How To Make Full Use of Your Android Phone's Voice Control

By Ryan Whitwam

Once you know the following commands, Android voice commands become infinitely more usable.

Android has had voice commands for quite some time, but like many of Google’s services, there are some easter eggs hidden beneath the surface. Voice Actions is part of Google Voice Search and ties in with a number of apps and services. It can even be managed on Google’s back end dashboard for increased privacy. Unlike some other voice input solutions, Android voice input isn’t geared toward natural language; you have to know the commands.

Let’s go over the compatible voice commands, and see what sort of tweaking you can do to make Android’s voice input work better for you.

The Commands

The commands most users will make the most use of is the Call feature. This is handy when you have your hands full, or are driving with a Bluetooth headset in. Just say, “Call [contact] [phone type].” If the contact has multiple contact numbers in your phone book and you don't specify, the voice search interface will have you clarify by tapping on the number in a list. The other call command lets you just say the name of a business, as in, "Call [business name]," and Android will pull the number from Google and call it directly. The device will even understand if you add in a location, like a city.

Sending a text message is very useful, when it works correctly. For this one say, “Send text to [contact name] … [message].” If the contact name isn’t picked up correctly, the phone will toss some approximation of it in at the beginning of the message, thus messing everything up. To avoid this, make sure you say the name as it appears in your phonebook. If the contact has a last name listed, use it. You have the opportunity to check the text before sending. Words that Voice Actions was unsure about are highlighted, and you can tap on them to get suggestions.

Much like sending a text, you can send an email by saying, “Send email to [contact] … [message].” This works just like the SMS for proofreading. Voice Actions also lets you use email in another way. If you say, “Note to self [message],” the device will send off an email addressed to you with your thought saved for posterity. These emails arrive with “Note to self” in the subject line. It’s a little bit clunky, but it gets the job done.

There are two ways to make use of the web with Android’s Voice Actions. If you say, “Go to [website name],” the browser will launch and load the appropriate website. We find that this is usually very accurate for popular websites, but multi-word sites with a lower profile often get missed. You can accomplish the same task by saying, “Open [website].” For some reason, this command seems to pick up obscure names better. The other use of the browser is just to do voice searches. Leave off the commands and just talk. The address bar will have a green color when your results load to indicate that it matched your speech with a recognized block of text.

There are three map-related commands to use. if you want to navigate, just say, “Navigate to [location name or address].” We have found this one to be very useful as you’re likely in the car when it comes up. This command boots you directly into the Navigation app without going through the Maps app first. If you say, “Directions to [location name or address],” the Maps app just pulls up the directions listed for you without Navigation. Lastly, just say, “Map of [anything],” and Google Maps will open and do a search for your query nearby.

There is one last command in Android’s Voice Actions, but we feel it’s got the weakest implementation, despite having noble intentions. If you say, “Listen to [artist/song/album],” the music app will pop up with a search for what you said. It won’t actually search for some reason, but you can just tap enter. If you have an app like or Pandora, the Voice Action will offer you the option of using one of those apps. It could be good, but this just takes too many steps.

Settings and Tweaks

There are two ways to access the Google Voice Input settings. When you have the voice input box open, you can hit menu and then settings, but there’s just a brief window before the system decides you’re not saying anything. You can also go into the main system settings, and find Voice Input & Output Settings. There, you can pick Voice Recognizer Settings.

There are a few default settings here that you might want to tweak. Safe Search is controlled separately for voice searches on Android, so you can disable that if you like, or change the default Moderate setting to Strict. In a similar vein, the default is to block “offensive words” from being recognized. We don’t need to tell you what those are, but if you fancy strong language in your text messages, this can be disabled.

The last setting here controls a feature that some users find concerning. Google uses a so-called “Personal Recognition” engine to tailor your voice commands to your own speaking style. The default for this is on, but you can turn it off if you just want to use the vanilla voice recognition experience. Android will warn you that no further automatic customization will occur.

The practical upshot of personalization system is that the more you use Voice Input and Voice Actions on an Android phone, the more accurate it gets for you. We have noticed that over time Android does seem to get better at knowing what we’re saying, so think carefully before you turn this off. However, that does nothing about the voice samples Google already has on you. For that, it’s off to the web.

Maximum Privacy

The last option in the settings page is a link to the Google Dashboard, which can also be accessed on a PC. This page is a one-stop-shop for all the things that Google knows about you. Everything from your Gmail to your Android Market purchases is listed here along with the applicable privacy policies.

Items that store personal data have the option to remove it, and Speech Recognition is one of those. You will see under the Speech header that your total recordings are listed, and the time of the last addition to the cache will be shown below that. If you click the link entitled “Anonymize recognition”, all that customization goes away.

Google pops up a message informing users that the action cannot be reversed, and will result in the deletion of all saved voice samples. If you choose to delete your speech models, voice recognition will get a bit less accurate, but you can rest assured that the Google mothership can’t fake your voice to impersonate you. That’s a real concern, right?

Google voice input can be a powerful tool if you know the commands. It would be nice to see an update of Voice Actions, but for the time being it’s good for a few things like sending texts and starting navigation. Even with all its faults, we like that Google allows the system to become more customized over time with Personalized Recognition. It’s even cooler that you can go in and wipe out all that collected data. How do you use Google’s Android voice control?