Test driving the new Google Assistant in Allo

Welcome to Google's AI future

In the not too distant future, Google Assistant - the company's AI-powered chatbot that seems to be taking over some of Google Now's duties - is going to be everywhere. Right now though, the easiest way to get at it is to install the Allo app for Android or iOS.

Allo is built along the same lines as WhatsApp or iMessage and verifies your identity using your phone number (though it can't handle SMS messages for some reason). We fired up the app on Android to put Google Assistant through its paces and see what it's capable of.

You can call up the Assistant in any conversation with an "@google" tag, or you can chat to it directly as a contact in a separate thread.

Web searches and general queries


You would expect Google Assistant to be good at pulling information from the web and it doesn't disappoint. You can ask anything from "how old is Wayne Rooney?" to "what's the capital of France?" and it will snap back with an answer. It's a pub quiz cheater's dream.

Nowadays we're all spending more time in apps and less time on the front page of Google so something like the Assistant built into Allo makes a lot of sense.

Like the Google search engine, the Assistant can answer simple maths queries too, like "2+2" or "the square root of 300".

It will tell you what the time is or what the weather's like anywhere in the world - for weather it throws up a familiar-looking Google Now-style card and also describes the outlook as a real person would. It's a small touch but we'd expect this to be the direction Google Assistant heads in in the future.

Remember this is an early version of the software and it doesn't work perfectly all the time (something like "weather in two hours" gets it confused). But most of the questions you type into Google are going to work here too.

Local results


One of the reasons our smartphones are so useful is they're always with is and always aware of their location. That means you can quickly call up directions to the pub or find the nearest pizza restaurant (and read what other people thought of it too).

Google Assistant handles a lot of these tasks with aplomb. Try "nearest bar" or "local restaurants" and a series of cards pop up showing you your options. As yet the chatbot doesn't let you add extra information like price or features to narrow down the results but those sort of filtering options will probably arrive in time.

You can get walking or driving directions too, if you input "driving directions to London" or wherever you want to go (queries such as "how long will it take to get to London" work as well). If you've added your home address to Google Maps before then the Assistant knows what you mean by "home". Tap on the little preview that appears and you get taken to Google Maps to find your way.

Personalised questions and features


Google knows a lot about you - maybe more than you think - and you can tap into that knowledge through Google Assistant, pulling information from your Gmail account and elsewhere.

For example, type in "my hotels" or "my flights" and Google looks for booking confirmation emails, showing what it's found on screen so you know when you need to be at the airport or where your next trip is going to be (this works on the Google search engine on the web too, by the way).

Just want to see your messages? Enter "my emails". The Assistant is able to tap into Google Calendar too, if you try "my events" or "next appointment", as well as Google Photos, if you store your images there - "my photos of..." followed by a place or a person will bring up your pictures if they've been correctly scanned by Google Photos.

We tried to get Google Assistant to tell us where we were last week and yesterday using the timeline feature that's built into Google Maps, but as yet that's one integration that hasn't been added: you just get a link to some search results instead, which is what often happens when the bot doesn't understand what you're after.

Going further with Google Assistant


Ask Google Assistant "what can you do?" and you get some prompts - it can already go way beyond simple queries. News reports on the topic of your choice are available, and you can have updates delivered to Allo daily.

The Assistant can also set alarms and timers and will even read you a poem. If you're bored, type in "trivia games" or "let's play a game" and the app does its best to entertain you (although chances are you've got much better games on your phone).

Translation works too - ask the Assistant to say something in German or Spanish or whatever language you need and it pops right back with the answer (assuming you've got a decent data connection of course).

As you spend more time with the Assistant you'll notice that it suggests follow-up responses to your first query, which makes interacting with it even easier. It's already a useful tool, and Google is promising it's going to get smarter over time, as well as more personalised to you (provided you're willing to give Google even more data about yourself, of course). Watch this space.