A Visual Virtual Assistant: Google Now Comes to the iPad

Google has slowly been infiltrating Apple’s ecosystem for years now, but their secret weapon has become the Google Search app. While the app used to be just a search engine, it’s become a search engine, a Chrome-like web browser, and even a so-called Siri competitor with its Voice Search function.

Jesse Virgil took a look at the last major incarnation of Google Search with an excellent review that really gets into the grits of what makes the app awesome. Today, Google has released version 3.0, which comes with only a few substantial improvements over the older version, including the much-touted Google Now feature.

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Introducing Google Now

I have two Nexus devices and I’ve been using Google Now on them for the past while. Quickly, it became an indispensable tool in my tech arsenal. Not unlike Siri, Google Now is baked right in to the Android OS, and is accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the screen from any app or menu.

Welcome to the future.

Welcome to the future.

Google Now on iOS is a little different. It isn’t built into the operating system and it’s not meant to be used from any app. To access Google Now, swipe up from the bottom of the Google Search app. Swiping down tucks it away and returns you to the original menu screen with a nifty animation that I spent way too much time playing with.

Google’s House of Cards

So how does it work? Google Now uses the information stored on your device as well as your history as a Google user to parse your information and presents it to you in a highly visual Cards layout. Cards can be swiped away to the left or right if you feel that information isn’t worth checking out, and in true Google fashion, that sort of information isn’t likely to pop up again.

The Cards are easy to manipulate and look great in landscape or portrait.

The Cards are easy to manipulate and look great in landscape or portrait.

This becomes especially useful if Google Now presents two news stories: one about Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, and one about the NHL Playoffs. I’m much more interested in the Stanley Cups, so I swiped away the celebrity gossip and started reading about hockey instead (go Leafs go!). Celebrity gossip is now less likely to pop up on my News Card.

What Matters Right Now?

The key to the app is that, instead of displaying useless information, Google Now is keen to give you the information that you need. It alerts you of future events in your Google Calendar, keeps track of traffic to and from work, and makes sure you have directions — or public transit — to get you to wherever Google thinks you need to go.

My weather Card is persistent, but the Directions card only comes up when it's necessary.

My weather Card is persistent, but the Directions card only comes up when it’s necessary.

The caveat with the whole system is that you need to be really embedded into the Google ecosystem. Some people might feel Google’s privacy (or lack thereof) can be invasive, but the app only works really well if Google knows about your every move. I use Google Search, Gmail, Google Calendars and more almost religiously out of habit. Google Now isn’t perfect, but it does keep track of what’s going on for me right now, as the name claims.

In the Deck

Google has a long list of Card types that they support, including not just what I’ve mentioned already, but also Flights, Weather, Sports, Translate (which turns on when you’re in a foreign country), Currency Conversion, Movies, Public Alerts, Stocks, Birthdays, and Photo Spot. Google also claims the app supports Gmail, but I’ve frankly never once seen an email in Google Now despite all the time I’ve spent playing with it.

Some of these cards are more brilliant or useful than you’d guess. Photo Spot has quickly become a favourite of mine, particularly when travelling. If I’m near a location that Google finds a lot of image results for, a Card pops up to let me know where it is and let me browse the photos. As a photographer, I love being able to get to that popular Photo Spot and explore with my own camera, putting my own personal stamp on some of these visual landmarks.

You can turn almost every card on or off with ease.

You can turn almost every card on or off with ease.

All these Cards have their own individual settings, so turning some off and others on is easy, but I find Google never pesters me with excessive information. The app is about mastering the art of giving you just enough to get you through the day (or even the hour) instead of bombarding you.

Ace of Spades

To extend the metaphor even further though, Google Now is a more important playing card for Google in the war against Siri than Voice Search ever was. Siri and Voice Search both require speaking and they both have distinct limitations as a result. Siri can only do so much at once and Google can only search for one thing at a time.

When you need the Cards, just swipe up from the bottom. When you don't, push them down and tuck them away.

When you need the Cards, just swipe up from the bottom. When you don’t, push them down and tuck them away.

Google Now alleviates both of those concerns. There’s even a Search Bar at the top of Google Now for quick search access (and a Voice Search option is baked into that as well). And it’s fast. The information you need is right at your fingertips when you need it — not ten minutes later or half an hour later, but now. People with cellular iPads in particular are going to be really happy with Google Now‘s on-the-go results.

Raising the Stakes

A few people have talked about the possibility of Siri as a visual personal assistant, but have questioned whether or not that defeats the purpose. If Google Now is evidence of anything, it’s evidence especially that there is a way to do it properly and Apple just needs to crack their knuckles and get to work.

Google Now is a visual virtual assistant that’s insanely useful and a lot of fun to play with. Not only does it challenge Siri, but it also reveals the possibility of a visual virtual assistant. The user interface is intuitive and clutter-free. With it, the Google Search app has changed from simply being a fast way to access and use Google services. Now, it’s become an important part of my iPad (and iPhone) home screen. For people in Google’s ecosystem, I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Summary

Google Now finally comes to iOS, and it makes the Google Search app worth downloading for anybody entrenched in Google's services.

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