Google Now for iOS: A real reason to use location services

Google Now HomeI am a tech geek. I love technology, I constantly download the latest apps, I do my very best to have hands on experiences with the newest devices, and I am generally constantly reading about new advancements.

That being said, Google Now has completely blown me away.

Google Now: The future is here.

Coming from Apple’s iOS as my primary platform, I have been salivating over Google Now via YouTube videos and tech articles for a long time now. I initially stumbled on it while looking at comparison videos between Siri and Samsung’s S Voice. In the rabbit hole that is YouTube, I eventually ended up watching plenty of videos comparing Google Now to S Voice and Siri, and Google Now handily beat them both every time.

Needless to say, this bit of software was something I was excited about, but honestly was not fully confident that it would make it to iOS. However, as is the trend with Google, they always feel releasing their incredible software on iOS is more beneficial for them than it is detrimental for their Android platform. Lucky for iOS users!

Google Now is basically nested within the Google Search App which can be downloaded from the App Store.

First Impressions

I downloaded the app on April 29th, the day that it was released, and I was blown away right off of the bat. Once I installed it, I went into the Google Search app, and dragged the Google Now interface from the bottom into full view. I was curious what type of “Cards” I would be seeing since it was my first time on the app.

Important note about setting up Google Now

To use Google Now,  it is highly recommended to turn on your Location Services. Without that, Google Now literally does not function. It will just sit there and tell you there are no location services, and show you nothing else. Also, if you have a Gmail account, logging into it will greatly enhance your experience. As far as I can tell, virtually everything is taken from your Google relationship, and generally a Gmail account is the anchor point for that relationship.

2013-05-01 11.14.01Once I had my location services enabled and logged in with my Gmail, I scrolled through my cards. The first thing I noticed were two cards that had the information of two packages that I had ordered from Amazon. I immediately tapped on one, and it showed me all the information about when the order was made, who was shipping it, and gave me a button to “Track Package.” This was the first feature that truly surprised me because it required Google to sort through my email, understand the email from Amazon, take the data and reorganize it for the card, and present it to me with a link that goes directly to the USPS tracking site. That is just plain intelligent, and it’s the type of tech I have been waiting for for a long time!

To be fair, the tracking on the package was rather basic, and didn’t go to the USPS site the first times that I used it. It was still able to tell me the latest status and the delivery day, but wasn’t showing me step by step statuses as the package made its way to my house. However, I noticed that today, when I track a few additional packages that I recently ordered, the “Track Package” button goes directly to the USPS website, and shows me the exact up-to-date status which is even better than using the Amazon app to track things.

Location Awareness and Navigating

I have to admit, this is the category that excited me the most when I looked at all the Google Now videos. Sure, it is incredibly fast at understanding a question and giving you data immediately, but what was being shown for built-in navigation seemed like true predictive and future technology. In these YouTube videos I watched, they showed how Google Now would alert you when to leave for work in the morning based on the traffic situation, basically predicting what time you needed to be at work and alerting you if traffic was jeopardizing that. Since Google Maps navigation has always been the most reliable app on my phone, I was excited by this type of tight integration. So how did it work?

Once I set my Home location in Google Maps, the Google Now integration was absolutely fantastic. However, it relies heavily on having a place to go. While that might sound obvious, what I mean is that this data needs to be in a form Google Now recognizes. For my appointments over the last few days, I had to add them to my Google Calendar (including location)and then it would sync to Google Now.

The result was quite impressive. For example, I put in a doctor’s appointment for the next morning, and when I woke up and went into Google Now, the top card was how long it would take me to get there and a small map highlighting the traffic situation, and of course a button that links to immediate navigating in Google Maps. Pretty cool. Even more, when I was finished with an appointment (or out anywhere for that matter), it would always have a card suggesting the traffic back home. A few times, this made it seem like it was reading my mind, as I was actually heading home.

Again, this is all understandable, and a natural progression of technology, but here is what really surprised and excited me: I was at a doctor’s appointment, and it was my only appointment in my calendar for the day. Naturally, Google Now was suggesting Home as the next destination and that was all. However, I needed to get some blood drawn for a test my doctor wanted, so I started using Google Search to find lab locations around the area, identify their operating hours and perhaps make an appointment. As I was walking out of the doctor’s office, I casually glanced at Google Now to see if there were any interesting new articles it thought was relevant to me, and the top card was the traffic and time estimate to the lab I looked at! Talk about predictive technology.

