Google has improved its voice search tremendously, and the showpiece for the technology is Google Now. This proactive assistant now understands more about where you are and pops up with info you need at the right time. But just because it's built into the latest Android smartphones, does that mean you should use it?
On Android phones running Jelly Bean 4.1 or higher, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, you access Google Now not as an app, but as a built-in function. (On the S4, you hold down the menu button.) However, the app is available for iOS devices as well.
The interface is clean, white and easy to use. Cards pop up on the screen, and to speak to the app, you just click the microphone or say "OK Google."
We're not a big fan of the robotic voice Google uses. It sounds stern, like the voice used in some European sports sedans. We felt a bit scolded at times.
Google Now features include the ability to show you sports scores, flight statuses, and traffic and public transit information. Additionally, it will pull up your boarding pass if you have Gmail cards enabled (and if the airline participates). It can also send you reminders based on time or location.
One of the best aspects of Google Now is that it's location-aware. If you stand near a bus route, Google Now pops up bus suggestions. If you camp out with a laptop in the same place every day, Google Now figures you are working there -- and shows you an estimate on how long it will take to drive home by mileage and time.
When we tested the voice commands in Google Now, we ran into a few problems. As much as Google touts its natural language search capabilities, the app did not understand the phrase "find a cheap flight to Detroit" too well. We did see search results from TripAdvisor.com, but the Sherpa app did a better job of showing actual flight info.
However, Google Now does track flights and will show reminders if you have one scheduled (by reading a confirmation sent to Gmail). It was also more proactive than other personal assistant apps when showing daily reminders about upcoming meetings.
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Google Now also had trouble identifying a contact named Jamie when we wanted text by voice. When we tried to post a Facebook status, the app showed Facebook in search results. However, you can post to Google+ using just your voice, something that neither Sherpa nor Speaktoit could do.
When we said "I want Chinese food," Google Now merely performed a Google search, whereas Sherpa opened up Google Maps, showing local eateries.
We also asked "what's the Yankees score," and Google Now showed the score of the game in progress, complete with a box score that was as detailed and cleaner-looking than Sherpa. The question "When's their next game?" brought up the time and date of the next contest.
When queried about the local weather and then "what about Chicago?" Google Now correctly pulled up both forecasts.
By virtue of its being baked into most new Android smartphones, Google Now is easier to access than any of the other personal assistant apps. However, its natural language search was not as seamless or as useful as Sherpa, and we would have liked the ability to post directly to social networks. Still, its location awareness, public transportation data and proactive reminders make Google Now a helpful app to have on the go.