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You Can Now Talk to Google on Your Computer—And It’s Pretty Good

3 minute read

Need another reason to chat up your computer? Google’s got one for Chrome users courtesy a noteworthy browser update that landed earlier this week. All you need to do is speak a trigger phrase while in Google search and presto, you’re cooking with the spoken word and an automated algorithmic butler. Normal people call that “voice control,” but Google’s marketing-minded Department of Clever Neologisms calls it “hotwording.”

It’s not as simple as downloading the update and squawking away, or at least it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have Chrome installed, so I pulled the full thing down, installed it, then sat in front of the search box for five minutes saying everything from “Okay Google,” rapid-fire, to “OHH-KAAAYYY GOOO-GUULLLL” like I’d just come from the pub. Alas, nothing.

So I restarted the browser (after giving it permission to access my MacBook Pro’s internal audio hardware), brought up Google.com, clicked the microphone icon nestled to the right in the search box, and that, finally, summoned a dialogue box asking if I wanted to “Enable ‘Ok Google’.” Problem solved!

“Search without lifting a finger,” says Google of hotwording’s raison d’être. And that’s pretty much how it works: You do have to lift a finger to bring up Chrome first, of course, but once that’s running and you’re on a new tab page (or cursored to Google.com’s search box), saying “Ok Google” does the same thing as clicking the microphone icon, conjuring a blown-up version of the microphone that blinks red to indicate it’s hearing you.

When I said “cats,” for instance, it brought up cat-related results, then read off a quick summary of the Wikipedia entry, knowingly sourcing it to Wikipedia by prefacing the blurb (the first sentence of each Wiki entry) with the phrase “According to Wikipedia.” When I spelled out the letters “G-E,” it brought up search results for General Electric, said “General Electric is currently trading at,” then spoke the current dollars and cents. There seems to be at least a nominal amount of contextual intelligence, in other words.

That wasn’t the case for all entries, however. A search on “dogs” brought up search results as expected, but my algorithmically-voiced co-pilot blandly said “Here is some information about dog” (without pluralizing). And when I said “Google,” or “Chrome,” it simply gave me search results and said nothing at all.

The service also seems to have some trouble recognizing the phrase “Ok Google” if you speak while it’s speaking to you. If you say “cars” and decide in that split-second you really wanted “automobiles,” you’ll generally have to wait until Chrome’s done articulating its little spoken summary on cars before you’ll get it to register another “Ok Google.”

Otherwise it seems reasonably accurate word-wise, getting everything I threw at it (including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), but then most voice recognition programs do these days, so long as what you’re asking about isn’t too linguistically exotic or homophonous with another word.

My only complaint, and it’s aimed more at myself, is that when I actually try to articulate the word Google repeatedly, for whatever neurological reason, it sounds like I’m saying “goo-go.” Try it for yourself and see.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com