How to get started with Google Now

Get to know Google's new Android assistant, and uncover a couple of little-known settings that make the service that much better.

As you navigate your Android 4.1 Jelly Bean -stocked phone or tablet, you might come across a new, built-in feature called Google Now.

Often mislabeled as a Siri competitor, Google Now is not an intelligent voice recognition service. Instead, it's a built-in assistant that serves up Google search-based answers to voiced questions.

Google Now also tries to give you those answers before you even pose a question by predicting the data you want, based on your search history.

Walk through the smart feature and get a few little-known tips in this video and written guide.

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Voice search and shortcuts

To access Google Now, swipe up from any screen. Whether you're in the browser, at a home screen, or anywhere else, you'll always be able to call up Google Now by swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen.

At the top of the Google Now interface, you'll see a standard search bar. Here you can type your search term, or say, "Google" to activate voice search. Once you say "Google" you can perform a search, or use one of these search shortcuts.

Google

With some searches, like for sports teams and definitions, Google Now will "speak" the found data out loud. (For a demo, watch the video above.)

Cards

As Google Now gets to know you through your search history, custom-tailored "cards" will appear below the search bar on the main Google Now screen. A static weather card will appear by default, but to see more cards, simply tap "Show more cards" at the bottom. Or, to see the sample cards, tap "Show sample cards."

Currently, Google offers the following cards: traffic, weather, places, public transit, flights, sports, upcoming appointments, translation, currency, and "time back home."

As the cards populate, you'll see that each one has a submenu (three dots) that allows you to edit the data or access its settings. At the top right of any card's settings menu, you'll have the option to turn that card off, removing it from the Google Now interface.

Since the cards appear in reaction to your searches and location behavior, it's impossible to force them to appear. You can, however, trick Google into making them show up by searching for your favorite sports team a couple of times, or searching for your upcoming flight.

Google Search App with Google Now
Android 4.1's Google Search App with Google Now Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Problem: "My cards aren't showing up."
If you're searching, and searching, and cards aren't appearing in Google Now, it's likely because you have Google Web History disabled.

Back when Google implemented its unified privacy policy , many users (including myself) rushed to disable Web History, the tool that tracks your activity when signed into your Google account.

It turns out that if you have Web history disabled, Google Now will not show you things like sports cards or flight cards, which are both based on your search activity. So, if you'd like these features, you must enable Web History by visiting Google.com/history/ and clicking "Resume" at the top.

If your traffic card isn't showing up, it's likely because you have disabled location history. In order for this feature to work, you have to give Google permission to internally track your location data.

Annoying, right? Since Google Now is a prediction service, its efficacy relies on you reporting your location and search data. No one will blame you if you decide to pass on this service, but if you want to take advantage of the traffic card, do the following:

  • On your Android device, launch the Latitude app. Locate your name on the map and tap it. Then tap "Location history." At this point, you may be asked to give Google permission to track your location. (Note that Google will never share your location data, but does store it on its servers.) Once you agree to the terms, tap "Change home location" and "Change work location" and enter the appropriate addresses.

Once you define those addresses, the traffic card will appear in Google Now.

Disabling Google Now

Whether it's because you keep calling it up by accident, or don't want to use a service that demands so much personal data, you have the option to turn Google Now off.

To turn it off, open Google Now, tap the menu (three dots at the bottom), then slide the switch at the top right to off. Also remember to turn off Location reporting and Web History, if you enabled those while using Google Now.

 

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