Google Search: Google Now, Now on the iPhone

If you were to ask multiple Android Jellybean users what their favorite Android feature is, the smart bet is that most would say Google Now. As a non-Android user, I’ve had little hands-on experience with the feature, but it’s not from a lack of want. I’m a die hard iOS user, but I’m also a very emphatic user of Google’s services (Gmail, search, Google Docs, Chrome).

So imagine my surprise (hint, it was very) this past Tuesday morning when I learned Google Now had arrived on iOS by way of the Google Search app. Having lived with this much touted service for a handful of days now, getting to chance to experience what it really has to offer, it’s time to determine if Google Now has lived up to the hype.

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Google Now vs. Siri

Comparing Google Now to Siri is on par with comparing apples to oranges. While both may seem to perform similar functions, they’re done in completely in a completely different manner. Chicago Sun-Times journalist Andy Ihnatko likens Siri to an assistant that you request information from (e.g. “When’s my next meeting?”), whereas he describes Google Now as the assistant that has items you need at the ready when it’s appropriate, such as baseball tickets waiting for you in your jacket as you’re leaving for the game. It’s a great analogy, and perfectly defines the differences found between the services.

An Introduction to Google Now

When version 2.0 of Google search was released, Justin Stravarius wrote a great review that detailed the Siri-like voice search features that had been added. In version 3.0, all of those great features are still in place, and the only real addition is Google Now. When you open Google Search, you’ll find a new item located along the bottom of the screen. By swiping up from the bottom, you’ll experience a rather nifty animation that transitions you to Google Now.

Without Google Now, Google Search is still a great app for web searches.

Without Google Now, Google Search is still a great app for web searches.

The Google Now page is divided into two sections. The top section provides a search box, enabling you to perform a search without needing to transition to the previous page. Displayed behind the search box is an illustration, which varies based on your location and time of day. For example, if you’re using the app in San Francisco during a sunny afternoon, you’ll be shown an illustration that features the Golden Gate bridge with a sun overhead. This is a concept I find to be quite neat, but I’m not at all sure why I’m being shown mountains while in the flattest part of Ohio.

The mountains in Northwest Ohio sure are snowy this time of year.

The mountains in Northwest Ohio sure are snowy this time of year.

The second section is where the good stuff happens. As Google Now learns from your interactions with the app and overall movements (the app utilizes Location Services on a full-time basis), information cards are displayed when the app deems it appropriate. Based on my experiences, I would routinely get cards for the weather and traffic conditions for my morning and evening commutes. There are a total of 15 card categories you may encounter, including public transit schedules, sports updates and calendar events (to name a few).

You'll also receive birthday reminders for contacts and Google+ friends.

You’ll also receive birthday reminders for contacts and Google+ friends.

Interacting With Cards

The manner in which cards are displayed is a bit uneven. More often than not, only two cards will be displayed at once, even if more are available. When you’re done with a card, you can remove it by flicking it left or right. After removing the one or two cards displayed, I often found myself tapping the “Show more cards” option at the bottom, which delivered on its promise about half the time, and other times it told me to check back soon. However, I did run into an experience that showed all three available cards at the same time, which I can’t even begin to understand.

Flicking away cards offers a bit of fun.

Flicking away cards offers a bit of fun.

I also had interesting encounters regarding when certain cards were made available. Before leaving for work in the morning I’d check for the traffic card to get a feel for what I could expect during my commute. Seeing as I don’t usually leave work until after 5 p.m., which the app should learn from my movements, I would expect a traffic card for the commute home to be available shortly before then. Instead, I opened the app about an hour after arriving at work (roughly 9 a.m.) only to be greeted with my commute to home card. Perhaps the app was trying to tell me to pack it in a tad early.

You can add teams in the settings, or simply by searching for a team (potential to be annoying).

You can add teams in the settings, or simply by searching for a team (potential to be annoying).

While doing a bit a research for my wedding, I used the app to look up the addresses of the ceremony and reception facilities. When I returned to Google Now about an hour later I was greeted with traffic cards for both facilities, even though I wasn’t planning on actually driving to either location. It’s as if Google Now assumes whatever information I search for is something I’ll need later (sort of like Amazon offering recommendations based on a product you purchased as a gift, but have no desire to purchase for yourself).

It’s Always On

Earlier, I mentioned that Google Now keeps your Location Services running all the time in order to learn from your comings and goings. The app doesn’t utilize GPS, but instead updates from cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, so you shouldn’t experience a significant change in battery depletion. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with battery consumption, but a number of iPhone users have been complaining all over the Internet about major drainage.

You can turn off location reporting and continue to receive useful information, but you'll use some great features.

You can turn off location reporting and continue to receive useful information, but you’ll use some great features.

If need be, you can turn location features off by going to settings (gear icon), tapping Privacy and then turning toggling off Location Reporting. If you do so, you’ll have to do without traffic updates and location-based reminders. I plan to keep location services running, even though it means living with the Location Services icon always being displayed in the status bar. I dislike this trade-off because it makes it very difficult to identify if a rogue app is eating away at my phone’s battery life, but it’s something I can live with.

The Bottom Line

Even though I’m a bit puzzled by how and when some cards are displayed, overall I’m quite enthralled by Google Now coming to the iPhone. I’ve learned it’s best to keep certain cards around, like the traffic card for my evening commute, because if I swipe it away prematurely it may not be available when I’m in need of the information. Besides these quirks, I find the service to be extremely useful, as it offers information in one place that I currently get by using multiple apps.

There’s one issue with Google Now that doesn’t quite make sense, which is the lack of push notifications. Instead of being notified of information when it’s needed, I actively need to seek out the information. It’s rumored that notifications will eventually make their way in a future update, which I hope is the case, but not having them is a small sacrifice for such useful information.

If you’re not deeply rooted in the Googleverse, the Google Now feature in Google Search may not be for you. However, as someone that makes use of Google’s many offerings, I’ll continue to see what information Google Now will bestow on me in the future. If you utilize Google’s many services as well, I recommend that you do the same.


Summary

Get lightning fast voice search results with Google Search, and get the information you need when you need it with Google Now.

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