Screenshot_20160105-221539Voice recognition has gone big in mobile circles over the last few years. Apple got there first with Siri, but Google wasn’t far behind with Google Now. With Google Now, you can use a command phrase (“OK Google” or “OK Google Now”) to prompt the phone to take a command, then give an order and the phone will do it, if it can.

I’ve been using Google Now ever since I got my Moto X phone, for a variety of tasks. My main uses for it were to navigate me places with Google Maps (“OK Google Now…navigate home”) or set a timer on my phone to remind me when something was ready to eat. (“OK Google Now…set timer for five minutes.”) But now that I’ve gotten my Nexus 6, I’ve begun to see that it can do a whole lot more than I had been doing with it.

The beauty of Google Now and a Google-branded phone is that you can set the phone to listen for the words at all times—even when the phone isn’t unlocked. It doesn’t necessarily come this way by default, though. To set it up, you have to get into Google Now (in the default launcher, just swipe left and there it is) then hit the “hamburger” icon at the top left and enter settings. Tap on “Voice” and then “OK Google detection,” then make sure the “Always on” switch is activated. The first time you do this, it should take you through training the voice recognition—going somewhere quiet, then saying “OK Google” three times so Google would know what you sounded like. After that, you’re all set.

There are an amazing number of commands you can enter, and there are a number of handy references out there listing all of them. Here’s one, and here’s another. Armed with that knowledge, I’ve started using Google Now for a number of other things. For example, when I’m out to eat, I can ask it, “OK Google…what’s the tip for $7.31”? and it tells me that a 15% tip would be $1.10, and even gives me the tip amount and my total of $8.41 right there on the screen. I could also ask it what a 20% tip was, or some other percentage.

It’s also great for finding out random information. If I want to know a fact, I ask it as a question, and often enough not only will it pop up search results, it will read me a brief snippet of text from the top listing. “OK Google…what is uncured pastrami?” “OK Google…why is the sky blue?” If you have an inquisitive kid, this could be an invaluable resource. It’s even a handy resource for me. When I ran across an unfamiliar term in a article, I was able to say, “OK Google…what is ‘QUILTBAG’”? and immediately get an answer. Granted, I could simply have opened a new tab and Googled it, but speaking is a lot easier.

Have you placed an order from Amazon and want to know where it is? If the tracking numbers are in your Gmail, you can say, “OK Google…where are my packages?” and it will pop up a list of your most recent orders. Want to know movie showtimes for your area? “OK Google…movie times.” You can even do it for specific movies, like, “movie times for Star Wars.” Want to watch kitten videos? “OK Google…watch kitten videos.”

Want to launch an app? Tell it “OK Google…open Google Books” and up it comes. Tell it “OK Google…take a picture” and it will ask which camera app you want to use, then will automatically open that app thereafter when you use the command again. Need to text or phone one of your contacts? Tell it to. You can even tell it “Text my Dad” and it will ask you who “Dad” is, and then will text that same person next time you say “Text my Dad.”

It also integrates with Google’s various media applications. This is most successful with Google Play Music—I’ve found it’s really good at finding songs I want to hear. For example, if I say, “OK Google…play Zero Gravity,” it jumps right to this song on Google Play Music. (And if I say “OK Google…Zero Gravity BlackGryph0n YouTube” it brings the video up in the list of search results.) Or I could say, “OK Google…play some heavy metal” and it brings up a heavy metal station…or “OK Google…play some ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic” or “play some Michelle Creber” and it shuffles the artist’s music for me. “Play Tenacious D ‘Tribute’” brings up a radio station based on that song—first it plays the song itself, then others like it.

Likewise, if I want to watch a movie I have in my Google Play library (of which I have several by dint of having bought a Blu-ray that includes an Ultraviolet copy), I just have to say, “OK Google…watch Birdman” or “OK Google…watch Frozen” and up it comes. (Oddly, it doesn’t seem to work with Wreck-It Ralph, even though it’s also listed in my Play Movies library. Don’t know why.)

It even works with e-books in Google Play Books—though only ones that have been acquired from Google Play Books. If I tell it to read a title I already have in my library that’s also available from Google’s e-book store, it takes me to the option to buy the book even though I already have it. But if I add a book to my library from Play Books—such as the first John Carter of Mars novel—then tell Google “Read A Princess of Mars,” it pops right up.

About the only things that don’t reliably work are all the “Easter egg” commands from the command lists I linked above. For some reason, that sort of command tends to go away in subsequent app updates—though some, like “do a barrel roll,” are perennial, and the time-honored “woodchuck question” still works. Also, it used to be possible (on my Moto X) to ask “what’s up?” and have the phone read me my recent notifications. I haven’t yet found a substitute for that with the Nexus 6.

The only real drawback to this voice command is that it’s not possible to operate the phone entirely on voice command—at least, not with “Google Now.” There doesn’t seem to be anything in accessibility options that would enable such a thing either. So voice command is basically just a handy shortcut for certain often-used or inconvenient actions. I can say “play Zero Gravity” in a lot less time than it would take me to open Play Music and laboriously type in the artist’s or song name. But it can’t press the “home” button for me, or select an e-book verbally after I open “Google Play Books” or “Kindle.” It can’t even press the shutter button for me after I tell it “take a picture.” I have to use good old-fashioned touch for that.

I continue to be amazed at just how many things this phone can do. I’ll go into detail about e-reading on it before too much longer.


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