How to Configure and Use Google Now on Android

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Google Now, new in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, is Google’s attempt to be smarter. It includes cards that automatically provide you with information and voice search integrated with Google’s knowledge graph to provide direct answers to your questions.

Google is adamant that you shouldn’t have to configure Google Now – it will learn about you and the information you want over timeas you go through your commute and perform searches. However, you can still tweak its settings if you want.

Accessing Google Now

To access Google Now, touch the home button at the bottom of your device’s screen and swipe up to (or beyond) the “Google” circle. You can also quickly access Google Now from the lock screen (assuming you’re not using a PIN or pattern to password-protect your device) by swiping up from the lock icon.

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Google Now can also be opened by tapping the Google search widget at the top of your home screen or launching the Google app located in your app drawer.

How Cards Work

Cards appear at the bottom of the Google Now screen. Cards are Google Now’s attempt to provide you with information that you’ll find useful, without you having to ask for it. By default, you’ll see an automatically-updated weather card for your current location.

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Google Now tries to learn more about you over time. Google says you shouldn’t have to configure cards; they’ll just appear automatically – although you can configure them, if you want.

For example, if you’re near a train station or bus stop, Google Now will show you the schedule of the trains or busses that arrive. If you regularly drive between work and home, Google Now will learn their locations and the hours you go, and display an estimate of how long it will take to get there in current traffic, along with suggesting other routes.

Many of these features are more useful with a cellular data connection, of course – if you’re using a Nexus 7, you won’t be able to get automatically updated information when you’re away from Wi-Fi connections.

Other cards that appear are based on searches you perform. For example, if you search for a flight number, Google Now will notice you want that flight schedule and will display updated information as a card. If you search for sports scores for your favorite team, Google Now will notice you’re interested in that team and display updated scores in card form.

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Configuring Cards

To view a full list of cards that can appear in Google Now and see when they’ll appear, tap the Show sample cards link at the bottom of the screen.

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Tap the Sample card link to see what a type of card will look like when it appears.

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Tap the Settings link if you want to customize a card. For example, you can disable any of the cards here entirely, or control when one appears. For the traffic card, you can hide it when you’re traveling, for example.

You can also control settings for the individual cards, which will vary depending on the card – for example, if you use public transit to get to work instead of driving there, you can set the traffic card’s transportation mode to “public transit.”

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More cards will likely be added in future versions of Google Now, and the capabilities of current cards will likely be enhanced.

Using Voice Search

Google Now includes a Google search box – searches you perform from this box (or the widget on the home screen) provide Google Now with the information it uses to choose cards. You can tap this box and type a query normally, but it also supports voice search.

To start a voice search from the Google Now screen, simply say “Google” out loud. This will activate voice search, and you can ask your question or speak your query.

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You can also tap the microphone in the search box here — either in Google Now or on your home screen — to activate voice search.

Speak a question and Google will try to provide you with an answer using its knowledge graph. For many queries where Google knows the answer, Google will speak an answer back to you in addition to showing it on your screen.

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The classic “Do I need an umbrella?” search works, too. Google will tell you yes or no, along with showing you the exact weather.

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Unit conversions and other calculations also work, just as they would on Google’s search page.

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Google will show you results from its other properties when appropriate. For example, tell Google you want a specific type of food and Google will display nearby restaurants that serve that type of food.

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Search for pictures of something and Google will show you image results direct from Google Images.

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If Google doesn’t know how to answer your question, it will perform a Google search for it, which is often useful. Expect Google Now’s voice search to improve over time as Google’s Knowledge Graph continues to improve.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.