Location based results that I have experienced:

  • Restaurants nearby that have Zagat ratings attached
  • The weather and forecast wherever I am
  • Traffic to my next destination (if it’s in the calendar), or back home

Some cool location features I have yet to test:

  • When traveling, it will display a translator for you based on the country you are in
  • It will show you the current time zone you are in, and occasionally flash back to your home time zone so you see the time there
  • Depending on the country you are in, it will offer up the current currency exchange in that area
  • It will suggest local venues and shows going on, including movies

Sports and News CardExperience with Google Search Integration

As the magical addition of my Lab location points out, Google Now is heavily integrated into Google Search. Here are some things I have searched for that Google now later assisted with:

  • Locations I have searched for (like the lab), especially when I am near them
  • Sports teams I have searched for future schedules or past scores (they start appearing in cards with results)
  • News articles featuring the type of tech articles I have been searching for and reading (not many, but they were on target)
  • Restaurants nearby

Aside from these types of integration, the Siri-like feature of being able to search with your voice is just plain spot on. Not only does it show you what you said in text so you can visually confirm the search, it does so as you type. The second you say a word, it is on the screen, and you can see it correct itself by the context of your sentence if it got a word wrong. The result is a flawless voice translation that always has gotten it right for me, and leads to a fast and easy search. It generally can find an answer to just about anything, and is way better than Siri (and much faster).

Is this an invasion of privacy?

I am very sure there will be two camps regarding the privacy issue, one saying that of course it isn’t, and one saying Google is an evil corporation and is trying to sell your soul for money. I have always been a part of the former, but with this increased integration, I can really understand the latter. Much of the impressive things Google Now has done has honestly been absolutely creepy. It seems to know what is going on in my life, before I even know I am looking for it. However, I suppose that I am technologically minded enough to find these advances awesome and necessary, and the sharing your information part of it is just a necessary evil for large jumps in life quality.

iOS Drawbacks

One of the largest differences between iOS Google Now and Android Google Now is simply the level of phone integration that you can attain. For example, when you tap on “Get Directions” on the traffic part of iOS Google Now, it will open Google Maps (thank god it’s not locked to Apple Maps for some silly reason). However, in the Android version, you also have choices like notify the person you are meeting that you will be a few minutes late.

Additionally, and one of the absolute worst limitations for iOS is that push notifications are not allowed. This severely limits the usability of the app because you must have the app open to get the benefits. For Android, your phone will alert you that it is time to leave for work (or whatever appointment) based on the traffic and the time. For iOS, it knows you have to leave, but it can’t say anything to you. It’s up to you to notice the time, and check the app for the traffic update. That is a huge downside, but given all the wonderful other features of the app, I found that I am in it regularly enough to notice things before it alerts me.

Final Thoughts

Google Now is still young on iOS, but it is clearly a winning product. Of all the apps to have ever come out on iOS (not counting Google Maps return to iOS), this is hands down the one that I am most excited about. True predictive technology is something that tech companies have been working on for ages, but nobody has been able to really nail. Google seems extraordinarily close, and if they can develop this to know virtually everything I want to do before I do it, then all the other companies will be scrambling as their market share absolutely tanks.

The best part is that I don’t think any other company really can do it the way that Google can, because they don’t have all these integrated services like Gmail that are constantly pulling in information from every aspect of your life. Time will tell if this is truly the future, but I am very certain that this is a large step in the right direction.

Android App Roundup! ZDBox and Carrr Matey

It’s time once again for another edition of Android App Roundup! After a bit of an absence, we’re back and ready to bring you the must-have applications for your Android device. This time around we’ll be telling you about ZDBox, a handy little application that collects a bunch of tools into one place for your convenience, and take a look at Carrr Matey, an app that helps you remember where you parked your ship… we mean, car.

If you know of an application that would make a good addition to a future App Roundup, feel free to send us an e-mail or let Evan or me, Kevin, know via Twitter.

ZDBox – Kevin’s Pick

If you’ve had an Android phone for a while, you have probably accumulated a nice collection of useful tools to accomplish various tasks. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of all of those applications and replace them with a single application that can accomplish multiple tasks? Enter ZDBox.

ZDBox can monitor battery life, monitor data usage, set up “do not disturb” times where your phone automatically silences, lock specific applications so they require a password to open, kill running tasks (not recommended), batch uninstall applications, and batch move applications to the SD Card. All from one easy interface.

Using ZDBox is pretty self-explanatory. From the main interface, click one of the options to be taken to a sub-interface to set up or run whichever service you want to use. If you don’t want to use all of the services and don’t want the unused one sitting in the background sucking up resources, they’re easy enough to disable completely.

I’ve personally been able to get rid of four single purpose applications and replace them with just ZDBox. It makes an excellent addition to any Android user’s arsenal of utility applications.

Carrr Matey – Evan’s Pick

Let me start by telling you that I have a terrible sense of direction. And it’s not just a bad sense of direction, I also get disoriented very easily. Exacerbated by living in a metropolitan area with 3.5+ million people, I quickly sought refuge from my navigational disability in the Android Market.

I then discovered Carrr Matey. With three r’s and a cheerful pirate theme, this app lets you “drop anchor” when you park your car, making it easy to find on your return trip. Using your phone’s built-in GPS, you can navigate back to your vehicle with an overhead map view or a handy compass view.

Carrr Matey's map view. The ship marks your car's location.

