After much fanfare, Google released its Amazon Echo-rivaling smart home device, Google Home, last November. The air freshener-shaped personal pod brings Google's Assistant into the living room, while also working as a controller for your other smart home devices and even as an entertainment hub.
However, if you're expecting something more advanced than the Amazon Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, you're out of luck. We've been using Home for a while now, and while it's still not quite up there with Amazon's offering, some tweaks and updates since our initial review mean it's starting to snap at the heels of Alexa. That means it now gets an extra half star on our score. Here's what it's been like living with Google Home.
Google Home: Design
Yes, the little pear-shaped device that is Google Home can be best described as looking like an air freshener - but a nice one. It's less industrial than the Echo, with more curves, and certainly more heft than the Echo Dot. It's designed to blend in well with your living room decor, and to that end it's a success.
The Google Home body is white but you can customise the base with several colourful options and styles. It's a little thing, but it once again sets Home apart from Alexa's options of black or white. The two types of base mean you have a choice of metallic or fabric, where the metallic bases are made out of either painted steel or polycarbonate and come in copper, snow or carbon colours. For those interested in the fabric, you get three shades: mango, marine and violet, in addition to the standard white mesh.
There's only one button on Home, and that's a mute button on he back. Home employs a touch capacitive surface on the top that lets you control volume, play and pause music or tap to start up the Home Assistant. You can also use the wake phrases "Okay, Google" or "Hey Google" for queries and commands.
Integrated into the top panel are two far-field microphones that are pretty good at picking up voice from across room, even with music blaring out the speakers. That's fewer than the seven mics inside the Echo and Echo Dot, and sometimes it does get a request wrong, but overall I've been impressed at how good Home is at lasering in on my voice.
On the bottom portion of Home you'll find a speaker and two passive radiators, which can get surprisingly loud if you crank up the volume. While we spent our initial review comparing Home with the full-fat Alexa speaker, we've been using it alongside the Echo Dot for our long-term test, and there's a noticeable difference in the sound.
Right now, Google Home serves me fine as a bedroom speaker; it fills the room with sound much better than the Dot. There's a good range of bass and mids but much like Amazon's offering, Home won't be replacing your expensive sound system. Still, it can at least DJ a small house party without issue.
Google Home: Performance and features
There are several ways you can use Google Home, and in the space between our initial review and now some things have changed, which is why we've added an extra half star to our verdict. Home is a music player, connected smart home device and intelligent assistant, but it still lacks some of the things Alexa boasts.
Let's start with music and audio performance. Home lets you sync your Spotify premium, Pandora, Google Play Music and YouTube Music accounts, and choose which one you want to be the default. This means you can say, "Ok Google, play American Football" or just "Hey Google, play me some music" without specifying which service you want it to pull it from; it will always go to your default. That goes for playlists too - just say something like "Hey Google, play Discover Weekly".
More services will come too, with iHeartRadio promising to be available soon. To sweeten things, Google will also offer up a limited trial of Play Music and YouTube Red during setup.
But here's what puzzles me: you still can't use Home as a Bluetooth speaker, meaning you're limited to Google's choice of streaming services and audio sent streamed from any Chromecast-enabled app on Android or iOS. The Echo does support Bluetooth, and I wish Home did too, but how much of a problem this is will come down to your listening habits.
Smart home, meet smart speaker
Google has one leg up on Amazon, however, by allowing you to use Chromecast Audio-connected speakers or several Home units to play music simultaneously. You can also voice-cast content to any TV that has Chromecast plugged or built in. We've found this works well, with Google Home capable of playing YouTube videos at our command without getting confused. You can now do this with Netflix too, so you can say "Hey Google, play House of Cards on [Chromecast name]" etc - just make sure you link your Netflix account in the Home app first.
Google Home also lets you control your lights, thermostats and switches if connected to Philips Hue, Nest, Samsung SmartThings and IFTTT with more integrations coming soon. Amazon already plays host to several smart home platforms, so you'll be used to this if you've tried out the Echo.
