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Google Assistant: Awesome features you need to start using

Google's A.I. assistant learned some new tricks while you weren't looking.

google assistant lead art
Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Google has had voice search features in Android for years, but when Google Assistant rolled out on the Pixel in October 2016, everything finally came together. You can now get Assistant on all modern Android devices, and Google has already announced new Assistant features at I/O 2018 that will make it even better (okay, and maybe a little too real, in the case of Duplex).

It can be easy to miss the improvements if you don’t obsessively keep an eye on the news, so here they are in one place: the coolest new features in Google Assistant.

Further reading: The best Android phones

Change the Assistant voice

assistant voice Ryan Whitwam/IDG

There’s nothing wrong with the default Assistant voice, but perhaps you’re getting a little sick of it. Google added a handful of alternatives last year and recently expanded to a total of eight different voice options. It only takes a moment to change the voice, but the menu is somewhat buried.

Start by opening the settings menu via Assistant or the Google Home app. Go to Preferences > Assistant voice, and you’ll be able to choose between the eight options. Tap on any of them, and they will begin reading off a sample. Once you’ve chosen, go back and all your Assistant devices will use the new voice.

Routines

google assistant routines Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Using Assistant to do the same few things all the time can be tedious, but Routines might be able to help. This feature allows you to connect multiple actions to a single command. There are only a few pre-determined routine commands right now, but they could still save you a lot of time.

To get started, open the Assistant settings and scroll down to Routines. In this menu, Google provides six pre-loaded commands: good morning, bedtime, I’m leaving (leaving home), I’m home, let’s go to work, and let’s go home. Say any of those, and you’ll trigger the associated Routine. Each one includes a few customization options including smart home devices, travel info, and audio playback. You can also modify the trigger phrase at the top of the Routine settings page.

Custom routines

Google Assistant custom routines Ryan Whitwam/IDG

If Google’s pre-loaded routines aren’t doing what you want, you can also create a completely custom routine from scratch. Go to Routines under the Assistant settings, but don’t tap on the “Ready-made” options. Instead, hit the plus button down at the bottom to make a custom routine.

You’ll need to enter at least one trigger phrase to start. Then, add actions either by typing in commands or using the “Popular actions” list. Being able to input text means you can have your routine do anything you could do manually in Assistant. Remember to add a custom response to your routine so you know it triggered correctly, too. You can also have Assistant play media like podcasts, music, and sleep sounds at the end of a routine.

When you’re all done, you can change the order of actions, which is handy if you’ve crammed a lot in there.

Trigger multiple actions

Google Assistant multiple actions Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Assistant launched with a single-tasking approach. You told it one thing to do, and it would either do that thing or tell you it didn’t know how to help. If you had more requests for Assistant, you’d start over with a new command. Google has quietly added support for multiple actions in a single command, but it won’t work on everything.

You can give this a shot right now by stringing two commands together. For example, “Turn off the lights and give tomorrow’s forecast.” Assistant will do both without a second command. Unfortunately, you can’t use routines or shortcuts with multiple commands. In addition, this feature is only live on the Google Home version of Assistant. It won’t work on your phone.

Location-based reminders

Google Assistant location reminders Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Google was famously slow to add reminder support to Google Home, but it’s been there for a while. More recently, Google expanded reminder functionality to understand location. Your Google Home doesn’t move, of course, but your phone does.

When you add a reminder via Assistant on Home or your phone, consider adding a location. For example, “Remind me to buy milk when I go to [a grocery store].” The reminder won’t appear on Google Home because it doesn’t go anyplace with you, but your phone will ping you when it detects you’re in the right place.

Identify songs

Google Assistant identify songs Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Wondering what that vaguely familiar song playing in the background is? Google Assistant is probably the fastest way to find out. On your phone, long-press the home button to launch Assistant, and you might have a contextual button that says “What’s this song?” That only appears when Assistant hears music in the background. If it doesn’t show up, you can say/type that phrase to launch the recognition.

Assistant listens for a few seconds, and then returns a match.You’ll get the song, artist, album, lyrics, and links to listen to it online.

Sync connected smart home devices

google assistant sync devices Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Google Assistant supports numerous smart home devices, but you might notice that devices you’ve just added to your account don’t always work right away. That’s because Assistant isn’t constantly scanning for new connections. You can give it a kickstart.

After adding a new smart home device like a camera or thermostat, open up Assistant and say, “Sync my devices.” Assistant tells you it’s syncing with your connected accounts, and a few seconds later any newly added devices will appear in your list. Make sure to add them to rooms in Assistant for full functionality.

Send daily info

google assistant send daily Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Assistant is great for calling up little tidbits like the weather, stock quotes, or even jokes. You don’t even have to ask every time, though. You can have Assistant proactively send you certain bits of information as a daily update.

To configure a daily update, start by asking your question normally—ask it for the weather, a dad joke, whatever. After Assistant pulls up the content, you can follow up with “Send this to me daily.” Assistant asks what time you want the update, and you’re all set. To change or cancel a daily update, just say, “See my subscriptions.”

Have Assistant remember things for you

google assistant remember Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Your squishy human brain is fallible, but Google Assistant can remember things without fail. All you have to do is ask it. You can tell Assistant to remember things just by saying “Remember that [some piece of information].” You could tell Google to remember where you parked, what you did with the spare house key, your high score in Tetris, or anything else. As a handy bonus, Assistant also saves maps when you tell it where you parked.

Later, you can ask Google to recall the information in various ways. You can be direct, like asking Assistant “Where did I park?” You can recall factoids you’ve saved with “What did I say about [x]?” or “Remind me about [x].”

