Traveling with Google Now (review)

Google Now is one of the key features in Jelly Bean. Shane Brady gives his review after a recent trip to Las Vegas.

I took Google Now, Google’s new voice assistant feature, on a recent trip to Las Vegas. Much of the content Google Now pushes out is based on the searches you perform on Google. It was both exciting and disappointing.  Google Now is really cool in many ways, but then it often provides little value. As soon as I found a JellyBean ROM for my Galaxy Nexus, I installed it so I could check out Google Now.

At first, nothing happened.  I got the weather report, but that was just about it.  It turns out, I had turned off my Google Web History years ago, so Google was unable to determine much about me.  I quickly turned Web History on, and data started flowing into Google Now.

Since I work at home most of the time, I wasn’t getting that much out of Google Now other than Mets scores and the weather.  I did have a trip to Las Vegas, though, earlier this month that I thought would be a perfect test of Google Now.  This article is a run through of my experience using Google Now while in Las Vegas. Though I’m pretty familiar with the city, there are always new things and I hoped Google Now would push them out to me.

This is a screenshot of what Google Now looked like just 40 minutes before my flight.  The card contains valid information about my flight, however, I was disappointed that Google Now did not alert me at any time that it was time to leave for the airport.  I live 45 minutes from the airport — more if there’s traffic — but I didn’t  receive a notice in time.  As a side note, I think it would be great if Google Now could somehow incorporate time to find parking at the airport in the alerts.  I was flying out the day after the MLB All-Star game and parking was extremely difficult to find at the Kansas City airport.

This screenshot shows another notification I received from Google Now just minutes before takeoff.  As you can see, no other information was available as I was already boarding.  The terminal and gate were both correct, but once I was at the airport, I was hoping more useful information would be available.

As soon as the wheels hit the runway I turned on my phone, possibly violating FAA regulations. I got the weather report in Vegas (hot!) and the local time at home.  The latter feature was a nice touch, because it told me what time I could call my wife back home without catching her while she was in the middle of something.

I had a quick conversation with my wife while I was waiting in the baggage claim.  There is nothing directly from Google Now here, except that I’d like to point out that my side of the conversation was done totally with voice dictation.  I was standing in a Las Vegas baggage claim with noise all around me from advertisements and slot machines, yet the voice dictation was flawless.  I didn’t get a screenshot of it, but I had an even longer conversation with a friend of mine.  The background noise seemed to have no effect on the quality of speech to text.  I was very impressed.

The next morning, on my way to breakfast, I checked out Google Now and it once again showed me the weather, but it added the preview of the next Mets game as well. I was unable, of course, to buy tickets for a game in Atlanta, but it was nice to have the option.  Once again, on a different card, Google Now reminded me what time it was back home.  Less than 24 hours into my trip, it was looking good for Google Now.

And then it all stopped.  My behavior during the conference consisted of sitting in a room listening to great talks from very smart people.  I was not searching on Google much.  I was staying at a casino a few miles south of the main Las Vegas strip, so there weren’t too many places around me.  For almost the remainder of the conference, Google Now stopped supplying me with anything new.  The few times I traveled, I looked for notifications for cool and interesting places to pop up, but nothing did.

Without Google searches does Google Now lose a lot of effectiveness?  Perhaps because I was able to navigate around Las Vegas without a map, Google Now never showed me any directions.  Perhaps because I knew exactly which restaurants to hit up, Google Now never suggested anything new.

Other features such as being able to say “Play Guns N’ Roses” worked really well, and I was also able to send email with voice dictation quite easily.  I was somewhat disappointed with Google Now at this point, but I was wondering if I would get more out of it if I simply changed my search behavior.

When I touched back down in Kansas City, I received notifications for drive time to my home and the weather.  Google Now was back.  After a few days wondering where Google Now had gone, it gave me useful information that was relevant to me.


Where does this leave me with Google Now? Google Now feeds off data you put into the Google ecosystem — right now anyway.  You conduct searches for flights, weather, sports teams, and restaurants and Google Now succeeds.  Asking your phone for the square root of 3546 and getting back an answer is pretty cool. If you’re very familiar with where you are, and don’t do a lot of searching, Google Now stays in the background.

Going forward, I will see what happens with Google Now. I’ve decided to do more searches directly in Google to see how that feeds back into Google Now on a daily basis.  Google Now is merely the first foray into an important new technology.  When you’re using Google Now you feel as if you’re on the cusp of something great, and the long stretches where Google Now fades into the background feel like lost opportunities.  Despite my disappointments, I’m very much looking forward to any improvements to Google Now over the next year.  Google Now is going to be great, and I’m happy to be an early adopter, warts and all.