Talk to the phone: Google's Moto X virtual assistant raises smartphone bar

The voice command function isn't perfect, but the smart touches around the Google Now virtual assistant greatly increase the phone's usefulness and suggest a future where we will all indeed be talking to our gadgets, Peter Nowak writes.

The voice command isn’t perfect, but Google Now signals future of talking to our gadgets

Google's Moto X smartphone takes voice commands and the concept of a virtual assistant to a new level. (Peter Nowak / CBC)

My wife and I just got back from a week-long jaunt across the northeastern United States. We don’t have kids and we didn’t have any friends with us, but we did have a virtual third person along for the ride. Her name: Google Now.

The best part is, she took up very little room in the car. All she needed — housed in Motorola’s soon-to-be-released Moto X smartphone, as she is — was her own cup holder in between the two front seats.

Yes, there is a degree of foolishness in referring to a piece of software on a phone as a real person, but Google’s virtual personal assistant was a veritable presence on our trip.

We talked to "her" and "she" listened, giving us useful information and help along the way. By the end of the vacation, we found ourselves referring to her as the benevolent, invisible friend we never knew we had – our very own Casper the Friendly Ghost.

She's listening in

Google Now is both a blend and culmination of everything the internet company has been doing since its inception. The software is designed to be aware of its user’s habits, preferences, likes and needs, interjecting itself when asked and, often, automatically when needed.

On other Android smartphones, Google Now pops to remind you of your upcoming meeting, and possibly even suggests travel routes to it, depending on current traffic conditions. Or it suggests good spots to take photos based on where it thinks you are.

The Moto X, however, takes the software up a notch with voice activation and command.

Available through Rogers in Canada later this month, the device has been designed from the ground up to showcase Google’s virtual personal assistant. It’s the company’s first real effort at its own smartphone since it bought Motorola Mobility last year for $12.5 billion US, its largest acquisition yet.

At the device’s core is the X8 chip, which devotes a small portion of the processor’s capability to listening for its owner’s voice. During initial set-up, you record yourself saying the phrase, "Okay, Google Now" three times. The assistant, in the form of a soothing female voice, then launches whenever you utter those words.

From there, you can ask "her" to perform all manner of tasks, from fetching navigation directions and doing web searches to setting calendar appointments and making phone calls.

It's all about the chip

Motorola executives say it’s possible to incorporate this always-listening functioning into other phones, but doing so would drain the battery in two to three hours. The X8 chip is Google's secret sauce, because it has been built to use very little power while actively listening for the user’s voice.

That means even with Google Now running, the Moto X has about as much battery life as any other competing smartphone – which, in this day and age, unfortunately is still not much. But at least the Moto X is on par with the competition, even though the phone is effectively always doing something.

The Moto X’s Google Now functionality is similar to Siri, Apple’s voice-command system for the iPhone, but with one key distinction. To activate Siri an iPhone user has to actually pick up the device, then hold down the button before finally getting to his or her query. Moto X’s assistant, however, launches instantly without any of those preliminary steps.

It’s a small differentiation, but it’s important. Those seconds add up and I rarely use Siri on my iPhone for that very reason – it often takes just as much time to get things done the old-fashioned way, with my fingers.

Accuracy is a key factor that works in conjunction with ease of access. Neither Siri nor Google Now interpret queries correctly all the time, but errors are more forgivable when they ultimately don’t take up as much of your time. The Moto X’s voice command feature is a lot more practical than the competition's because, even when the phone messes up and you have to correct it, it still saves time over typing or tapping. Never mind the stress – and errors – of using your fingers when you're in a hurry.


Speaking of stress, voice control isn’t the only handy addition that Motorola engineers have added. They’ve also tackled the annoying issue of notifications.

Many phones have a flashing LED light that indicates they need the user’s attention for one reason or another. Motorola engineers say the light actually bothers people because they don’t know what it forebodes – does it signify an incoming email or text message, or did they miss an important call? Once the light starts flashing, they have to go through the process of turning on and unlocking the phone to find out.

The Motorola Moto X smartphone uses Google's Android operating system. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The Moto X has no LED light and instead flashes a symbol onto the locked screen that denotes the type of notification. 

An "M," for example, means an email has arrived while a phone symbol indicates a missed call. Touching and holding the symbol briefly gives a snippet of the notification – who called or emailed, and what the subject is – without having to unlock the screen. From there, you can decide to go into the phone or continue on with whatever you were doing.

Again, it’s a small improvement, but it saves time in the long run.

Similarly, Moto Assist is a handy feature that can read incoming text messages out loud while you’re driving, then automatically send back a reply saying you’re unavailable. It can also be set to send such messages while you’re in a meeting or sleeping.

Quick shooter

Lastly, quickly twisting your wrist twice while holding the phone launches the camera app. It’s a faster way of getting to the camera when you need to capture those fleeting moments.

It works – in several Wild West-type showdowns against people using other phones, I found the Moto X routinely launched and shot photos faster.

The only downside is that the Moto X camera itself isn’t as good as some others out there. Its colour interpretation is somewhat off, with other devices capturing bright hues more vividly.

Step in right direction

Nevertheless, the overall performance of the Moto X proves there is still room for improvement in a category of gadgets where innovation is starting to slow down.

Most smartphones today do many of the same things and look pretty similar, with only minor or cosmetic variations among them. Combined with the fact that many consumers already have relatively new devices and are locked into multi-year contracts with wireless providers as a result, it’s clear that manufacturers are now going to have work harder to wow people.

The Moto X is a smart step in the right direction, where the focus isn’t on faster processors or more camera megapixels but rather on interaction and ease of use.

The showcase voice command function isn’t perfect, but the smart touches around its implementation greatly increase the phone's usefulness and suggest a future where we will indeed be talking to our gadgets.

And they’ll be talking back, almost like real people.