Hands on with Google Handwrite, Google's new search feature

Newton fans, rejoice: If you like writing your queries on a screen rather than typing them on a virtual keyboard, Google’s new project, Handwrite, should awe and delight.

Announced on Google’s blog Thursday morning, the company's new beta project aims to make it easier to search, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Handwrite allows you to block print or handwrite letters, words, and punctuation on the screen, where it will be instantly analyzed and converted into a search term.

The feature is pretty simple to turn on: On an iPhone, scroll down to the Settings link on Google.com (on an iPad, click Search Settings from the Gear icon), enable Handwrite mode, then return to Google.com. Tap the new button in the lower right corner—it resembles a cursive lower-case g—to turn Handwrite on, and just start scribbling.

On an iPhone or iPod touch, I found Handwrite a little finicky due to the small screen. (See my hands-on video, below.) The service will intelligently try to guess at your letters and words, though, so if you only write “dowag” before you run out of room, you can continue with “er” and it will put the letters together to make “dowager”—and suggest you might be looking for the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, at that.

On an iPad, using Handwrite is a dream, especially if you use a stylus. There’s no worry of real estate crunch, and you have much more freedom in forming your letters.

Unfortunately, I found that Google’s recognition engine was much poorer at analyzing cursive lettering than it was at block printing. I’m not sure whether that has to do with my own messy style of cursive or the engine itself, but I often found it dropping letters (it didn’t know what to do with a lower-case s or r) or misunderstanding words entirely. Luckily, Google’s search engine is good enough to more or less pick up the slack (turning “teasures” to “treasures,” for example), but it’s still a little annoying.

For a beta feature, though, Handwrite is great fun, and something I could actually see myself using pretty often. My handwriting’s slow—but not as slow as my virtual keyboard touch-typing.

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