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Google Lens is a student's best friend: How to copy-paste text from the real world

Google Lens is one of the more underappreciated Google services out there, and nowhere is this more true than in education. Sure, Google Lens can scan barcodes and identify some real-world objects when you need to figure out which one of those vines is poison oak, but the real magic in Google Lens was a little feature announced at Google I/O that made everyone who's ever had to copy down notes off of their teacher's blackboard stand up and cheer: the ability to copy-paste text from the real world into your phone or computer.

Smart text selection — as the feature is officially called — will save you time and energy whether you're copying study notes out of a textbook or scanning in contact information for classmates, co-workers, and friends.

Ready to copy this down?

Where can you use Google Lens' text selection features

At its inception, Google Lens was only available on the Google Pixel 2, but it's since rolled out to the general public. Not only is Google Lens available as a standalone app in Google Play for Android devices running Marshmallow or above, but Google Lens has been added into the default camera app for phones from a variety of manufacturers.

Smart text selection on Google Lens via Google Photos app on a Google Pixelbook

But why students should really rejoice is that Google Lens has been incorporated into the Google Photos app, meaning that you can use the smart text selection and real-world copy-paste on pictures you've already taken on:

  • Android phones and tablets
  • iPhones and iPads
  • Chromebooks with Google Play and Android app support

The number of Chromebooks that are compatible with Android apps has been rising steadily over the last year and a half, so if you're not sure if yours has it, check our handy list of Google Play-compatible Chromebooks. Using smart text selection on a Chromebook where you can use a keyboard for quickly amending any text errors or adding notes on the fly is a wonderful, wonderful thing I wish I could've used when I was in college.

How to copy-paste real-world text in the Google Lens app

Whether you launch Google Lens from the dedicated app or from inside your phone's camera app, the feature works blissfully the same way.

  1. Open Google Lens or tap the Google Lens icon inside your phone's camera app (if available).
  2. Tap Continue.
  3. Tap the text you wish to copy for Google Lens to scan it for letters and words. Drag the circles at the ends of your highlighted text to select a larger section.
  4. Tap Copy in the menu that appears above the highlighted section.

  1. Open the app or document you wish to copy the text into.
  2. Long press the cursor in your app or document to summon the selection menu.
  3. Tap Paste.

I will say that smart text selection in the Google Lens app has not been quite as consistent as using it in Google Photos, but it's quicker to open and activate, and you don't have to save pictures of everything when you use it.

How to copy-paste real-world text in the Google Photos app

Google Photos is the more consistent method for smart text selection and real-world copy paste, and since Google Photos is analyzing photos that are in your library, you can use them on older photos or take photos during an event or class and then use Google Photos to extract the text later when compiling your notes.

As a reminder when attempting this on Chromebooks, you need to do this from the Google Photos app on Google Play, not the Google Photos website.

  1. Open Google Photos
  2. Open the picture you wish to extract text from.
  3. Tap the Google Lens icon in the bottom right corner.

  1. Tap Continue.
  2. Tap to highlight the full text you wish to copy. Drag the circles at the ends of your highlighted text to select a smaller selection if you don't want to copy all the text Google Lens detects in your photo.
  3. Tap Copy in the menu that appears above the highlighted section.

  1. Open the app or document you wish to copy the text into.
  2. Long press the cursor in your app or document to summon the selection menu.
  3. Tap Paste.

Do you copy?

Whether you're just copying some class notes into study guide or copying billing information for an invoice, Google Lens's smart text selection is an invaluable tool both for time-saving and for convenience. It still struggles at times with messy handwriting and obscure fonts sometimes, so make sure you scan through the finished text after saving it into Google Drive or Google Keep to ensure it didn't misspell anything or leave out any context-changing words. Google Lens is getting better and better at making out text all the time, and the more people use smart text selection, the better it becomes, so use it early, use it often, and say goodbye to hand-copying notes forever!

Read more: Best Chromebooks for students

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

8 Comments
  • It looks incredibly useful for a lot of things but actually learning data isn't one of them. The act of copying the data, especially done with pen or pencil, is a great foundation for actually learning the data. Sure I suppose you could transpose class notes later at your leisure but you're in class for that hour anyway, why not do it right then/there. Seems like the better time saver to me.
  • Yep. Using this tech is probably even worse than typing notes. And while I knew that was the case I still typed my notes. mainly because I can't write in cursive anymore, and printing is slow and arduous. Plus, I could barely read what I wrote so it was almost pointless. I only typed because it was the only way I could actually read my notes afterward.
  • Sad part, in a lot of schools cursive is not taught anymore.
  • Studies show that you retain more information if you write it down (not type). Even though you probably won't get every last detail you'll still remember more and be better off in the end.
  • Microsoft Office Lens does this for written or printed documents with a lot less action needed and it saves your captures in Google photos under the album named Office Lens
  • Awesome! Putting this on our daughter's new Lenovo 500e. (Excellent student device)
  • I agree with the others in this thread that the act of writing enhances learning. I could see this being useful for getting info out of a reference document you aren't allowed to remove from a building. I also have a box of letters that my grandfather wrote home during World War I (some are typewritten), and I want to try to use this to help capture those documents.
  • The box of letters would be better served with a scanner, the quality would be far higher.