The number of voice-activated "virtual assistants" for Android has exploded in recent years, ranging from the gimmicky and niche to the genuinely useful and broadly applicable. None of them are perfect, but we think that if you can get it on your device, Google Now's rolled-in simplicity and array of genuinely useful tools make it the best personal assistant your can get on an Android device.
Update: Our previous pick for the best virtual assistant for Android was Vlingo, an app we really like (and mention later) especially for pre-Ice Cream Sandwich devices. Still, we thought it was about time to update our recommendation.
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- Can operate in both hands-on and hands-free modes by saying "Google" aloud when the Search app is running, or by launching from the home screen.
- Includes dozens of "cards" that each provide useful, specific, and relevant data based on your position, your calendar, or your recent Google searches.
- Displays current weather conditions in your current location, and updates your location automatically if it changes. Also displays weather alerts and other public information like flood warnings, fire warnings, earthquake alerts, etc.
- Displays breaking news stories and relevant articles based on your Web search history
- Displays suggested web search and additional research topics based on your Web search history
- Performs web, image, place, and contact searches by voice.
- Can dial, email, or send SMS messages to contacts by voice.
- Can navigate and obtain driving directions, and open other applications on your device just by listening to your voice commands.
- Can display information about live television programs just by listening to the show you're watching.
- Can search for local and nearby businesses by topic, category, name, menu item, or general description, and displays the business' information via Google Local on screen.
- Automatically suggest navigation locations based on your Google searches and based on the time of day (e.g. if you were just searching for a specific Italian restaurant, Google Now will offer to navigate there when you get in the car, and if you're in the car at the same time every day at your office, it will automatically give you your ETA to get home through traffic.
- Displays your next appointment, when it's scheduled for, and when you should leave to get there at all times — as long as there's an appointment on your calendar.
- Offers local traffic and transit alerts that are relevant to your daily routine and commute, including alternate routes, train schedules and departures, and more — which Google Now learns after the first few weeks of use.
- Warns you proactively when you should leave your current location in order to make an appointment on your calendar at a different location. Includes traffic and transit conditions in those ETA estimates.
- Functions as a travel assistant, and can display a scannable boarding pass on-screen as soon as you get to the airport, warns you when your flight is scheduled to depart and from which gate/terminal in the airport, offers real-time flight and travel information to and from the airport, as well as directions from an airport to your hotel, meeting, or other eventual destination.
- Includes built-in currency conversion and language translation cards that auto-update based on your location.
- Automatically shows package tracking info for any shipped orders with confirmation emails in your Gmail account, or that you've searched for manually using Google on the web.
- Supports time, location, and event-based reminders so you'll remember to grab milk if you stop at the grocery store, call a friend if it's his or her birthday, or even notify you if there's an event in your vicinity that you previously looked into.
- Keeps you updated on your favourite sports teams, local and away games, and final scores.
- Can display movie showtimes for theatres in your area if you search for a movie, and can even help you buy tickets via Fandango. Once you've purchased your tickets, you get a scannable QR code to print them out at the theatre, along with a reminder of when you should leave for the theatre in order to get to the movie on time.
- Helps you discover new books, albums, apps, and concerts or live events based around your favourite artists, authors, previously downloaded music, and more.
- Is cross-platform, and also available on iOS as part of the Google Search app.
Where It Excels
Google Now started off as an interesting experiment in how Google could crunch the wealth of data it has available about you and put it into a useful package. It's since blossomed into a real personal assistant that takes your usage, your search habits, your location and more, and puts it all into a useful tool that will proactively help you manage your time better, get to where you need to be faster, be on time for your appointments, and find out about businesses and events that you might be interested in. Its tools aren't perfect, and your experience will vary depending on the power and speed of your device, but there really is something incredible about opening the search bar on your phone, putting it down and saying "Google, send text message to Dad" and have Google Now understand the command and even prompt me to edit the message.
Google's own Voice Actions were always a strong set of tools, but with Google Now, they're in a whole different league, and the sheer wealth of information that Google Now provides at any given point in time is incredible. It doesn't hurt that almost all of it is actually relevant and useful at the time it's presented. While the number of features that Google Now offers is incredible, you won't see them all at one time, or have to wade through unwanted ones to get to the cards you actually want to use right now.
Finally, Google Now is one of Google's hottest projects, and it's frequently updated — more so than even other third-party personal assistants.
Where It Falls Short
Google Now isn't perfect. Like we said, sometimes it displays cards that aren't useful simply because you searched for something or went looking for something specific at some point. Read a restaurant review? Google Now may offer to navigate you there the next time you're in the car, even if you have no intention of trying the place, or the review turned you off. Still, Google Now learns quickly, and if you don't use a card, it goes away in short order.