Carrr Matey has a few extra features that make it especially useful to post-16th-century transportation. After setting the location of your parked vehicle, you can enable an optional parking timer to help you avoid expensive parking tickets. If you happen to leave your vehicle in a parking ramp, Carrr Matey’s “Harbor Mode” lets you store details like level, letter, color, or number of the parking spot.

 

Parking timers in Carrr Matey.

Sure, your friends might poke fun at you when you tell them you legitimately have no idea where you left your car. But don your captain’s hat, young sailor, because you’ve set a course with Android!

Communal Masses, Meet Google Map Maker

The word “community” is a very strong word in this new, digitized world.  From Wikipedia to YouTube, the beneficial effects of a community-driven environment are not only obvious, but essential to the betterment of the internet.  A sense of  community brings out awareness, efficiency, and self sustainability wherever it is applied.  But you don’t have to tell these things to Google; they already have the community hard at work for them.

This is called Google Map Maker.  Google Map Maker is a tool that allows the realm of Google Maps to evolve and adapt via the help of us, the community.  Essentially, this is how it works: If you, a Google user, are surfing Google Maps and find an issue in the location of your favorite restaurant or bar or whatever, you can now add or edit a point to make Google Maps more accurate.

I think there was a restaurant right here once...

 

Must...edit...everything

As one can see, most points of interest in Google Maps can be modified or created right inside your very own browser.  Furthermore, one can add things like whole polygons (for mapping out large points of interest) and lines (for bike trails and such) for the betterment of the community as they search the world map.  Once your editing is finished, the revisions you made are then sent to others for a pending review.  Simple and efficient.

To advertise this new world of map revitalizing, Google has released this Map Making Pulse webpage (shown above), which jumps across the world showing you in real-time pending updates that local people are submitting to improve the map.  If you are interested in finding more about the details of map making, you can check out the official Google Blog entry on this new feature.

Google Map Maker is the future of community driven cartography.  Christopher Columbus, eat your heart out.

Android App Roundup! SDMove and Google Places

It’s time again for another Android App Roundup! In this edition I’m going to tell you about SDMove, an indispensable application to have installed if you’re running Froyo (Android version 2.2), and Evan will tell you about Google Places, an app you probably already have on your phone but might not have used yet.

We welcome all suggestions for future App Roundups – you can post them below in the comments section, send us an e-mail, or let Evan or me know via Twitter.

Kevin’s Pick: SDMove

One of the most welcome additions in Android 2.2, especially for those of us running phones with a pathetically small amount of internal memory, is the ability to offload applications to the SD Card. This still requires the developer to flip a switch to allow the move, and while some developers were a bit slow to adopt the feature, more and more are starting to realize that this is something people might want to use.

How do you go about moving your hundreds of applications to external storage? By default, the only way is to go through the applications list, click on each individual application, and click the ‘Move to SD Card’ button if it’s not grayed out. Thankfully, one guy noticed this limitation and created a simple, amazingly effective application.

SDMove presents you with a list of all the applications you have installed, color coded based on each application’s SD Card status. Green apps are currently located on external storage, yellow apps aren’t on the SD card but can be moved there, and red apps aren’t allowed to be moved either because the developer has specifically flagged it as unmovable or hasn’t bothered to set a flag at all. There are a few other colors as well, and a full legend can be found in the ‘About’ section of the menu.

It doesn’t pack much flash, but SDMove does what it advertises and can save you a lot of time and frustration. Best of all, it’s completely free (if you don’t mind looking at the usual ads)! If you recently updated to Froyo and want to see what apps you can move, or if you’ve already moved some apps and want to see how much more space you can save, scan the QR code below to be taken directly to SDMove’s Market page.

Evan’s Pick: Google Places (part of the new Google Maps)

This app is an easy recommendation because most of you should have it installed already (as long as you’ve updated to the newest version of the Google Maps app).  If you haven’t updated your Google Maps yet, open the Android Market, press the Settings button, select Downloads, and install it.

If you’ve ever used services like Yelp, Google Places is a direct competitor.  Google has eagerly jumped aboard the location-based service bandwagon, and Places gives you a simple way to quickly find restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations, and entertainment.

When you open Places, it will automatically grab your GPS location (if you have it enabled), so picking any category or performing a search will show you a list of relevant locations sorted by distance.  A small compass will even show you the direction of the potential destination.  If you don’t see the category you’re looking for, simply perform a search or use the “+ Add” button to create your own category.

Selecting a location will give you details, including reviews, available cuisine, and features like “Quiet atmosphere” or “Wi-fi Hotspot”.  You can click the buttons on the listings page to show it in Google Maps, navigate to the location, or call the business’ number.

I used Google Places this weekend to find a great new sandwich shop for lunch that was only a few miles from me but I didn’t know it existed.  If you do any traveling, I’m sure it will be even more useful.  Google Places is included with Google Maps, and can be found in your Apps drawer.