Software

6 app updates that will supercharge your Google tools at work

Sometimes, the addition of a small feature can make a big difference. Here are some simple updates that can improve tools like Google Docs, Google+, and Google Keep.

Illustration of Google G logo (in circle) with update notification (square) in upper right
Image: Andy Wolber / TechRepublic

Software changes. That may seem like an obvious and simple statement, but it is one with implications that we too often forget. As a result, people use phrases that start with "But it doesn't..." or "It can't..." to describe the lack of a feature or workflow.

Sometimes a seemingly small new feature turns an app into a tool you can use, instead of software with something missing. A subtle change can make all the difference. When I write about software, I try to focus on what it does, not what it doesn't do. (That is, unless the lack of a feature is the focus.) If there's an obviously "missing" feature, I'll use the phrase, "...as of [Month] [Year]." That's my way to acknowledge that software can change.

The following tweaks to Google tools make these apps more useful for me.

Screenshots of mobile Google Docs insert link, word count, and Drive - desktop view - share options.

The Google Docs mobile app now lets you insert links (left) and count words (center). You can adjust file share settings from the desktop view of Google Drive on mobile, too (right).

1. Google Docs: Count words, insert links, and share files

Early versions of Google Docs on iOS lacked key features I needed for writing, so I figured out work-arounds with third-party apps (see Missing Google Docs features: iOS developers giveth what Google taketh away from October 2015).

Then, Google added the ability to insert hyperlinks in February 2016, and rolled out word count capabilities in March 2016. Yet, the mobile Google Docs apps still only allows file sharing to an email address. However, now you can request the "desktop" version of Google Drive from a mobile browser (https://drive.google.com/drive/my-drive), then adjust the file share settings to create a public link that anyone can use. These changes made it possible for me to get most of my work done from a phone or tablet.

Screenshot of Google Keep note with "Draw in Google Keep on iOS" handwritten text

You can sketch a note in the Google Keep app on Android and Apple mobile devices.

2. Google Keep: Draw a note

Sometimes, though, features take a while before they're consistent across platforms. For example, Jack Wallen described how to add quick doodles to Google Keep in November 2015. Many months later—by May 2017—Google added the ability to draw notes to the Google Keep iOS app.

Gboard screenshot showing Search, YouTube, Map options; and Release Notes detailed text.

Use the Gboard keyboard to share a map, YouTube video, or a sketch (left). Want details? Always read the release notes (right).

3. Gboard: Share a location, video, or sketch

Gboard offered swipe-typing and search integrated into your mobile keyboard on iOS when I covered it initially in May 2016 (see: How to choose the right mobile keyboard for faster typing on your iPhone or iPad).

But, the Gboard keyboard keeps getting better. A June 2017 update added phrase suggestions, as well as the ability to recognize hand-drawn emoji. A July 2017 update for iOS included the ability to insert a map, YouTube video, or drawing. And, an August 2017 update for the Android version of Gboard brought support for voice typing in many more languages. The update also expanded voice recognition to include emoji descriptions for both Android and iOS. You can now say "smiley face emoji" or "thumbs up emoji" while voice typing and Gboard will insert the correct emoji character.

Screenshot of search options: by post, communities, collections, people; narrow by: from everyone, people you follow, or just you.

Fine tune your Google searches in your browser.

4. Google+: Refined search

Despite Google's roots as a search company, search for data stored in Google's apps wasn't always easy. Too often, the process meant you had to hunt down a search menu. (See: How to search Google Hangouts and Calendar, and other areas where Google's search fails from April 2016.)

Google significantly improved Google+ search in July 2017, with a web search interface that lets you narrow your search options. And G Suite Business and Enterprise customers received the ability to search G Suite data with the release of Google Cloud Search in early 2017.

Screenshot of Google Forms' auto-grading quiz setting option

Now, Google Forms lets you quickly create an auto-grading quiz.

5. Google Forms: Auto-grading quizzes

In 2012, I'd covered how to create a self-grading quiz with a Google Form and a "key" in a Google Sheet. Now, there's a much better option: Google built the ability to create quizzes into Google Forms. Google also added the ability for a teacher to give feedback to a student on a specific question.

Screenshot of link to Video call detail in iOS calendar item note

Join video meetings with a link from devices, such as an iPhone or iPad, connected to Google Calendar with iCal.

6. Meet and Hangouts: Links in iCAL

On iOS devices, if you connect to Google Calendar with the built-in iOS Calendar app, links to Meet or Hangouts appear (starting in August 2017). Before the update, the links displayed in the Google Calendar app, but weren't easy to find otherwise. Now, you can join your meeting with a tap from the native Calendar app on an iPhone or iPad—or any app that uses the iCAL connection notes field.

Screenshot of G Suite release calendar webpage

See the G Suite release calendar to know when significant changes occur.

See what's changed

If you want to stay up-to-date as Google improves apps, I suggest that you do two things. First, subscribe to the G Suite release calendar. The calendar shows when new features and updates will roll out to G Suite customers. And second, read the release notes whenever you notice an updated app on your phone or tablet. Small but significant changes often merit a brief mention.

What do you think?

How do you track and share new software features? Has there been a seemingly minor feature that made a major difference to you? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@awolber).

Also see

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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