Tech Lab

Google Now is one step ahead

Does anybody still use Siri? The clever speech-activated personal assistant made its debut on Apple Inc.’s iPhone to near-universal delight less than two years ago. It’s standard equipment on the iPhone 4S that I carry in a hip pocket, but I hardly ever use it.

When I want to ask my iPhone a question, I generally fire up the free and very good Google Search app, which responds to voice queries faster and better than Siri.

And Google’s just added the predictive information service Google Now to iOS devices. Suddenly my iPhone is telling me stuff I didn’t even know I wanted to know — the estimated commute time between the Globe and my church, for instance, or when that package from is due to arrive.


Google Now has been available on newer phones and tablets running Google’s own Android operating system since last July. For months I’ve marveled at Google Now’s clairvoyant awareness of my interests — and fretted that Google probably knows way too much about me. Why shouldn’t iOS users share in the paranoia?

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Google Now isn’t a separate app on iOS devices. You get it by updating to the latest version of the Google search app. You also need a Google account, preferably one that you use a lot. Google files a record of everything you do on any Google service — Gmail, the Google Plus social network, Google Maps, Google Navigation, Google News, and of course the company’s Web search service.

Open the upgraded Google Search on an iPhone and a microphone icon appears at the bottom of the screen. Tap it and start asking questions. Google’s speech recognition runs rings around Siri.

Your words appear instantly on screen, translated in real time. And Google Search usually responds much faster. Even when sitting at my computer, I often speak Google searches into the iPhone. It’s quicker than typing.

Google Now appears as a set of tabs below the microphone icon. With a finger flick, these expand into electronic cards, each with a different kind of information.


Sometimes it’s stuff that everybody wants to know, like the latest weather at your location. Other cards show things you’ve asked to be reminded about, like appointments in your Google Calendar. If you’ve included the location of the meeting — say, Boston City Hall — Google tries to look up the location and offers you driving directions.

Google Now really grabs your attention by answering questions you never asked.

I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I did some Google searches last year about the Red Sox and Yankees. So Google Now always shows me the scores of yesterday’s games for both teams, as well as a preview of who they’re playing next.

I don’t remember asking for bus and subway schedules between home and the office, but there they are.

Online shoe store sent me a Gmail confirming my order; Google Now popped up a card telling me when the package was due to arrive.


The service is weirdly inconsistent, though. For instance, it didn’t flash a message about another mail order item I’m expecting, even though I got a Gmail message with the shipping number. How does it choose which shipments to track? Beats me.

For some reason, the Android version has features that aren’t available on iOS devices. On Android, you get listings of local events that might interest you. If you’re getting on a plane, the phone will display your airline boarding pass. If you use the real estate website Zillow, the Android version will show local houses that might appeal to you. For now, Google Now for iOS does none of these things.

However, using it may drain your iPhone’s battery. My iPhone runs out of juice much faster since I began using it.

Google has received a flood of similar complaints but insists that Google Now is no power hog.

Google itself is certainly a data hog, a repository of detailed data on millions of us. This has mainly benefited Google, which earns its billions by targeting us with personalized ads. But with the new version of Google Search, users get the payoff.

Google Now’s customized information feeds know our wants before we want them ourselves; Google’s voice search feature captures our questions the moment we speak them and responds almost as fast. Combined, they smarten up our smartphones in ways that Siri can’t match.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at