Context is key
Random questions can also be asked and answered thanks to the power of Google Assistant and, of course, Google's whopping great search engine. Here Assistant's contextual responses give it the upper hand on Alexa, and it's something I've come to appreciate over the course of longer testing.
While you still need to give Google its wake word before each query, Assistant will remember the context to answer whatever comes next. For example, you could ask "What's the population of France?" and then follow it up with "What's the biggest city?" and Google will know you mean. For these sorts of conversations to take place you do have to ask questions rather quickly, else Google will forget.
It doesn't always work out perfectly, and it would be much more intuitive if wake words weren't needed each time – they throw off the 'conversation' you're having with Google Assistant. Regardless, this is somewhere that Assistant's capabilities supersede the Echo's.
Since our first review, Google has released something called Actions, which are the Home equivalent of Amazon's Skills. However unlike Skills, these are added to Google's "brain" automatically, meaning they just start working without you having to install them. So far Actions include playing blackjack, searching symptoms on WebMD, ordering pizza, and even talking to other chatbots (just don't make Assistant jealous).
It's still relatively early days, but I like what I see so far, and I particularly like how Home just learns them without any input. Of course, you'll need to know what Actions are actually available and what commands are needed to use them. In the app, open up the left menu, go to Devices, tap the three dots at the top right corner of the Google Home box, then hit More, and then Services.
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Yes, it's a very arduous process to get there, but once you are you'll see a list of all the published Actions that are accessible. For some, like Todoist, you'll need to link your accounts, but otherwise if they're on the list then that means Home already knows them. Smart.
Fun stuff, mostly
Aside from the contextual conversations and Actions, Google Assistant functionality in general is a bit limited. You can't access the full Google ecosystem to send emails and you can't do much beyond asking what sorts of events are coming up in the calendar the next day. But the assistant does say "Sorry I can't add events to your calendar yet" suggesting that this is something that will show up later.
You can also easily ask for your travel itinerary, traffic to work, weather, news and more. There are a variety of other tasks the Assistant can help with as well, like setting timers for cooking, setting morning alarms, creating shopping lists (that show up in the app) and booking a ride through Uber if you've connected your account.
I've discovered Google Assistant has quite a personality, which makes talking to it pretty fun. Though the voice can be robot-y sometimes, Assistant's varying amount of inflections makes it often feel lifelike.
You can play trivia – complete with game show music and nicknames courtesy of Google Assistant – Mad Libs, and Crystal Ball, where the assistant will prompt you to ask yes/no questions complete with little chimes and jokes.
There's also a translation feature where you can ask Google Home to say various phrases or words in other languages. Alexa isn't capable of this and instead replies with "I can't pronounce that but I've written the translation for you."
Setting up Google Home is super easy. Simply plug in the base, download the app on an Android or iOS device, and then follow the steps that will take you through updating Home once you've connected to Wi-Fi. Google will also ask what room your device will live in, in case you have more than one. If you do, they'll all sync up together, letting you cast music to all your Homes at once.
Just like the Echo app, there's a timeline in the main menu that displays your most recent activity, as well as a running list for everything you've asked the Assistant - so be wary those silly requests don't come back to bite you if someone might be rooting through your phone.
At the moment, the only suggestions the app is providing are related to the general functionality of Home. For example, linking TVs and speakers, playing YouTube videos, playing music and a list of questions you can ask.
You can find a more in-depth menu by pressing the top left icon in the app. This is where other settings can be changed and checked – like the shopping list, which syncs up with Google Keep.
Everything in the app has worked well so far, though it takes a while to load and for some reason trying to view the shopping list constantly crashes. It's not a huge deal though and I can see it getting fixed sooner rather than later.
- Actions make it better
- Chromecast casting
- Contextual conversations
- Assistant hampered by wake-up words
- App navigation sometimes unintuitive
- No Bluetooth for music