Over the last few weeks of covering Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and Google's new Voice Actions interface, it's become clear to me that there's great confusion about what exactly Google Now is, and what it isn't. So let's start with the central thesis of what it's not and go from there.
Ready? Good, because Google Now is not Google's Android answer to Siri. In fact, it doesn't control voice at all.
Google hasn't made the distinction between Google Now and everything else in its redesigned search app easy to understand, and even during the feature's unveiling at Google I/O, I wrote in CNET's live blog that I suspected Google Now was an enhanced voice tool. It took further explanation and some live demos to distinguish what the tool really does.
New Google Search app
Part of the problem is that Google has rolled three related functions into one app, and gave it a totally new appearance.
The new Google Search app (as Google calls it) is the interface that opens when you slide your finger up from the bottom of any screen.
It contains a search bar up top, and if you have Google Now turned on, plenty of Google Now boxes below.
If you want to launch typed search from the search app, you can do that. You can also press the microphone button in the search field to launch voice search, a screen that's totally separate from the Google Now content.
So to sum it up, Google Now and the Voice Actions interface are definitely both parts of the same Google Search app; just keep in mind that it isn't Google Now that's reading back your weather forecast.
What Google Now does
Google Now refers to a new type of predictive behavior, in which Google taps into your current location and location history, to your calendar, and to your search history. As a result, it will dole out useful information when it thinks you want it, things like how long your commute will take, when to leave for your next appointment, the scores for your favorite team, and the time back home if you travel to a new time zone.
All the information comes in the form of a card, and each card has its own settings, so you can easily customize each card. If that's a bit too Big Brother for you, you can shut off Google Now entirely. If you do shut off, you can still use voice search or typed search any time you want.
So then why does Voice Actions seem so different from before?
Google has completely redesigned its Voice Actions interface, and as a result, it looks and acts a lot more like Apple's Siri than it did before. You have the pulsing circular icon that signals you when to speak. It'll return answers to certain questions in the form of cards, and if you have your systemwide media volume turned on, the voicebot will read back these answers. This pertains to stuff like "When was George Washington born?" or asking about the weather.
Voice Actions will also return Web search links and can launch other apps, like when you ask to place a call, listen to music, or get driving directions somewhere. You'll find more details in my Voice Actions versus Siri tests with Brian Bennett.
Believe me, I wish that Google had given its voice command engine a snappier name than "Google Voice Actions" or "Voice Search," but it didn't. Instead, it gave the easy-to-say-but-rather-opaque name to describe a program that spies on you for the sake of anticipating your gustatory and traveling needs.