A Complete Guide to Google Allo

A look at Google's new messaging platform and preview of Google Assistant

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Google Allo is new messaging app with some fun and smart features built-in. I downloaded it to give it a try and find out what it's all about, but first a quick rant. After I gave it permission to access my contacts and photos (it is a messaging app after all), it launched my forward facing camera and suggested I take a profile picture. I declined; it turns out the view of one's face from the vantage point our your selfie camera is rather terrifying and I feel the need to apologize to my dear smartphone.

It's not a good look. Otherwise, the set-up is quick and simple. 

The first question that comes to mind about Allo is how it differs from regular old text messaging and Google Hangouts. In addition to emojis, Allo also has a collection of artist-designed stickers, including animated ones. You can also draw on and add text to photos and even change the font size for effect using the whisper/shout feature. This should beat ALL CAPS messages, which in my opinion, are just stressful to receive. It'll also save tapping out a million exclamation points. To shout, simply type your message, hold the send button, and then pull it upwards; to whisper, do the same except pull it down. You can do this with emojis in addition to texts.

Though Allo is connected to your phone by your phone number, Allo can't be used to send SMS (plain old text messages). This also means the app isn't available on desktops, laptops, or tablets.

You can optionally connect it with your Google account, though, which links it up with your contacts, search history, and general preferences. You can send messages to non-Allo users as long as they have an iPhone or Android smartphone. An iPhone user receives a request message via text with a link to the App Store.

(This text comes from a 5-digit number rather than your phone number, similar to alerts you might get from your bank or an airline.) Android users get a notification using a feature called app preview that enables you to interact with apps you haven't downloaded. Sounds strange, I know, but then you have the option of either responding to the message right from the notification or by downloading the Allo app. It's not the smoothest process in the world, but it's one way to spread adoption of the app. It just puts the onus on enthusiastic early adopters, but it is a bonus that the app is iPhone-compatible as well.

Like Google Hangouts, all messages you send through Allo will be stored on Google's servers, though you can delete them at will. Allo will also learn from your behavior and message history and offer suggestions as you type. For example, it might learn that you prefer "haha" to "lol" or suggest canned responses like "I don't know," or "I'm sorry." It will also suggest emojis based on the context of the conversation. It's almost like you don't have to think anymore.

You can opt out of the suggestions and retain your privacy by using the incognito messaging feature, which uses end-to-end encryption so only you and the recipient can see the content of the messages.

With incognito, you can also set expiration dates for how long messages are stored on your phone. Messages can vanish in as quickly as five, 10, or 30 seconds or linger for as long as one minute, one hour, one day or one week. Notifications automatically hide the content of the message so you don't have to worry about someone spying your screen. However, you can use Google Assistant or smart replies (see below) when in this mode.

Google Assistant Preview

The Google Assistant is similar to Google Now on Tap, which enables you to find nearby restaurants, get directions, and ask questions right from the messaging interface.

All you have to do is type @google to summon the chat bot assistant. (A chat bot is essentially a computer program designed to mimic real-life conversation.) You can also chat one-on-one with it to get sports scores, check flight status, ask for a reminder, check the weather, or satiate your curiosity in real-time. It's different from other virtual assistants like Apple's Siri in that it responds by text not by talking, which I actually prefer. I'm not terribly interested in chatting with my phone that way and many people I know who use Siri end up turning her voice off.

The Assistant is smarter and savvier in some ways than Google Now and Now on Tap. While Google Now might guess what you want based on your search, Google Assistant builds on your previous searches in a more graceful way and interacts with you more naturally, like a virtual assistant. You can ask it follow up questions and give feedback. When you chat with the Assistant, the whole thread is saved, and you can scroll back and look for old searches and results. Other features that the Assistant offers beyond Google Now are smart replies, subscriptions, photo recognition, and offline access. Smart replies predict what your response might be based on previous conversations and other data. If someone asks you a question, Assistant will offer suggestions, such as "I don't know," or "yes or no," or pull up a related search, such as nearby restaurants, movie titles and the like. The Assistant can even recognize photos, similar to Google Photos, but it will even suggest responses, such as "aww" when you receive a picture of a kitten, puppy, or baby or other cute nugget. It can also read QR codes.

Not sure how to use this virtual assistant? Simply say or type "what can you do?" to explore the full range of features, which include subscriptions, answers, travel, news, weather, sports, games, going out, fun, actions, my assistant, and translation. The different categories are organized into cards; tap a card to find out more and see examples. I actually found it fun to explore this feature even when I didn't have any burning questions.

Anytime you interact with the Google Assistant, you can give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoji to rate your experience. If you give it a thumbs-down, you can explain why you're not satisfied if you have specific if you want.

Subscriptions are an interesting feature. You can request daily weather updates at a certain time of day or get sports scores once a week and other practical information. The assistant will even send you a poem every day if you ask, which is actually nice. You can also get daily quotes, news about specific topics, music videos, or just about anything. The Assistant can be used for anything you'd search for online, such as flights to or from a certain city, check the status of a certain flight, look for hotels, or find things to do in a city. It can also be used to communicate in another language, for example, how to say hi in Spanish or thank you in German. 

Like any good helper, the Google Assistant will do things for you like setting a timer or reminder, making a call, or pulling up a calendar. Another nice touch is that the Assistant doesn't require an internet connection to ask a question. It will process your request in the background and then provide the answer when you're back online.

If you're bored, the Assistant will entertain you on request with photos, videos, and jokes; it will also play games in four categories: chat, quiz, Google Doodle, and classic. I gave emoji riddles a try and it was surprisingly difficult, even with hints, but I don't use them very often. Emoji Movies was a bit easier. The quiz games are a great way to pass the time too. I'm also a fan of the Google Doodle games and it's nice to have a place to easily find them again. Classic games, for now at least, are simply tic-tac-toe (you can play against friends too) and solitaire.

So, Should You Download This App?

Google Allo isn't terribly exciting on its own; Google Assistant is the dark horse here. I really like the idea of not having to switch apps in order to look up restaurants, check what time or on what network or streaming service a TV show is on, or get directions. In fact, I love the idea of being able to call up driving or transit directions and share them directly with my friend in seconds. It's worth giving it a try if only to experiment with the Assistant features. I'm dubious about how many users will be willing to download yet another messaging app when competitors like WhatsApp and Snapchat already have huge user bases. However, the more users that try out Allo, the smarter Assistant will get, and my hope (and prediction) is that it will find its way into other Google and Android products. After all, Google Now on Tap was initially limited to Google apps, but it's since opened up to many third-party apps