If you have an Android phone and have been wondering what the big deal is about Google's new Pixel phone and Google Home device, you may get the chance to find out this week. That's because Google announced that it is rolling out Google Assistant, its answer to Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, to English-speaking U.S. user this week, if they have phones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or 7.0 Nougat. Assistant will continue to roll out to Marshmallow and Nougat users in other languages and countries over the coming weeks.
Since this is an update to an app (Google Search), not a new operating system, you don't have to wait for your device maker to send the update to your phone. You'll simply be able to update from the Google Play Store, or it will happen by itself if you're set on automatic updates. If you're not sure which version of Android you have, you can find out by opening your settings and looking in "About Phone."
It's the little things.
What's the big deal about Google Assistant? Especially compared to the existing "OK Google" feature? Like you, I'm waiting to get mine, so I can't tell you yet from personal experience. But my colleague John Brandon has been using a Pixel with Google Assistant for a while, and he's loving it. Like many reviewers he can't point to any single earth-shattering feature to make him love Assistant, but there are a lot of little conveniences and changes that add up to something easy to love. Here's what I'm most looking forward to about getting Assistant:
1. Long-press on home opens it.
That seems like a small deal but it'll be a big benefit to me because the time I most often use voice recognition on my phone is when I'm behind the wheel. Usually it begins with a buzz that lets me know I have a text message. I can't stop and read it, so I grab my phone, fumble with it long enough to tap the search box on the home screen, and then say, "OK Google, read me my last text." The problem is that finding that home screen and search box means taking my attention off the road for a moment or two, so if I'm in traffic, I don't do it. I tried setting my phone to be always listening for "OK Google," but found that drained the battery quicker than I liked. Long-pressing the home screen is a great solution that will help me get my texts faster. (Yes, this will replace Google Now on Tap--in case you were using it, which almost no one was.)
2. Instant translation help.
If you travel to other countries (or ethnic neighborhoods in this country) being able to communicate in languages other than English is a huge benefit. Google translate is already quite helpful for this, but it sounds like Google Assistant makes it extra-easy because you can just say things like, "OK Google, how do you say 'Where is the toilet?' in Portuguese?'" In the right situation, this could save you a great deal of embarrassment and discomfort.
3. A little personality.
My household was an early adopter of the Amazon Echo. We haven't yet decided to replace or (more likely) supplement it with Google Home, but one reason we're hesitating is that Alexa is...likable. Amazon's engineers have programmed just enough personality into the interface to make it (or her) seem more or less human. "OK Google" is unmistakably an algorithm. Writers to the rescue! Google hired screenwriters and comedy writers to give Assistant a more fun personality. I can't wait to check it out.
4. Mind reading.
Before the first version of Google Now launched with its cards telling you things it thinks you need to know, it was hard to explain or envision how desirable it would be to have an app on your phone that would pop up with information about how long it will take to get to your next appointment, or your flight status, or news stories about topics it knows you follow. Google claims that the more you use Assistant, the better it will know you and more useful it will be. I'm eager to see what new ways current and future versions of Assistant will find to come up with just the information I need at the moment I need it.