The Complete Guide to Google Assistant in 2018

By David Nield on at

Beyond Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube, Google Assistant is shaping up to be one of the most important Google products in the years ahead, and it’s already more pervasive and more advanced than you might have realised. Here’s everything Google Assistant can do and everywhere you can find it.

When you hear “Google Assistant” you might instantly imagine asking Google about the time or the weather forecast for tomorrow. While the Assistant can do that, it can also control your smart lights, text your friends, send you reminders when you arrive at a certain place, and much more besides.

Where you can find Google Assistant

Google Assistant is in all the Google Home smart speakers, as well as the new Google Home Hub. These speakers are probably one of the Assistant’s best-known habitats, with simple setup and voice control.

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

It’s in far more places now though. You can speak and type to Google Assistant on your phone: It comes built into some handsets (like the Pixels and the LG G7), or you can download it for Android or iOS. It’s available via headphones too, like the Pixel Buds or the Bose QuietComfort 35C II.

You’ll find Google Assistant built into the Pixelbook and the Pixel Slate—with a dedicated keyboard button, no less—so you can speak out or type out commands. It’s apparently coming to all new Chromebooks too, in the near future.

It’s available in Wear OS, of course, and as part of Android TV, so you can shout out commands to change channels and launch apps if you’ve got a Sony set with Android TV on board or something like the Nvidia Shield TV hooked up. It’s integrated into Android Auto as well now too.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

And the edges of Google Assistant continue to blur: You can tap the microphone button on the main Google search page in Chrome, for instance, ask “what’s on my schedule?” and see your upcoming Google Calendar events (as long as you’re currently signed into Google). Google doesn’t officially label this Google Assistant, but it works in the same way.

What you can do with Google Assistant

What can the Google Assistant do? Get answers from the web of course: From the age of your favourite celebrity to the sunset times in your neighbouring city to the time of the match tomorrow. If Google Search can return an answer for a question, then Google Assistant very likely can too.

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It’s probably still what Google Assistant is known best for, and while we won’t run you through an exhaustive list of every single supported query, it’s largely common sense. Get word definitions, look up statistics and facts, amaze your friends with random pieces of trivia, and so on and so on. Don’t forget the “what’s this song?” function if you want to identify a tune in the background.

Remember that Google Search is very advanced these days, and therefore, so is Google Assistant. More complex queries you can plug into Google—like what films are on nearby, how far it is to a certain place, which are the best restaurants in town, the time of the next train to the city, how many days to Christmas, or how many inches in a metre, for instance—all work with Google Assistant too.

Use Google Assistant with Google apps

Google Assistant can go way beyond web queries, though, because it knows so much about you: From your calendar, your emails, your photos, and so on, assuming you use the relevant Google apps to manage all of this information and data.

Take Google Photos, for instance—you can ask the Google Assistant to “show me my photos from last week” or “show me my photos from Sydney” and it will oblige. You can call up images of anything from objects to people, either from your own image library or the internet at large.

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Google Calendar is integrated, of course. You can see your agenda, your appointments for tomorrow, or when you’re next scheduled in to visit the dentist—Google Assistant is now smart enough to handle multiple variations of voice commands, so you don’t have to hit an exact phrase or wording. As long as you say something intelligible, Google Assistant can bring up the calendar results you want.

Then there’s the stuff from your Gmail, which Google has been analysing for a while now to power services like Inbox and Google Now. You can ask Google Assistant to show you your flights or your trips, for example, and it will return the details based on the booking confirmations you’ve got in your emails.

You’ve got bits of Google Maps personalisation inside Google Assistant, so you can say “show me directions home” or “show me the traffic to work” and it’ll know what you’re talking about. You can also, of course, see directions to or traffic on the route for any specific location you want to name.

Basic Google Translate functionality is included, which means you can get short phrases and words converted into another language (though you’ll need to open up Google Translate for anything particularly complicated).

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Reminders and alarms are a big part of Google Assistant’s functionality, though they don’t always sync particularly well across multiple devices. Simple commands like “set an alarm for...” or “set a reminder to...” are easy enough, and Assistant asks you for more details if needed (if you want a recurring reminder, say). Locations can be attached to reminders, using the location data from your phone as a trigger.

Typically if you set an alarm (or a timer) it’ll only work on the device you used, so your smartphone or your Google Home Mini, maybe. Reminders are a bit better: You can see them in any Google Assistant interface, and in Google Calendar, but not in Google Tasks or Google Keep. Obviously, Google has more work to do here.

Same with Google Drive, which doesn’t really work with Google Assistant yet. Google Play Music can be launched from Google Assistant (just ask for an artist, song, album or playlist), but is on the way out—its YouTube Music replacement doesn’t yet have the full Assistant functionality, though you can of course launch YouTube videos with an Assistant voice command.

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Maybe you didn’t realise Google had so many apps and services, but you do now. Google Assistant can also dip into Google News (“tell me the news” or “what’s the business news?”), Google Fit (“start a bike ride” or “how many steps have I taken?”), and Google Podcasts too (“recommend a podcast” or “listen to...” then a podcast name).

We also want to flag up Google subscriptions, a recent addition to Assistant. Basically, you can ask Google Assistant to deliver anything once a day after running a search—just say “send daily” as the next command. It could be the weather, it could be a joke, it could be a fun fact, or it can even be an image search result (so you can get your phone to greet you with pictures of bunnies every morning, if you want).

