Seven Tips for Getting Started With Google Now

By Andrew Tarantola on at

Are you still tracking your own packages, flights, and deliveries while tapping on your mobile device's screen like a caveman? Not when we're done with this article, you won't be. Here are seven simple steps you can take to turn Google Now into your personal digital secretary.

Android users may already be well-familiar with Google Now's powers, but if you're not — or if you're stuck with Siri or Cortana as your personal assistant — it's worth a refresher. It mines data scraped from a combination of user-shared information, browsing history, location, and time to deliver relevant information, reminders, and content exactly when its algorithms think you need it. This isn't a mobile Big Brother in your pocket, though; the information it uses is mostly just related data from your Google account, like it pulling information from your calendar to remind you that you're about to be late for an appointment.

You can find a full list of available cards here. But below are some of the ones we use the most.


Set Some Ground Rules

6 Tips For Getting Started With Google Now

Before you can start having your phone finish sentences for you, you'll need to do a bit of basic setup.

  1. If you're on iOS, download the Google app from the App Store on your phone or tablet. Your Android device will have it pre-installed.
  2. Once you've opened the app, scroll to the bottom of the screen, past all the cards, and tap the magic wand icon in the centre of that bottom row to pop the Customise Google Now menu. In iOS, tap on the three dots in the lower righthand corner, and select Settings.
  3. In Customise Google Now/Settings, you can select your favourite sports, teams, and events; any stocks that you follow, designate your home and work addresses; select your cable and VOD providers, and even your preferred method of transport — driving, public transportation, walking, or biking. Fill in everything that you want to, what you share is of course up to you but the system works better the more you tell it about yourself.
  4. Save out of that menu and go back to the main Google Now screen. That's about as far as you can go on iOS, but on Android, you can now head back to the bottom of the page and now tap on the three dots in the lower righthand corner. Select Settings.
  5. In Settings, you can turn the Google Now feature on and off entirely from that top toggle-box. Tablet Search allows you to select which apps can return results for your on-device searches, such as Google Music, Chrome, and Crunchyroll. Voice allows you to turn your tablet into a hands-free device: with OK Google Detection, you can turn on voice commands from any home or lock screen (not just the google search page), train the device to listen for your voice, block offensive words, and even assign a bluetooth headset. The Accounts and Privacy menu (as well as Notifications) is pretty self explanatory, though turn off Commute Sharing if you don't want to broadcast your physical whereabouts to your Google+ circles.

Note that while Google Now exists on iOS, the feature set varies slightly compared to what you get in Android, but most of the below should be available on both — and whatever's not likely will be soon.


It's OK to Talk to Your Computer

6 Tips For Getting Started With Google Now

Years of entering keywords and search terms has trained us to ask for information in a staccato fashion, spitting out the five most relevant words. Well, no more. Once you have voice commands activated, you'll be able to once again ask questions like a regular human except, you know, to a tablet. Instead of typing in "obama number of presidency" you can simply say "OK Google (to activate the function), Barack Obama is which number president?", for it to tell you "44". What's really cool is that Google can also understand conversational context so after it tells you 44, you can immediately follow up with "And who was president before him?" and Google will totally understand that you're asking about George W Bush.

Google Now also understands relationships. In Android, fire up the app, and say "call Mum". The app will ask you who that is and allow you to select them from your contact list and establish a "relationship" within Google Now. They can also be added manually to individual Contacts on your list.

From now on, you can assign relationships to specific contacts so you'll only need to say "call mum" or "text brother" not their full names. This relationship tag also includes options for the rest of your family members, friends, co-workers, supervisors, and significant others.


Watch TV With Your Phone, Not Just On Your Phone

6 Tips For Getting Started With Google Now

A modern equivalent of VH1's old Pop Up Video, Google Now can perform some pretty sweet tricks while you're busy melting into the sofa. If your device is on the same network as the Smart TV, just tell Google Now "Listen to TV" to receive trivia and programming information about what you're watching. Similarly, you can shove your phone in front of a speaker after saying "What am I listening to?" and Google will both ID the song, and provide a link to purchase it. If only you could train it to get you a beer as well.


Show Me The Pictures

Do people really love looking at pictures of your holiday as much as you think they do? Of course, don't be silly. And with Google Now, you can pull your pictures up and share them out faster than ever before.

So long as you have your Google+ account linked up, you can ask Now to display them based on the photos' location and time. Commands like "Show me all of my photos from Kalamazoo" or "Show me all of my photos from last Thursday" will pull any photos from Google+ that meet that criteria.

Also, the "take a photo" and "record video" commands can save valuable seconds when pulling your phone out to capture something at a moment's notice.


Local Reminders

6 Tips For Getting Started With Google Now

Google Now also does well to leverage the functionality of its sister apps, such as Google Keep's location-based reminder feature. As we discussed last week, all you need to do is set a reminder using the "OK Google … set a reminder for" command and saying where you need the task to be completed. "Set a reminder to buy milk" becomes "Set a reminder to buy milk the next time I'm at Asda" and the system will automatically pop a reminder the next time the device's GPS determines your near one.

So not only do you no longer need to remember exactly what you need to buy, you don't even really need to know where to buy it. Just wander around town until you get a notification.


6 Tips For Getting Started With Google Now

Find Your Car

And if you have trouble even remembering where you put that confounded vehicle, don't worry — Now knows. If you've selected "Drive" as your preferred method of travel in the Magic Wand section above, Google Now will issue you a parking card noting where you car is every time you get out of it. Now relies on your phone's accelerometer to guesstimate when you exit a vehicle and isn't perfect, so don't be surprised if it pops a parking card the next time you get off a bus or out of your mate's ride. Sometimes that happens the moment your heel hits the curb, sometimes it's as much as 15 minutes after you park; it depends on the GPS readings and Google's own algorithms. Still it's better than hunting a multi-storey car-park level by level for your lost car.


Let Your Location Be Known

It's not just your car's location that you can keep tabs on: you can just as easily track and be tracked by your friends and family using Google Now's Location Sharing feature. You know, it you're into that sort of thing.

This service can be toggled on and off through the Google+ App's Settings menu and allows the user to broadcast their current location to specific people and Google+ circles. Handy if you want to quietly keep tabs on your kids during their bus ride home from school. It also works the other way round with a Now feature known as Commute Sharing. It lets friends and family track where you are on your morning and evening commutes (or really just wherever you are at the moment). They will receive Now notifications if you happen to be stuck in traffic, caught on a busted tram, or stuck on a stationary train — whatever the transport issue, Google Now will let your and your's know about it. Simply select "Let them see your commute updates" from the Now Settings menu.


These are just a few of the many commands, cards, tips, and tricks that can help Google Now make you life easier. If you have any techniques that you don't see listed here, let us know in the discussion below!