There’s been a fair bit of confusion about what Google Now really is. It’s easy to describe it as Google’s version of Siri, but it’s actually a lot more ambitious than that. Sure, you can use it to set reminders to buy milk or have dinner with friends, and you can ask it basic questions about the weather tomorrow or who directed The Shining, but the real attraction lies in its abilities to preempt your desires and needs.
If you let Google Now learn about you and your habits, then it can throw up information that it thinks you might be interested in. News, sports scores, weather, and traffic information is served up in real time based on your previous movements and searches. Information is served up in the form of cards, which you can tap for more detail or swipe away to ignore. When it works, Google Now can give you what you want before you even know you want it. When Android M comes along, it will be even more scarily accurate.
Updated on 06-11-2015 by Simon Hill: Updated instructions, added new features and examples, and a new section on Android M.
The set up
You won’t get great results unless you set Google Now up with all the information it needs. This will involve some trust on your part. For heavy users of Google services it won’t be an issue, but anyone with privacy concerns is liable to think twice. Google Now is built into Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and above, and you can also now get it as a free iOS app (it’s part of the Google Search app).
It’s worth spending some time in the settings before you start to use Google Now. On Android, you’ll probably have a Google search bar on your home screen and you can tap it to bring up Google Now, or you can select Google from the app drawer. You’ll also be able to hold down the Home button or swipe up from the Home button to quickly select Google Now. If you have a Nexus 5 or you install the Google Now Launcher then you can simply say, “Ok Google,” on your home screen to bring it to life, or swipe from left to right.
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On iOS you’ll want to open the Google Search app. You should be asked to set it up the first time you use it, but you can return to the app and enter settings whenever you like, in order to tweak things.
Bring Google Now to life, and you’ll find the menu at the top left. Tap the three horizontal lines and choose Settings. You can turn Google Now on and off in here, and you can fine tune how it behaves. The more data you allow it to access, the better it will perform.
In Accounts & privacy, you can set nicknames, Web history, and more. You can decide how the Voice settings should work, including the “Ok Google” hotword detection. You have the option to dictate what Phone search covers. In Now cards, you can check your card history, delete your preferences, and decide if you want notification alerts.
Customizing Google Now
Open up the menu, via the three horizontal lines at the top left, and choose Customize, which is accompanied by the magic wand icon. You can choose sports teams and stocks that you are interested in. You can also set places, such as your home and workplace. If you live in a supported country, then you can choose TV & Video to set your TV and Video on demand providers, and get recommendations about movies and TV shows. If you go into Everything Else you’ll find options about website updates, preferences for units of temperature, weather updates, and a few other bits and pieces.
The data contained in Google Now will be collected automatically as you use your various Google services. A quicker way to edit your Google Now preferences is to tap the menu icon (three vertical dots) at the top right of every card that appears and answer the questions that pop up.
If you want to check up on any reminders you have set, then open the menu again and choose Reminders at the top. It’s marked by an icon of an outstretched finger. You can add details to reminders here, delete old ones, or add new ones. When you add a new reminder you can choose to be reminded at a specific time, or you can choose to be reminded when you reach a specific location.
Pre-emptive Google Now
If you really want to get a feel for what Google Now can do, then you have to let it run for an extended period of time. It needs at least a week to start to get a handle on your movements and the kind of information that you are interested in. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t turn GPS on to get your location, and it shouldn’t be a major drain on your battery life. Just let it to gather intel in the background, and you’ll reap the rewards over time.
The more Google Now learns about you, the more useful it potentially becomes. Being able to tie together the fact that you have an appointment across town, with real-time traffic conditions, to give you a reminder about when you need to leave and what route to take to get there on time is impressive, but it obviously won’t be useful for everyone. Much depends on the way you use your phone and what your habits are.
As cards pop up, you can swipe them away to the right or left to get rid of them, tap on them to get more detailed information, or tap the menu icon at the top right to tell Google Now whether you like these kinds of updates and want to continue getting them. There’s an undo option that pops up briefly after you swipe a card away, and you can tap it to bring that card back. You can also scroll down to the bottom to request that it show More cards. You’ll tend to find it doesn’t show much at first, but over time it should display more and more interesting and relevant cards.
Next page: Voice commands, extra features, and what’s coming in Android M.