Use Google Assistant with other apps and services

Outside of Google’s own apps, there’s lots more to explore. As with Alexa and its skills, Google Assistant is adding plenty of third-party add-ons all the time, though it’s not particularly easy to work out what you can do—your best bets seem to be the online directory or a simple “what can you do?” command inside Google Assistant.

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We can’t cover all the capabilities here, but we can give you some highlights. Try “talk to the Rover station,” for example, to get the latest weather from Mars, or “talk to meditation timer” to get a meditation timer working on your device. Headspace is on Google Assistant too and can be launched with a “talk to Headspace” command.

Google Assistant is pretty clever when it comes to flights: You can say “how much are flights to Milan in two months” and “when does [flight number] arrive?” to get intelligent answers to both questions. Kayak is one third-party tool with Google Assistant support: Say “talk to Kayak to find new travel destinations” for example.

You can get other music and video services working with Google Assistant but you need to configure this in advance—through Google then Search, Assistant & Voice from the Android Settings app, for example, or via the Google Home app to get these third-party services working with your Google Home speakers. Spotify and Netflix are two of the high-profile services that work.

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The Google Assistant lets you hear some white noise (“talk to White Noise”), get a daily Bible verse (“talk to Bible Verse of the Day”), or get instructions for something (“ask WikiHow how to...” do something). While the Assistant lacks the breadth of skills that Alexa has, the selection isn’t bad—though we would like to see more.

Use Google Assistant with your smart home

Some of the best third-party integrations for Google Assistant are in the smart home space, and if you’ve seen the Google Home Hub demoed (or bought one yourself), you’ll know that this is an area Google is keen to keep pushing. Controlling your smart home devices remains one of the ways smart assistants of any type can be most useful.

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Everything Nest works with Google Assistant, of course, but the likes of Philips Hue, Lifx, TP-Link, Logitech Harmony, Neato, Samsung SmartThings, Honeywell, August and many more all work with Google Assistant too—see here for a full list and to check if your smart home gear is connected.

All of these devices need to be added to Google Assistant’s working memory first, but this is done easily enough through the Assistant app on Android or iOS—from the main interface tap the compass icon, then the three dots, then Settings, Assistant, and Home control. You can give devices nicknames for easy reference, and assign devices to rooms to control groups of gadgets with a single command.

Use Google Assistant to control your phone

Last but not least, you can use Google Assistant to control your phone and the apps on it, though as you would expect you’re a little bit more limited in terms of actions on iOS, as Apple isn’t too keen on giving non-Apple apps the keys to the whole device.

Starting with the basics, you can “call mum” or “text dad”, as well as fire off emails to whomever you want—”email my boss” perhaps (these all work using the nicknames set up in your contacts). You can also “make a phone call” to pick from a list or “call voicemail” to do just that.

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Google Assistant will bring up WhatsApp if you say “send a voice message” and WhatsApp is on your phone. It’s also possible to use Google Duo, if you prefer—just say “video call [contact name] on Duo” and the Assistant opens up the right app. Telegram or Hangouts can also be specified in your commands if you’d prefer to use them instead.

Saying “share my location” is a neat way to let other people know where you are, and is integrated right into Assistant (on Android only) and developed by Google. Meanwhile, “take a photo” works on Android and iOS, launching the camera app and a three-second timer so you and your friends can get in position.

Google Assistant is also able to interface with your phone directly—with commands like “mute volume” (Android and iOS) or “turn off wifi” (Android only) for example. On Android, you can open apps by saying “open...” then the app name, and “open settings” goes to the Settings app on Android and the Assistant settings on iOS.

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The Assistant lets you head straight to websites, if you find it easier to speak out or type their names into the Assistant box rather than navigate to them in the usual way through your browser: Just say “open...” followed by a website URL (or a close approximation of it).

And there’s yet more we haven’t mentioned, including the new visual interface tweaks on the Home Hub and extras like Google Lens. With Google Assistant evolving fast, on more and more devices, and with more and more knowledge about you, it’s clearly the future of Google—and before long it’ll be making restaurant reservations for you, too.

The cost of Google Assistant

Google Assistant is—like many of Google’s apps—free to use, with the deal being that you give up yet more of your personal information so Google can sell advertising against it (and “personalise” its services so it can recommend decent restaurants you’ll like or recognise when your favourite sports team is playing). It’t tracking where you’re going, what you’re doing, what your interests are, and so on.

Google says it uses this data responsibly and offers a variety of ways to manage and if necessary delete the information you’ve given it, but it’s not a pact everyone is happy making. Google is by no means invulnerable to data privacy worries and security holes.

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As we’ve noted before, smart speakers and smart assistants can potentially listen to everything you’re saying and log everything you’re typing. Even if Amazon, Apple, and Google have the best intentions regarding user privacy, these always-on listening devices are open to abuse from government agencies, rogue software developers, and any hackers targeting the fragile security of the Internet of Things.

We don’t want to put you off the purchase of a brand new Google Home if you think it might be useful, but you should consider the implications. There are ways to limit the data the device can collect on you, and if you head to your Google account on the web you can see the Assistant activity Google is tracking and delete it if necessary.

We’ve also written before about locking down your privacy on Android and in Google’s apps, so it is possible to use services such as Google Assistant without handing over details of everything you’re thinking and doing.