The best way to customize Now is to simply be you. Use your phone. Do things that you'd normally do. Before long, Now will feel intensely personal. Just to let you know what areas Now covers, you can find Cards for the following: Weather, Traffic, Next Appointment, Travel, Flights, Public Transit, Places and Sports. Some of these auto-populate -- yes, automagically -- based on current location (Weather) and frequent searchers (Sports). Others don't truly come alive until you're on the go. If you're near the Astor Place subway stop in New York City, the card can be configured to show you what trains are coming up next, how long you've got until they arrive, and where they're headed.
The longer you use the phone, the more cards it magically puts there with information that's magically useful to you. Like, scores you'd search for anyway. Or flight details that you'd search for anyway. Or subway routes you'd search for anyway based on what subway station you're standing by. Absolutely brilliant in every sense of the word. The same goes for Traffic -- you can rely on Now to look into your frequently traversed commuting routes and find alternatives in the event that a blockage has occurred during the moments before you usually depart. Google's also ramping up notifications, enabling them to be delivered before, during or after an ongoing event. Not entirely a fresh concept -- ESPN users can do the same on iOS -- but it's a fantastic implementation.
Voice search now acts as an extension of Now, but it does so with hugely mixed results. For example, when telling our Nexus to "Make an appointment for lunch tomorrow at noon," it set a reminder for 12am, despite showing that it comprehended our request word-for-word. Yikes. That said, our request to "Remind me to get the clothes in 30 minutes" perfectly set an alarm that did just that. (In case you're wondering, that's the pinch of personal assistant showing off.) When we tried to ask if we had any appointments at 2pm the following day, the Nexus simply made an appointment for 2pm the next day instead of taking a peek into Google Calendar. That's indicative of the crapshoot nature of the whole "assistant" thing. It's obvious that Google's voice search is nowhere close to being able to act as a true assistant, but at least we're seeing signs of progress.
It's also a bit hard to grasp what kind of answers Now can populate, and which ones fly right over its head. For instance, asking for the "distance between San Francisco and Daly City" simply brings up a Google search of that phrase, but asking for "directions between San Francisco and Daly City" activates Maps. Clearly, the natural language recognition needs to be worked on. We expected Maps to draw the lines between the two locales and report back a mileage figure for question one, but it simply overwhelmed the system.
All that said, the silver lining is obvious: Google's powering the results. If you're even remotely familiar with the kinds of things that you can type into Google.com and get an answer up top, you'll understand what things will lead to similar results on the phone. Asking "What time does the sun rise tomorrow in Tahiti?" led to an answer up top, not just a list of search results. Asking Now to "convert 47 euros to South African rand" led to yet another answer. Asking even complex math questions led to even more answers. Asking about the filming locations for "Prometheus," however, resulted in a typical list of links rather than a beautifully sorted answer from IMDb's database. (Can you tell what we're dreaming about?)
Moreover, we're huge fans of seeing searchable, copy-and-pastable results even when it's the best the system can do. Having Siri return a static image from Wolfram Alpha -- an image that cannot be read aloud by a robotic voice -- is tremendously underwhelming. Google Now won't read back search links yet, but given that it fetches actual text, the potential is certainly there for this to change down the road. Better still, you're also highly likely to have even obscure questions answered by the headlines of top search results within Google. When asking "Who won the 1993 World Series?" Now didn't know how to return an answer. But the answer was plainly obvious in the second search result -- the lead-in line to an Answers.com page displayed the following: "The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 2." It's not exactly a "success," per se, but we achieved our goal of finding the answer regardless, without any additional clicks or scrolling.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that Google's voice search algorithm is really fantastic. Even when speaking to our Nexus at a normal tone in a bustling restaurant, it correctly understood 15 of 16 questions. We also found the results to populate quickly, even with just a single bar of T-Mobile HSPA+ coverage. More often than not, our answers appeared more quickly than we expected them to, and overall, we found the whole "talking to Now" experience to be a terrifically pleasing one.
Offline voice dictation
Asking Now a question that obviously requires an internet connection to answer isn't a wise use of time. But, those with Jelly Bean can finally hammer out emails to send later via voice. Somehow -- likely using a combination of black magic and AdSense-enabled Time Travel -- Google has managed to squash its US English language voice recognition tools into the OS' fabric. Even in airplane mode, we were able to vocally compose emails and text messages with ease. In fact, we saw no difference whatsoever in the composition regardless of whether we had five bars of HSPA+ or a tiny Airplane up in the status bar. For those keeping count, Apple's voice dictation feature -- along with Siri -- requires a live internet connection to be useful. Nice play, Google; now, just cook up something similar for all of those other tongues out there.
In addition to the facets covered above (and this here easter egg), Jelly Bean also supports a new tap-to-air feature for Bluetooth-plus-NFC-enabled speakers; just tap your phone to an adequately equipped speaker, and your tunes start streaming. It's beautifully simple, and it works nicely alongside an updated version of Beam that supports photo sharing over simple bumps, too. All in all, it's tough to complain about a free update that both adds highly useful features and makes the overall system snappier. That's exactly what Google has managed to accomplish with Jelly Bean, which feels just stupendous in use on our Galaxy Nexus review unit. The speed improvements are subtle, but those who have used ICS for any length of time will notice them. It's sort of like transitioning from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS; the hastened transitions are just enough to spoil you once you've encountered them.
The addition of Google Now and the offline voice dictation features are huge, huge assets in the Android stable. Both of these work laudably, and while there's clearly room for Now to improve as Google fine-tunes its natural language recognition algorithms, it's a feature that will no doubt have Gingerbread users crossing their fingers (and toes, for that matter) for an update. As lovely as Now is, however, offline Maps has to be the biggest letdown of the bunch. Not being able to download maps for entire states, provinces or countries is a massive oversight. That feature is already available on Nokia Drive, and Google should absolutely strive to at least meet the bar set on Windows Phone. Maps and Navigation remain world-class products, and offline Maps works as advertised so long as you have the portions you need downloaded; still, we need the ability to easily store as much of the world as we want, and we're hoping Google obliges in the near future.
Android 4.1 may not be a quantum leap in any one area, but it's the fine-tuning of Ice Cream Sandwich that we've been waiting for. It's brisk, it's beautiful and it's more intelligent than any Android build before it. The primary problem, however, is availability. It's only hitting the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and Motorola Xoom (why bother?) in mid-July, with every other Android device in that all-too-familiar wait-and-see mode. It's also unlikely that the seamless experience we've seen here will ever be truly ported to the Galaxy S III; with S Beam and S Voice at the helm, it's likely that the skinned version of Android 4.1 will be massively different than the "pure" version found on Nexus products. (For those unaware, Android 4.0 for the Galaxy S II lacked most of the standout features that it brought to the Nexus family, so there's certainly a precedent.) Of course, this is hardly a new dilemma, and those who've chosen the Nexus route have plenty to look forward to.