Search your Google Photos uploads

google assistant photos Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Google Photos is a fantastic backup solution for all your snapshots. Google offers unlimited storage of images and videos, provided you’re okay with a little compression, and Pixel owners get free full-quality backups. If you want to look for specific photos you’ve taken, you can do it right from Google Assistant. All you have to do is ask.

Assistant plugs into the amazing search capabilities of Google Photos, so you can ask to see almost anything. You can ask Assistant to pull up pictures of specific people, locations, and even objects. Tap the image results to scroll through them immediately, or open Google Photos via the shortcut under your pics. Just make sure you preface your request with something like “my photos”  to ensure you get images from your Google Photos library rather than images from a Google search.

Take and share screenshots

google assistant screenshot Ryan Whitwam/IDG

You can capture screenshots on Android phones by holding the power and volume buttons, but Assistant can do it, too. In fact, it might be faster if you intend to share the screenshot right away. Open Assistant and say, “take a screenshot” or “share a screenshot.”

It takes a moment to capture the screenshot, but you’ll get a preview as soon as it’s done. Assistant then immediately brings up the sharing interface so you can send the screen to a message or upload it someplace. The screenshots taken via Assistant aren’t saved locally, so you won’t end up with clutter from repeated screenshot captures.

Listen to podcasts

google assistant podcasts Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Google has built a basic podcast interface into the Google app, and the easiest way to access it is via Assistant. You might want to listen to podcasts in this fashion because Google’s solution is quick and easy. Just say, “listen to [podcast name]” to fire up the latest episode. If you were in the middle of an episode, Assistant picks up where you left off.

Your progress is not device-specific, either. You can start listening to a podcast on your phone, then tell Assistant on Google Home you want to listen to the same podcast. Rather than start, over, it starts where you last listened on your phone.

Explore menu

Google used to hide all of Assistant’s features in a series of esoteric, buried menus. Now, there’s a much more sensible way to find out what sort of cool things you can do with Assistant in the Explore menu. 

google assistant explore IDG

To access this menu, open Assistant and tap the blue drawer icon in the upper right corner. Here, you can find all the services supported by Assistant broken down into categories like Social & Communication, Education & Reference, Games & Fun, and more. Each tile links to a full info page where you can see sample commands and (if necessary) link your account. Bottom line: Checking out the Explore menu is the easiest way to keep track of newly added apps and services.

There are also some general Assistant command suggestion at the top. You don’t even have to speak the suggestions, just tap the bubble and they’ll be dropped right into Assistant.

Typing to Assistant

Google Assistant first appeared in the Allo app, and in that iteration, you could input text to “chat” with the Google’s bot. But the more powerful baked-in phone version of Assistant began its life with only voice input. That’s fine when you’re in a situation where you can talk to your phone, but voice dictation isn’t always appropriate. Well, you can type your questions and commands, too.

google assistant typing IDG

To access the keyboard in Assistant, just long-press your home button as you normally would. But instead of speaking right away, tap the keyboard icon in the lower-left corner. Assistant will expand to fill the screen, and you can begin typing. Assistant will respond to all the same commands that you’d use in a voice-dictation situation, and you’ll also find contextual suggestions above the keyboard. And because these suggestions are part of Assistant, they appear no matter which keyboard app you’re using.

Editable history

Google Assistant used to be a transient experience—whatever you said to Assistant would be lost to the ether as soon as you left the Assistant UI. But now there’s a full history of your commands, and you can edit them too.

google assistant editing IDG

To access your Assistant history, you need only drag up on the overlay when Assistant pops up. This will drop you into a full-screen interface that shows your recent queries. Scroll up to see everything you’ve asked and how Assistant answered.

Editing is a snap, too. Long-press on a query, and it will be highlighted along with Assistant’s reply. From there, you can either delete or edit it. Deleting will completely remove the query (and associated activity) from the history. This is just like removing something from your Google search history, so it won’t be used to inform future search and Assistant predictions.

If you choose to edit a query, the text is dropped into the text field along with an open keyboard. You can tap send to immediately repeat the command, or make some changes and send it again. Just note that none of this undoes the actions performed when the command was first issued. 

Shortcuts

There are dozens of services and apps integrated with Assistant already, but some of them get preferential treatment. For example, you can tell Google to control your Hue lights directly, but lights connected through Homey require you to preface all commands with “Tell Homey.” It can get a bit tedious, but shortcuts are here to help.

google assistant shortcuts IDG

To create a shortcut, go to the Assistant settings and open the settings. Scroll down and tap on the Shortcuts option. The shortcut screen has a box for what you want to say, and one below that for what you want Assistant to actually do in response.

In the top box, input whatever snappy shortcut phrase you want. It tends to work better if you use the microphone button to speak the shortcut. Assistant will sometimes put a sample command in the bottom box, but you can change that to the command you want. It has to be the full phrase you’d say to Assistant, including the “Tell [X]” part if needed. Once your shortcut is saved, it’ll work by voice and text.

Google Express shopping list

Google Assistant has always been able to add items to a shopping list, but that list used to live solely in Google Keep. As such, it was just a list. But Google recently changed the shopping list functionality to plug directly into its Google Express delivery service, which could be very useful if you’re a subscriber.

google assistant shopping IDG

All you have to do is say, “Add [item name] to my shopping list.” It will show up in your Google Express shopping list instantly. You can access that list in the Google Express app, or simply say “Show me my shopping list.” That takes you to the online version of your list, which can be shared with any of your contacts. If you’re a Google Express subscriber, you can tap “Shop your list” to get filtered search results from supported local retailers. Add items to your cart, and you’re done.

This story, "Google Assistant: Awesome features you need to start using" was originally published by PCWorld.

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