The good: Google Search is powerful, fast, and is great at understanding natural language queries.
The bad: Google Now cards try to predict what you want to search for, but it isn’t always on the mark. Google Now features are only available to users with Android Jelly Bean and higher.
The bottom line: With voice and text input options and Google Now, the Google Search app is the best way to conduct a search on Android.
Google Search comes preinstalled on every Android device, so whether you want it or not, you have it. The good news is, the app is powerful, fast, and makes all the smarts of Google’s incredible search engine easily accessible from your mobile device.
For those with devices running Android version Jelly Bean, the app is a lot more robust and comes loaded with the popular Google Now set of features. For this reason, I’ll be focusing on this latest version of Google Search for Android.
Google Search app brings Google Now to Jelly Bean
Meanwhile, for the unfortunate majority whose devices run Android version Ice Cream Sandwich or lower, the Search app is straightforward and relatively one-dimensional. Essentially, it is the Google Search bar packed into its own standalone app. You can use it to search with text or voice, and it does its best to autocomplete your searches based on your search history and other factors. It offers the same smart results that we are all used to from Google, and that’s about it.
The easiest way to access Google Search is through a search bar widget on your Home screen. From here, you can tap the bar to open up the full Google Search interface, or you can tap the microphone icon and start speaking your search query out loud. Either way, the app does a great job of getting to the bottom of your search query and returning relevant results.
When you’re conducting a search using text, Google Search returns search results just like you’re used to, with links to relevant sources of information on the Web. And if you’re searching for a notable place or person, like Michael Jordan, for example, the Knowledge Graph feature conveniently kicks in and displays all of his vitals and related information up top, before the Web links.
Along the bottom of the Google Search interface is a toolbar that lets you quickly switch among images, places, news, videos, and other types of search results. With these options, the search experience is very much like it is in a full Web browser.
One of the best things about Google Search is Google Now. Often misunderstood as a standalone Siri-style app, Google Now is actually a set of intelligent personal assistant features that are built right into the Google Search app. As I mentioned, these features are only available to users with Android Jelly Bean and higher. Meanwhile, on iOS, Google Now is available to essentially all users (iOS 5 and higher).
It’s important to know that Google Now is meant to understand natural language queries. This means you can fire up the microphone (by tapping the button or saying “Google” while your Search app is active) and simply ask the app who won the Lakers game last night or what the weather will be like in New York this weekend. In either case, thanks to Google Now, the Google Search app should understand your question and be able to return an acceptable answer. From the Settings screen, you can elect to have the app respond only with text on the screen, or audibly with speech output.
When using these sorts of natural language queries, the search experience using the app is really impressive. Because the app takes into account things like your location and search history (with permission, of course), it does a really good job at pulling up search results that are most relevant to you.
The other big part of Google Now is its predictive ability. If you give it permission, Google Now can learn from your search patterns, calendar, e-mail, and more, in order to preemptively serve up “cards” with what it deems to be important information. These cards show up on the Search app’s main interface, and as of now they come in about two dozen varieties. For instance, if you routinely search for Golden State Warriors information, Google Now will create a card for the latest game scores when they become available. It can also keep you apprised of your upcoming appointments, flight information, traffic, stocks, and more. I searched for winery here in San Francisco, and later noticed a card pop up with directions there from my current location. While I didn’t necessarily need that information at that moment, I liked the idea that Google was thinking ahead in that way.
All that said, Google Now’s cards do take some getting used to. Because they’re a more or less passive experience and you can’t program them, they can seem a little random at times. Unavoidably, you will encounter cards that Google thinks are relevant to you, when in fact they aren’t. Just the same, you’ll probably find yourself wanting a particular card to show up, and it won’t.
While my colleague Jason Parker considers Google Now cards “neat” but not particularly useful for iOS, I choose to give more weight to the instances when they do get their predictions right. Also, I am excited by the fact that these “smart” cards only get better the more I use the Google Search app. So, while Google Now may not be integral to the Android experience just yet, I am fully expecting them to reach that level very soon.
As an interface for conducting a Google Search, the official Google Search app for Android is unbeatable. But more than that, the app offers personal assistant features that can understand natural language and predictive features in the form of Google Now cards. These make the app a lot more than just a way to search.