Google Now's new Reminders are easy and powerful, but not quite perfect

Larry Page and his merry Google crew bill Google Now, the scarily omniscient digital assistant baked into the Search apps for iOS and Android Jelly Bean, as a predictive search engine. Google Now notifies you of information you need, when you need it, without you ever needing to actively search for it. It’s essentially your laissez-faire brain in the cloud.

That’s no longer completely the case after Wednesday’s update, which got a high-profile unveiling at Google I/O.

While the majority of Google Now’s handy-dandiness is still rooted in the way it sifts through the Googletron’s vast knowledge database to send you personalized, location-aware tidbits, its newly added Reminder functionality adds a tinge of self-determination to the information the app spits at you.

After spending the better part of the morning playing with Google Now’s latest feature, it’s safe to say that Reminders are highly awesome, hiddenly powerful, and much-welcomed addition to an app that’s already an incredibly killer feature for Android.

But can Google Now's Reminders compare to their iOS counterpart? We'll get to that shortly.

Reminder basics

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Setting a Reminder couldn’t be easier. Just open Google Now, utter “Google” to kick in the voice recognition function, and say “Remind me to…” followed by the reminder you’d like to set. (You can also type out the Reminder if you feel weird squawking at your tablet in public.)

Google Now supports date, time, and location-based Reminders. For example, saying “Remind me to call Jennifer at 10 a.m.” created a “Call Jennifer” Reminder for 10 a.m. this morning, while “Remind me to call Jennifer at 10 a.m. on June 3rd” created a Reminder for that day. The app is smart enough to understand natural language, too. Asking it to remind me to call Jennifer next Friday created a Reminder for Friday, May 24. (I’m writing this on Thursday, May 16.)

A Reminder notification. (Click to enlarge.)

Time-based Reminders pop up in the Google Now interface shortly before the clock strikes the designated hour. At 1:15 p.m. for example, a Reminder to call Jennifer at 1:25 p.m. was visible, but a Reminder to call her at midnight was not. The app also sends you a notification for the Reminder when the proper time strikes.

Location-based Reminders

That alone would make Reminders a strong addition to Google Now, but it’s the location-based Reminders that hint at the most intriguing potential. In a nutshell: It’s possible to ask Google Now to send you a Reminder when you visit a particular geographic area.

Now Bostonites can never forget to pahk their cahs in Hahvahd yahd.

Any landmark identified by Google Maps seems to be fair game—the app identified the Nashua Public Library by my house without a hitch, for example—or you can manually enter an address for a Reminder. The functionality works like a charm, too. When I wandered near the library, a notification for the Reminder appeared. (On a device with a GPS radio, obviously.)

Used correctly, it’s easy to imagine Google Now’s location-based Reminders becoming far more powerful than traditional, static to-do lists. You could ask Google Now to send you a Reminder when you land at the airport, for example, or to remind you to switch to Wi-Fi when you get to the office. (Gotta watch those data caps!) Have you been meaning to try a certain brew at a certain bar? Set a Reminder.

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Google Now also recognizes towns, so you can remind yourself to, say, catch up on a particular friend next time you’re in a particular town. With a little creativity, location Reminders could be an almost kinder, gentler version of the more hardcore Locale app.

That said, the new Reminder function isn’t quite perfect.

The trouble with quibbles

Google Now isn’t trying to be a full-fledged scheduling app, but Reminders could benefit from a few tweaks.

First and foremost, the app would greatly benefit from the ability to set recurring reminders, similar to Google Calendar’s “Repeat…” option. Asking Google Now to remind me to get milk every Tuesday only created a Reminder for next Tuesday.

Next, it would be nice if Google Now had the ability to send Reminders when you leave a location. For example, I tried setting a Reminder asking me to get milk when I left the house, but since I was sitting in my house at the time, the app pushed it my way immediately.

One final welcome touch would also pay dividends for Google. As is, Reminders aren’t tied into Google+ profiles in any way. If you tie a Reminder to a specific person who also happens to be a Google contact of yours, it would be swell if the system tied that together, so that that person’s contact details are available when the Reminder appears.

Why do I bring all of these up? Because each and every one of those features can be found in iOS Reminders, and those three functions make the iPhone's Reminders app more powerful than Google's offering. (And Reminders’s features are all accessible via Siri, Apple’s voice-activated intelligent assistant.) Apple's version of Reminders also includes support for shared tasks, a feature that's missing from the intensely personal Google Now experience.

That said, nothing Apple offers compares to the full Google Now experience. As mentioned in the TechHive review of Google Now for iOS, Google's intelligent assistant is all about seamlessly presenting you with data when you need it, whereas Siri excels at presenting you with data when you specifically ask for it. They're both fruit, but it's apples and oranges. (With the apples indubitably having the edge in reminders.)

What about the other updates?

The most recent Google Now update rolled in several new Cards as well as Reminders. Cards, in Google parlance, are notification types. The Traffic Card sends you real-time traffic data, the Nearby Attractions Card shows cool stuff near you, and the Next Appointment Card keeps you informed of (you guessed it) your next appointment, complete with an estimated travel time from your current location building on the real-time traffic details in the Traffic cards.

Google introduced four new cards on Wednesday. A Public Transit card should prove especially helpful for city dwellers, while new Books, TV Shows, Video Games, and Music Cards were added to push personalized content recommendations your way.

I wanted to go hands-on with the new Cards as well as the new Reminders, but there was just one issue: I couldn’t get any of them to pop up, even after hours of searching for shows and starring media like crazy on Google Play.

I’m not heavily invested in Play Store content aside from apps, which may be the crux of the problem. The only major worry I have about the new Cards is that they’ll spam your Google Now feed too often. Here’s hoping my inability to get them to trigger at all is a sign of judiciousness, rather than wonkiness, on Google’s end.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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