it’s a give-and-take — meaning, you’ll have to give up your data if you want the full Google Now experience. When you go to activate Google Now on your Android phone, or you download the Google Search app for iPhone, the app will tell you that it needs to use and store your location for traffic alerts, directions and more, and use your synced calendars, Gmail, Chrome and other Google data to send you reminders and other suggestions. In other words, Google’s got a lot on you, and the data-sharing-averse will likely not want to opt in.