Mouths and Fingers-On With Google Voice Actions and Chrome to Phone

Today, Google introduced a couple of intriguing improvements to its Android platform. Google Voice Actions, a function of the updated Voice Search app, allows you to use voice commands to send text messages, take notes, access maps, play music, or visit Web sites, in addition to calling and searching, which were both available before. Chrome to Phone is an extension for Google’s popular Web browser that allows you to send text, maps, or links directly from your computer to your Android phone. Given the importance of these two new functions, we figured we’d take a few minutes to give them a shot or, in the case of Voice Actions, a shout.

Google Voice Actions

Setting up Google Voice Actions is a breeze, provided that you have a phone with Android 2.2 (aka Froyo). Simply download the latest versions of the Google Search and Voice Search apps from the Android Marketplace and, if you want to use the feature with music, make sure you have an online radio app like Pandora installed as well.Voice Actions work the same way as Voice Search, which Android has had built-in since version 2.1 came out in January. Simply tap the Voice Search icon and you’re presented with the Speak Now dialog box. When the box appears, you must quickly speak the necessary command, without saying anything additional before or after (in other words, don’t say anything to the person next to you while it’s going). According to Google’s official documentation, the program recognizes ten (really only eight because Call is counted twice and searching Google is not a command) commands:

  • “Send text to [contact name here]” will send a text to a contact. You can also include the body of the message in your voice command.
  • “Navigate to [destination]” gives directions from your current location to the destination.
  • “Call [contact]” activates voice dialing just as before.
  • “Map of [location]” pulls up Google mpas
  • “Note to self” composes a note which you can then send to yourself via e-mail or text.
  • “Listen to [artist/song/album]” pulls up Pandora or the radio app of your choice with a matching tune.
  • “Call [business name]” calls a business that’s found by search. This is what happens if you use the Call command and it doesn’t match up with a contact.
  • “Send email to [recipient], [subject],  [body]” composes an e-mail to the recipient with the subject and body.
  • “Go to [website]” goes to the site you mentioned.
  • “[Non-command]” searches Google for whatever you just said.

In our testing, Google’s voice recognition was fairly accurate, but as with the voice search and text-to-speech services that preceded it, it wasn’t fast or seamless enough to save us a lot of time.First, as mentioned above, you have to launch the Voice Search app before you can issue a command so, if you’re in your Web browser and suddenly decide you want to issue a voice command to visit a site, you’ll have to back out of the browser to get to Voice Search.

Once you navigate to its icon and launch Voice Search,  you have to be ready to say the correct command right away without pausing to think. If you issue a short, simple command, the app may take only a couple of seconds to interpret your speech, but if your command is long or your words are a bit confusing, it could take several seconds and it may get some words wrong. There is a “Did you mean?” dialogue box if it has trouble interpreting you, though the results can be a little odd.

For example, when we commanded our phone to “Listen to Weird Al’s I Wanna New Duck” the software searched “weird al I wanna do dock”  in Pandora, which  found no results. Then we hit the back button and were given this list of suggestions:

The first command we actually tried was the Send Text to command. When we told it to “Text Kenneth” it gave us a box with a blank message and our friend Kenneth (who is in our contact list) in the to field. To fill in the body of the message, we had to either type it or tap the microphone button in the editing area and use the Google’s text-to-speech (the same app really) to enter our message. Once we were done composing, we still had to tap send. So this clearly was not a hands-free process. When we tried to a full text message as a Voice Command – “Text Kenneth the bus is running late again. I’ll be a few minutes late,” we found the recognition was close but no cigar:

All of the other functions worked at least as well, though some were a bit more seamless than others. When we tried to use the Navigate command, we found that it detected our command fairly well and then launched Google navigation without asking for addition taps. Using the Call command was  very convenient, because when we said the name of an established contact, it went straight to the dialer without requiring additional touches.

The Note to Self feature seems pretty useless. It launched the same message editing box as the text message command, but instead of saving our message to ourselves as a text note, it just gave us the option to e-mail it to ourselves. With note-taking apps a download away in the Android Market, why would we e-mail our phone from our phone?

We were pretty impressed with the Go To command because it was able to recognize web sites, based on brand name, not just URL. So when we told it to “Go to Laptop Magazine,” it gave us this dialog box. If we hit the Go button, it launched the site in a browser window. However, if we waited a couple of seconds without tapping, it would launch anyway, which is good because that’s one fewer touch.

Maps detection worked just as well. It even found maps in all kinds of international locations with no problem and no extra taps were required.

Chrome to Phone

We installed the Chrome to Phone extension in the Chrome browser on our PC and tried it as well. To set up, we needed not only the extension but the Chrome to Phone app which is available from the Android Market. After the extension is installed in the browser, it sits next to the address bar. The fist time you click it, it will ask you to sign into a valid Google account that matches an account that is registered on the phone. After signing in, your next tap will send content to your phone.

In our brief testing, we were able to successfully send highlighted text, phone numbers, web addresses, and maps from Google maps. While the web addresses launched a browser on our phone and the maps launched Google maps on the phone, sending text was a little less intuitive as it only adds the text to your clipboard and you have to then paste it into an app of your choice. Sending highlighted phone numbers to the handset is probably the best use of this technology, because it is a royal pain to have to enter phone numbers from the PC into your phone.

Overall, we really like Chrome to Phone, even though we can’t think of a ton of situations where we’d use it, because it always activates what you’re doing immediately on the phone rather than saving it for later. We’d prefer if it sent the content to a clipbook on the phone that we could access after we’ve walked away from our PC.

Final Thoughts

Unlike Google Wave, Voice Actions and Chrome-to-Phone aren’t innovations that are likely to be scrubbed out next year. Voice recognition has been a standard feature on Android phones since version 2.1 and, though it has a little room to grow in terms of practicality, this new iteration might be useful to some.  The same goes for Chrome to Phone as well. We like that the app gives you a means of moving content from the desktop to your mobile handset, but, overall, the implementation needs work. Still, both these features will change over time – and if Google does the right thing, they’ll only get better.

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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