How to get started with the Google Assistant on your Android phone

No longer a Pixel exclusive, Google’s all-knowing oracle will transform the way you use Android.

google assistant
Derek Walter

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If you don’t have a Pixel, there’s now one less reason to look at it with envy. The Google Assistant is coming to the smartphone that’s in your hand.

Google has released it from the safe confines of the Pixel and is rolling it out to any device that runs Marshmallow (6.0) or Nougat (7.0). Yes, you could always get the Google Assistant in Allo, but it was very limited in what was possible, and nobody wants to run a specific chat app for it. Now it’s always ready to answer questions, find you photos, and connect more deeply to your Google data.

If it’s come to your phone, prepare for a major enhancement in how you use Android. The Google Assistant is smarter and more capable than the standard Google app. Here’s what you ought to know about its capabilities and all the cool, new tricks you can do.

Assistant for (nearly) all

The Google Assistant comes to your phone through an update to Google Play Services. This allows Google to push it out directly, as Play Services includes APIs and other developer tools updated independently from the typically anemic Android operating system device update process.

When it arrives, you’ll get a notification that you have a new friend in the Google Assistant. Just like with Google’s voice search, it can be summoned instantly with an “OK Google” voice command or by pressing and holding the home button. As for the basics, you can issues a series of voice commands or ask questions and expect a direct action or answer.

google assistant android phone Google

You don’t need a Pixel anymore to summon the Google Assistant.

The Google Assistant delivers sometimes richer results with the same queries that you're used to. There’s also a ton that you can do if you tap into IFTTT.

google assistant search Greenbot

A voice query gets you a quick answer and suggestions for further searches.

Google's A.I. companion will also deliver direct answers to search queries, whereas the previous voice search tool would generally offer up a series of blue links. If you want to know who is the current cast of The Voice or where the next World Cup will be, Google has you covered.

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Getting a sports score is much quicker with a Google Assistant query.

The only thing to be aware of is that from time to time, Google doesn’t quite get it right. There have been some high-profile examples lately where Google’s indexing has pulled the wrong answers. I’d say 99 times out of 100 Google gives a reputable answer, with a lot of solid information coming from Wikipedia. However, if you’re doing academic research or something more involved you’ll want to do more than just ask Google, as convenient as it is.

Take control

There are two different doors that lead to the same room when it comes to customizing the Google Assistant. One is the Google app itself. Summon the assistant (long-press the home button), tap the overflow menu (three dots in the upper right), and choose Settings.

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The Google Assistant is getting smarter all the time, so head to the settings to find out what it can do and perform customizations.

Touch your Google account at the top to access some specific data points that will give you further customization. Since Google knows pretty much everything about you anyways, you may as well tell it your home and work address. You'll also want to take a peek into the "My Day" and "News" sections, to customize what Assistant does when you ask "how is my day?" or "what does my day look like?"

This will allow you to ask the Google Assistant questions like “how does my commute look?” and “what will the weather be when I get home?” You’ll also see more persistent predictions in the Google feed cards about such information based on what you’ve told the Assistant.

There’s also a nice shopping list integration with Google Keep, which means you can leave the phone on the counter and shout out things you need while digging through the refrigerator. You can even add multiple items at a time: "OK Google, add butter, milk, and eggs to the shopping list."

shopping list Greenbot

Never miss out on your favorite soda during the next shopping trip.

Keep asking questions and trying things out, as Google adds in new tools all the time. This especially applies to Screen Context, which will pull up relevant information by reading what's on your screen when you long-press the home button. Just long-press home when you're texting, or reading twitter, or reading web sites. Give Assistant a couple seconds to process, then scroll down the screen to see relevant info cards.

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Found a new place to check out? Use the Google Assistant to get more details.

Add in some friends

As powerful as Google is, it doesn’t do everything. We all rely on numerous apps and services throughout the day to stay organized and get things done. The Google Assistant works with many, and gains support for new ones all the time. One of the best partnerships is with Google Photos. For example, you can ask for pictures of cats, and any felines from your photos roll will be right there.

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Get ready for cats galore, thanks to Google Photos.

For this and other searches I find that a general query will first pull up images from your Google Photos account. But as you can see from the screen, you can then elect to go to a more general search afterwards.

Useful and fun tips

There are some moments where the Google Assistant really shines, and shows you the power of artificial intelligence. From the settings you can choose which news and sports updates you want to hear, which can be triggered with a “OK Google read me the news” command.

It’s a refreshing way to get updated on what’s going on without falling into the wormhole of Twitter.

google assistant news Greenbot

Get all the news that’s fit to hear inside of the Google Assistant.

But in some other moments all you want is a little fun. The Assistant will read you a poem, pull up a fun fact, or of course you can get the latest on the weather for anywhere in the world.

what to ask google assistant Greenbot

Fun and games are also a key part of the Google Assistant.

To pass the time, check out the trivia games that are hiding inside. You can tell Google that you want to play trivia, and then you’ll be able to partake in a quick game to test your knowledge.

google assistant trivia Greenbot

A round of trivia is a nice way to challenge your brain and take a break from social media.

It runs a little slow, but it’s another good way to pass the time without diving into the Internet for an hour.

Google’s ambitions for the Assistant are big, as the version that lives on phones is starting to take on more of the smart home capabilities that you get in Google Home.

It’s the living, always-learning and available component of the Google Assistant that makes it such a compelling application to have on your phone. Experiment, ask a lot of questions, and above all be willing to farm out some functions to your new, digital aide. Like any good piece of technology, you’ll wonder how you got on without it.

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