For that price, you get the power of Google's search engine along with a unique contextual question/response system – with a slight caveat which we'll dive into later.
But if you're expecting something more advanced than the Echo, you're out of luck. Here's what it was like living with Google Home.
Google Home: Design
Air freshener. That's the image that first comes to mind when looking at the little pear-shaped device. It's less industrial than the Echo, more industrial design done right, and fits in well with your living room decor.
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 drab black. 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 aren't any buttons on the device, with the exception of a mute button on the back. Rather, 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, commands and so forth.
Integrated into the top panel are two far-field microphones that can supposedly hear voice commands from across the room, or if music is already playing. That's fewer than the seven mics inside Echo, but Home is a much smaller gadget.
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.
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Google Home: Performance and features
There are several ways you can use Google Home right now, which generally matches up with the Echo's abilities from when Amazon first released its smart speaker.
At the moment, Home works best as a music player, connected smart home device and a relatively intelligent Assistant.
Let's start with music and audio performance. During initial setup, you can sync your Spotify Premium account with Home. Google Assistant has been pretty responsive to my music requests. The top will display four multicoloured lights to show Home is listening. Saying "Hey Google, play Discover Weekly" starts up the playlist from Spotify without it getting confused with another service.
Alternatively, if you just say, "Hey Google play some music," it will default to YouTube. Adding "-from Spotify" here is needed for a more precise experience.
The query process was similar on the Echo, but a recent update now lets you customise a default music player which Alexa defers to when you ask it to play tunes.
As mentioned before, the small smart speaker can get loud without a lot of distortion. 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.
You can access more music through the readily available six-month trial of YouTube Red. Pandora, YouTube Music, Google Play Music and TuneIn are the other options you can use for music, with more like iHeartRadio being added soon. You can also stream audio from your Android phone or iPhone to Google Home over Wi-Fi, using one of the 100+ Chromecast-enabled apps.
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. It worked well during our time with it and Google Home was able to play YouTube videos without getting confused. Google is expanding the ecosystem to include Netflix and Google Photos soon which should be useful additions.
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 none of this is particularly groundbreaking.
Context is key
Random questions can also be asked and answered thanks to the power of Google's search engine. You can even ask follow up questions and Google Assistant will remember the context to answer you. There's a slight caveat however as you still have to use the wake words, and ask rather quickly, otherwise Google will forget. A conversation could look like this: "Okay Google who was the first president?" and then, "Okay, Google, how old was he?" then finally, "Hey Google is there a holiday for him?"
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 and detract from the experience. Regardless, Alexa isn't contextually aware at all, so Assistant's capabilities still supersede the Echo's.
Fun stuff, mostly
Aside from the contextual conversations, 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. 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. It's up in the air in terms of sending emails though.
What Google Assistant can do is connect to your calendar and let you ask what's on the agenda for the next day. 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, morning alarms, creating shopping lists 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, Google has narrowed it down to only a few weird inflections that will catch you off guard, otherwise the assistant sounds pretty real.
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."
Then there's the usual repertoire of silly things you can ask the Assistant, like "Can you learn? Sing me a song. Tell me a joke" and so on.
Google Home: Setup and app
Setting up Google Home is super easy. Simply plug in the base after downloading the app on an Android or iOS device then wait for everything to update once you've connected to Wi-Fi. Google will also ask what room your device will live in, likely to optimise the way it listens.
There aren't any apps to download just yet, meaning Google Assistant should already be set with all the features mentioned above.
The app is reminiscent of Google's other interfaces like Google Maps, Drive, and so forth. Just like the Echo app, there's a timeline in the main menu that displays your most recent activity which you can refresh. There's also a running list for everything you've asked the Assistant so be wary of your naughtier queries.
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.
- Lovely design
- Chromecast casting
- Contextual conversations
- Not enough third party integration
- Lacks full Assistant functionality
- App is buggy
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