Another virtual assistant is coming to the aid of iPhone and iPad owners. Google is trying to shove aside Siri, a concierge-like service offered by Apple since late 2011, with its own technology for helping people manage their lives on mobile devices.
Siri waits to be asked a question or told to do something. Google Now, the name of Siri’s new competition, learns about a person’s habits and preferences so it can proactively provide useful information.
The power of Google Now lies in giving you information you need to know before you have to ask. It works best as a supplement to Siri, rather than a replacement, now that it has expanded from Android devices to iPhones and iPads.
Both Google Now and Siri will respond to voice commands, whether it’s to look up the day’s weather or set the alarm on the phone. Google Now goes further in filling your phone screen with boxes containing stock quotes, sports results, weather, travel directions and more – all without making a request.
Those choices are based partly on your location, the entries in your calendar and the travel-confirmation messages in your Gmail account. To use Google Now, you have to give Google permission to use your personal data. You can create a separate Google account if you’re not comfortable with that, though Google Now works better the more it knows about you. It works best if you also let it record and analyze the Google searches you’ve made recently.
For the past several months, I’ve had a chance to use Google Now on Android in 13 states and in Thailand. I’ve found it particularly useful while traveling. As soon as my plane landed in Orlando, Fla., on a trip this year, Google Now offered “cards” with details on my hotel and my car rental, based on confirmation emails sent to my Gmail account. Clicking the hotel card got me turn-by-turn directions to the hotel using the Google Maps app. On the way home, Google Now gave me the gate number for my connecting flight in Charlotte as the first plane taxied from the runway.
Now, iPhone and iPad owners can get that, too. Google Now became available on Apple devices this week. Simply download the free Google Search app through Apple’s app store.
For the most part, the Apple and the Android versions are similar in terms of the information they present.
But Google Now isn’t as seamless to use on the iPhone or the iPad, mainly because Google doesn’t have as central a presence in Apple’s iOS operating system. On an Android device, clicking a Google Now card will often take you to a built-in Google app such as Google Maps or Calendar for more details. On the iPad Mini I tested it on, I got Web pages – at least until I manually installed Google’s mapping app.
To be clear, Siri is the better of the two – as a voice assistant. She’ll always respond with something, even if it’s to seek clarification. Google Now will often remain silent, sometimes giving you no more than a list of websites. Google Now’s assistant also lacks Siri’s feistiness and sense of humor. Siri, for instance, has more than a dozen witty responses to queries about the meaning of life.
Where Google Now shines is in anticipating your questions. Open the Google Search app, and you’ll see cards fill the screen with useful information.
In Orlando, Google Now continually offered directions to nearby breweries, possibly because I had searched Google for information on tours. I got information on a co-worker’s flight from Las Vegas because he had shared his Google calendar with me. And because I had searched for Flowers Foods for a story just before my trip, Google Now offered me directions to the baking company’s headquarters in Georgia when I was about a half-hour away. I was actually headed to Montgomery, Ala., but I appreciated the gesture.
On weekday mornings in New York, Google Now sends me notifications on how long my commute should take, based on public transit schedules at that time. It tells me about my commute home in the afternoon. It knows not to bother me with that information while I’m abroad.
Without typing or saying anything, I can press the search box on my phone and automatically get a card with the current weather and forecast. I can also get the latest Mets and Nets scores that way.
You do have to give Google Now permission to scan contents of your Gmail account, but it’s typically limited to confirmation notices from airlines and hotels rather than discussions of hobbies and medical conditions. You also must give it permission to access calendar entries.
Whatever you think of the rivalry between Google and Apple, don’t look at Google Now as a Siri-killer. Think of it as a companion for the tasks you can’t accomplish with a simple voice search.
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