Getting more out of Google Now!

March 7, 2013
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It hasn’t even been a year since Google Now first arrived alongside Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and already it has become indispensable. Well, for some of us anyway.

You may have tried out Google Now and looked around for a minute, only to exit back to the home screen, shaking your head and wondering why everyone was so excited about an app that would occasionally tell you the weather. Really, I wouldn’t blame you, but I will say that you can’t get a good feel for using Google Now in a few minutes, or even an hour.

The key word that differentiates Google Now from other “personal assistant” apps is context. Google Now isn’t going to tell you everything all the time forever, it’s only going to show you what you need, when you need it. Oh, look at that, I’ve accidentally gone and repeated a catchphrase.

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Getting Set Up

I’m going to assume that you at least know the very basics of Google Now before continuing. If you don’t know, for example, how to enable Google Now or how to launch it, our own Derek Ross posted a great article last year on getting started with Google Now, so I’ll just point you there instead of regurgitating that whole article here.

One thing I do want to point out before we move on is this: the more you put into Google Now, the more you get out of it. Personally, I give Google Now access to everything on my phone, privacy be damned. You may not feel comfortable doing this, and that’s fine, but know that the less info you feed into Google Now, the less it’s going to offer.

Cards

You’re probably aware of Google Now’s concept of cards already, but if not, this is where the app displays both information you have explicitly asked for and information it thinks can be handy. Basic cards like weather, any upcoming appointments and nearby events might show up here by default, depending on what you’re doing. If you haven’t used Google Now much, this will look pretty bare, but once you start finding your way around, these cards will make up the hub of your Google Now activity.

Unlike the normal behavior you might expect from an app, you don’t just go through and pick what you want to show up here. Instead, it will rely mostly on how you use Google Now, and a great example is the Sports card. While it is possible to enter in teams you like through the sample card’s settings menu, simply searching for a team often enough will cause their activity like wins / losses, scheduled games and other information to show up. If, somehow, you end up seeing a team you don’t care about here, it’s easy to remove them through the card settings.

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This context-sensitive behavior is the crux of Google Now’s cards. For example, if you travel to another country, the Translation card with begin to appear, as will the Currency card, but these won’t even be an option while you’re at home. If you walk or bike often, Google Now will start to show you an Activity card, informing you how many miles you’ve logged. On the other hand, if you only travel by car or public transportation, you might not even be aware this card exists.

The more you use Google Now, the more relevant information these cards will display, so even if this seems odd at first, try using it even when you don’t have to. If you just sit around and wait for everything to arrive, you’ll probably be waiting a while.

Voice Commands

If cards are Google Now’s passive form of getting you information, then voice commands would be the more active form of providing you with said information. Before we move on, it’s important to note that it’s almost impossible to talk about this aspect of Google Now without talking about Google Search and Voice Actions, because they are so tightly integrated, so bear with me if things get a little off track.

It’s possible that the commands will start off almost insultingly simple: “what time is it?” or “do I need a jacket?” It isn’t long, though, before you find yourself asking “what is the weather in New York on Wednesday like?” or “how long is The Empire Strikes Back?” It doesn’t necessarily matter that other apps can handle this functionality, because Google Now does all the other things it does too.

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Where it gets really good is if you’re giving Google Now access to both your location and schedule. Have a meeting scheduled tomorrow? Google Now will tell you when to leave to get there on time, and it’s taking traffic into account. The few times I was able to test this, I was surprised at how accurate its predictions were. Once, it was literally a minute off, and I was slightly disappointed. Just slightly.

Voice Commands are also a great way to start using Google Now more. Instead of opening up Chrome, just launch Google Now and ask it to search for whatever you want to know. After a while. you’ll find yourself using Google Now more and more, and that’s when it gets really useful.

The Future

Google Now is very young right now, so it’s very likely that what we already have is only a sign of things to come. Here’s an example: if you’re using Google Now right… um, presently, try to ask it to turn off Wi-Fi. It won’t work, but it won’t just silently fail and send you to a Google search either. So we know that Google is working on device control in Now.

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The real question is: what else are they working on? Here is one thing I would personally like to see: better scheduling / alarm functionality. I want to be able to say “remind me about my doctor’s appointment on Thursday at 1pm” and just have it work. I also want to be able to make entries on my Google Calendar. I could see that being difficult, but it can’t be that much more difficult than sending email using Google Now, which I can do right this second.

Do you use Google Now? Have any tips and tricks to share? What would you like to see added to Google Now in the future? Let us know in the comments downstairs.

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