Google Now should be the brain that powers your Android phone. Google’s digital assistant service pulls in disparate information across all corners of your Google account and makes sense of it so you don’t have to. It’s been an invaluable component to how I use Android.
The service, which compiles information into cards and push alerts, analyzes all of the data that flows through your Google account. As you can probably imagine, all of these details tell a lot about what you’re into and where you’re going.
But since the service launched over three years ago, it’s evolved to dabble in more areas by integrating with third-party apps and other Google services. So to really get the maximum value from it, you need to take the time to know what it can do and how to bend it to your will.
With Google tweaking the capabilities all the time, that’s seemingly a never-ending process. Here are a few of the most important tricks you need to know that will help you master Google’s all-knowing service.
If you don’t have a Nexus phone, you’ll want to install the Google Now Launcher. Along with a smooth, minimal skin you’ll have access to Google Now just one swipe to the right off of your home screen. It’s not a requirement to use Google Now, but it sure makes it a lot easier.
You’re probably familiar with how Google Now produces a stream with updates on your favorite sports teams or television shows. It’s pretty simple to use, but deeper customization is necessary if you want to turn on or off certain notifications. Just slide over to Google Now, tap the three horizontal lines at the top left, and select Settings.
From here you can choose what updates you get from third-party apps, websites you’ve visited or which sports teams you’re into.
You’ll want to check back here from time to time as you may run into the annoying experience of Googling a newsworthy topic, like the election, but then getting constant updates about it.
I’ve lately noticed a lot more news cards, which has also been a mixed bag. Some of it has been relevant Android news, while other cards have been just clutter (the most bizarre was a word of the day from Urban Dictionary, which is not suitable to print). You can turn off your alerts here in the settings, or by touching the overflow menu on a card (top right) and telling Google you’re not interested.
Have phone, will travel
We’ve talked before about how Google Now is an excellent travel guide. Some of this comes from the pre-planning as when flight, hotel, and other confirmation emails go into your Gmail, you’ll have a handy card that summarizes your entire trip. And now if you have an Outlook.com/Yahoo address you’re still hanging on to, you can “Gmailify it” and get the same email-reading capabilities with those accounts.
Bu you haven’t paid enough attention, you may have missed how much Google Now will help you while you’re on your trip as well. You may have to be that person who is on their phone all the time at first, but pay attention to what Google Now suggests when you head to a mall, big box store, or restaurant.
The other thing to watch for is Google’s curation of places to visit when you’re in a city or directories for large spaces like malls and shopping centers. In practice I’ve found the utility of these to be rather mixed. It’s worth checking out if you’re going somewhere completely new and want a general lay of the land for what to do or if there’s a store you want to find in that mega-mall.
Now On Tap requires patience
The biggest upgrade promised with Android Marshmallow was Google Now On Tap. If you have a compatible device, you can touch and hold the home button and Google will search the contents of your screen and perform a rapid-fire Google search, with related news, social media profiles, or other content.
In practice it’s been a little underwhelming. I don’t use it all that much because I usually have something very specific in mind that I want to Google so I’d rather just perform another search myself after I’m done browsing at the current app. But it’s helped a couple of times when someone texted me about a restaurant to check out and I was able to fire up a map right away.
My recommendation for experimenting with Now on Tap is to try it out with news articles, conversations, or other places where you think you want to know more about what’s on the page. Sometimes Now on Tap will delight you, other times it will be a letdown. Machine learning still has a ways to go, so give this service some time to get better.
Music, movies, and shopping
Google Now has evolved to be a hub for all aspects of your consumer life. When you search for an actor or film you’ll now find the information nicely sorted into an easy-to-read graphic. Same goes for music, and don’t be surprised if you find a notification that an artist you’ve searched for in the past has a new album out.
One of the most useful additions I’ve come to like lately has to do with shopping. Google Now will occasionally ping you with lower prices about products you’ve searched for.
Yes, it’s a little creepy at first, but it’s saved me some cash. If you don’t want these anymore, you can dismiss it as evidenced by the notification you see in the screenshot. This may not be enough to cure your addiction to Amazon, but maybe start the search for your next purchase in Google search and see what happens.
Extra content from apps
Google started indexing third-party apps last year with the goal of making Google Now a better hub for everything on your phone. Sometimes it’s rather useful. I get pings occasionally from Trulia about the value of nearby properties so I can either celebrate or cry, and Foursquare will offer up details about the new burrito place that just opened.
But the best content isn’t from a third-party app: it’s Google's new weather card. Google recently poured in some extra time into for a splashy, new interface. It may replace your current go-to weather app, in fact (although there are plenty of good weather apps).
It’s not uncommon for Google to launch a new integration or capability out of the blue, so don’t be surprised if one day something new pops up. That’s how Google rolls with its products, but it’s a boon for anyone who doesn’t want to wait for OS updates or new hardware to get the latest features.