Google Search for iPhone Hits Its Awkward Stage
Google has updated its search app for iPhone with a new interface, as well as the addition of Google Goggles. The slide'n'swipe interface features an interesting way of arranging menu items, yet the slide action feels jerky. Like its original version, the app can take you to a long list of Google Apps, yet it throws the user over to Safari rather than using the app's built-in browser, which might be smoother.
Originally, Google Search for iPhone was little more than a polished little app-sized link to its Web pages. So much of what people use Google for takes place through a browser that there wasn't much point in delivering a heavy piece of software; a well-put-together set of roadsigns did the trick.
Now Google's iPhone app has grown up a bit. It received an update that makes its main interface a little more complex, delivers a few new features, and builds in some slidey-swipey action to lessen the impression that you're looking at a made-for-mobile website rather than an installed application.
Underneath that, though, you're still looking at a browser that's looking at Google -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Its appearance is customized to fit the iPhone screen, and it makes Google's many smartphone utilities a little easier to find. Some of the changes, however, still feel a little rough.
Open the Google iPhone app for the first time and you'll get a quick tutorial. The familiar Google homescreen is there in the upper half of the screen, as well as a search bar, a cog icon for settings, a mic icon for voice searches and a camera icon to fire up Google Goggles. At the bottom is a button for Google Apps -- Docs, Orkut, Buzz (yep!), Reader and the like.
Type something into the search bar, and it'll conduct a standard Google search. But you can refine that search by giving it a left-to-right swipe. This reveals a sidebar where you can select which specific part of Google to search in. Default is Everything, but there's also News, Images, Videos, Blogs, etc.
You can also swipe top-to-bottom to bring the main Google search page back into view.
This interface arrangement is a bit unusual -- I can't name another app I've ever seen that arranges its menus quite like this. Its concept makes plenty of sense, but using it on an iPhone 4, it feels kind of jerky. Swiping down to get the half-screen Google start page is sometimes interpreted by the app as an attempt to enter text into the top search bar. Side-swipes to get to the various search categories is sometimes ignored if the gesture was just a little on the fast-and-sloppy side. It seemed to require a much more deliberate sweep of the finger than, for instance, the Kindle iPhone app needs to turn a page. This may be due to the fact that this app gets almost all of the data it's showing you from the Web, rather than the phone's internal storage, but the effect feels decidedly rough sometimes.
Sound and Vision
One of the most attractive features of Google's iPhone app has always been voice search -- hit a mic icon, tell it what you're searching for, and your words are turned into text and entered into the search bar. It still works the same as it ever has: very well.
But next to the mic icon is now a camera icon for using Google Goggles. This is a feature with which anything you photograph can be sent to Google to get relevant information. Instead of putting words into the search bar, you're putting in a photo.
Of course, it doesn't work with just anything. Google says it's best used on books and DVDs, landmarks, logos, contact info, art, businesses, products and barcodes. It can also translate text.
I snapped images from the covers of a few CDs (yeah, I've still got some of those). Goggles identified the album by name and did a product search, a search for videos from the same artist, and some really weird textual search that made no sense at all.
Language translation is very hit and miss, but it seems short sentences work more often than big blocks of text.
Apps Within Apps
Finally, at the very bottom of the Google app's home screen, there's an icon for Apps, which will give you a menu for taking you directly to any of over a dozen Google Web apps you happen to use -- News, Gmail, Docs, Voice, Photos, YouTube, etc. This list is probably familiar to you if you've used Google's older version of the Search app. You'll need to sign in to some of these apps using a Google username and password (typically an "@gmail.com" email account), but the phone can be set to remember this and automatically log you in. Just don't lose the phone.
If you're looking to find quick access to the general Google News front page, this is where you find it. The News option in the slide-to-the-side bar on the Search page simply narrows the search term you enter down to a Google News search specifically.
It's good to have quick access to all these Google Apps within the overall iPhone app. It would certainly seem strange if they weren't there at all. Still, it seems a lot of the apps listed here could just as easily be situated on one's iPhone home screen, or placed into folders that would categorize them more practically than through their shared Google lineage. Maps is here, but the iPhone's own Maps app uses Google Maps, and it's tied more closely into the other functions of the phone. The iPhone's Calendar app can be synced with Google Calendar, as can Mail with Gmail. Google Voice is available in the App Store. And pretty much anything else here can be saved as a shortcut icon. Why go through Google Search for iPhone when direct access is so easy?
Also, none of these Google Apps are accessed through the browser built into the main search app. All those search functions I described earlier are conducted and executed by a version of Safari that's been embedded into the app itself. But if you fire up one of these Google Apps (an app within an app, I guess), it kicks you over to Safari in order to get into your Docs account or check out some YouTube videos.
That certainly doesn't limit the actual functionality of the Google Apps themselves. But it does trip you up if you intend to back-track afterward and do some completely different task in the Google Search iPhone app, which has now been shunted into your multitask bar and must be resurrected through a double-tap on the Home button.
Yeah yeah, I know how much of a whiner I sound like for grousing about having to push a physical button (twice -- and don't forget tapping the icon too!) in order to get back on track. But Facebook's and Twitter's official iPhone apps make good use of in-app browsers that let you seamlessly slide back and forth between information on the wild Web and data contained within the app. And Google Search for iPhone has a built-in browser already -- it just doesn't use it for anything called up in its Google Apps section. Unless there's some technical hurdle that makes it impractical, I think using the in-app browser for Google Apps might be a welcome improvement to Google Search for iPhone.
Since Day 1, Google Search for iPhone has been worth a space on the iPhone's main screen just by virtue of its Voice Search, which is still top-notch and still very easy to access the second you boot up the app.
With this latest update, it's starting to add a little more finesse to the interface and bring in new features. Google Goggles is interesting, and the slidy-swipy characteristics now built into the main screen have potential, if only they didn't feel so choppy.