Speaking of learning quickly, Google Now is so effective because once you turn it on, Google gets a wealth of information about your travel habits, your orders and shipments, your emails and web searches that it can crunch and use to provide you useful information. You need to be utterly aware of that tradeoff when you activate Google Now — if you're a privacy fan, you may not like the idea of letting Google sift through quite so much information about you, not all of which it would normally have access to. If the benefits outweigh the drawbacks though, it can be a great service.
Finally, Google Now is technically only available on Android devices running Jelly Bean 4.1 or higher (and iOS devices), which leaves a lot of people out in the cold. There are ways around this, but it still requires that you have at least Ice Cream Sandwich. That's a bit of a bummer, and there's no way around that if you're stuck with Gingerbread. Finally, even on those higher-end phones, Google Now can be quite the battery drain and resource hog, so use it wisely and sparingly. More than a few Android owners I've known just turn it off because having it running in the background takes a toll on your battery.
Vlingo is a great option if you're stuck with Gingerbread or you want something with fewer features. It's more hands-free than Google Now, and it has a built-in driving mode that's specifically designed for use when you can't look at or touch the screen, something Google Now doesn't quite have. Plus, it can do things like update your social networks for you, read your Facebook news feed to you aloud, and share your location with your loved ones — something Google can't do now that Latitude is gone. Best of all, it's free, and while it's less powerful than Google Now, the features it does have are great ones.
Maluuba (free) is a personal assistant that we think gives Google Now a run for its money, especially on older and more mid-range or low-end Android phones. The app covers all of the basics you would expect from a personal assistant. It can organise your calendar, keep you aware of upcoming appointments and events, and set alarms and reminders by voice and so on. Adding and searching for appointments and nearby businesses or directions is a snap. However, where Maluuba really shines is in its UI. Big bright buttons emulate the Windows Phone style — and that's actually a compliment — and getting around the app is quick and easy. It's not as proactive as Google Now is, but it offers less screen density for a solid number of features. It can't talk back to you, but if you want a quieter, more productivity and calendar-minded assistant, it's worth a look.
Indigo (free) is an up and comer that — while it's not perfect — does bring some new features to the table, and extends an olive branch to Windows Phone and Windows RT Tablet users, offering them a unified personal assistant that can do some great cross-platform things. Indigo handles the basics — it will get you the weather, organise your calendar, remind you when you have a meeting about to start and so on. It will also help you research local businesses and restaurants, help you learn basic trivia, update your social networks and more. Indigo's biggest benefit is that it shares notifications and alerts between Android and Windows Phone, so if you have a Surface tablet and an Android device, for example, it can bridge the gap between the two and keep you productive. Its UI and interface are nice looking too — and it takes the focus away from being a hands-free assistant for driving and instead tries to be a productivity-based assistant while you're working.
Sherpa (free) is all about talking to your phone. While some of the other contenders here interact with you from time to time, talk when you want them to, or don't talk at all, Sherpa's claim to fame is that it understands natural language, doesn't force you to memorise commands, and can understand multiple languages and accents. Sherpa isn't as powerful as some of the other assistants in the roundup, but it does fetch a great deal of information for you — basic knowledge questions and trivia are no problem for the app, and it can play music without downloading the songs for you first (it just streams from the web) or requiring you to have the artist in your library. It can read your tweets, update Facebook for you, manage your calendar, get the weather and more.
Assistant (free), formerly Speaktoit Assistant, is another personal assistant tool that's come a long way since we last looked at it. It seems to have grown up in a lot of ways. While we think that the app still spends too much time trying to give you a cute cartoon avatar on-screen to interact with than actually offering useful features that can help you get things done, it's improved a great deal, and if you don't need much special other than some basic voice commands and some witty banter, it's a great option. Honestly, while it offers a wealth of customisation options on the surface for how your assistant can look and speak and sound, it hasn't added significant updates to its core features in a while. You still have a tiny microphone button you have to press in order to interact with the app, no decent hands-free option to speak of, grammar errors all over the interface and more. Yes, Speaktoit does a lot — you can have an idle conversations with your assistant, ask trivia questions, get driving directions, open apps and search the web. It will even pipe up if it thinks you need to know something, and it can connect with dozens of other apps (by which it really means launch them for you). It has a fan base, but the app itself is still quite limited. If you don't mind sacrificing some function for form and customisation, this is the app for you.
Jeannie (free) is old, but it's still a great option. It's one of the more lightweight options in the roundup here, but it also suffers from some stagnation. While it has all of the core features down — web search via Google, Wolfram Alpha, Bing and a number of other sources, hands-free SMS and email, and a host of trivia, it's also not in a hurry to add new features. If you're stuck with Gingerbread and all of the other tools are a little much for your device, give Jeannie a try.
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