I’ve primarily been a reviewer of phones over the last few years, so when a product that isn’t a phone comes across my lap for review, I get excited. And the Google Home is something I’ve been anticipating for what feels like years. When the Amazon Echo first launched, my initial thought was that it would be a great idea to marry similar hardware with the — at the time — far greater intelligence of Google Voice Search. And now that day has come.
In terms of sheer intelligence for things like facts and local information, as well as general accuracy when trying to pick up your voice, I’ve long felt that Google’s voice assistant — even before it was officially called Assistant — had a leg up on the competition. Not that Alexa and Siri are bad (all three are reaching feature parity at this point, really), but Google’s Assistant — for me, at least — has always been a winner because I’m a heavy user of Google’s services, and they tie in directly with what used to be Google Now.
The strengths of Google Assistant shine even brighter with Home, and its potential is even more exciting. Rather than being constrained to your phone, Google Home puts Google Assistant — albeit in slightly different form — within talking distance from pretty much anywhere in your home. I hope you’re ready to get used to talking to your devices, because there’s not really any other way of interacting with this standalone speaker and voice assistant from Google…
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It’s almost always accurate
On that note, one of the first things that struck me about Google Home is its far-field voice recognition. I’m someone that’s mostly new to these voice-activated speakers — as in, I don’t have an Amazon Echo that I use on a daily basis — so realizing just how good these devices can be at listening for your voice commands took me aback. Like many of you, most of my perspective and experience with interacting with these assistants is via a smartphone, so I wasn’t expecting how different things are with Home.
If you live in a small one bedroom apartment (which I do), Google Home will be able to hear you from pretty much any corner of your living space talking at a normal indoor volume. I expected that I would have to at least be in the same room as the Home, but in my relatively small apartment (I keep the Google Home in the kitchen at the moment), I can be in the living room, twenty feet away, facing the opposite wall, and talk at a volume as if I’m talking to someone sitting right next to me — and the Home will hear me perfectly 9 out of 10 times (or better). It’s amazing, and I’m just continually stunned by how sensitive and accurate this thing is with just its two tiny speaker holes. Not only does it hear me almost every time, but even in the most difficult situations, it’s often accurate in determining what I’m saying.
Here’s one example: I just happen to keep the Google Home on top of my microwave, and I was in the kitchen with the dishwasher running (right below the microwave), the water running in the sink, and the microwave itself also running. That’s a lot of noise for my little kitchen — enough for me to be able to barely understand the person standing next to while cooking. But Google Home is seemingly a super human, because when I had my hands dirty with cookie dough and I needed to set a timer, it was able to hear me over all of this noise on the first try as if it were a human. Seriously, I think it can hear me better in the kitchen than my wife can.
There is one case where I’ve found that the range of it being able to pick up your voice decreases, however, and that’s when you’re using the Home to play music. If it’s already playing your music (especially at the higher volumes), it has a hard time hearing the “OK Google” command sometimes — or it’s at least not as good as usual. That’s to be expected because the thing is producing its own interference. It can still hear most of the time, but definitely not at normal volume from a room away. You have to yell a bit. That said, once it does pick up the “OK Google,” it realizes you want to talk to it and temporarily turns down the volume to listen to you.
Not fully-featured, but with some unique features
But when it does hear you (which is most of the time), what can the Home do for you? As you would expect, it can do just about everything that Google Assistant can do. It can set timers in the kitchen (as mentioned), it can tell you the weather, it can tell you about local businesses, it can play games with you, it can tell you facts about sports and celebrities, and it can give you estimates for how long it’ll take you to get to work among other things. But for now at least, Google Assistant running on Google Home can do a bit more than Assistant can do on the Pixel.
Out of the box, Google Home comes with support for three different smart home platforms: Nest, Philips Hue, and SmartThings. Since I don’t have any of these products, I can’t really tell you much about how well they work. But if you do have some of these products, you should be able to set your Nest thermostat’s temperature, dim or brighten your Philips Hue lights, and ask it things like “Are the lights on in the Kitchen?” We’ll be testing these features out soon, but for now, know this: Google Home may not have as many third-party tie-ins as Amazon’s Echo, but Google is actively working to change that.
One Google Home-exclusive feature (for now) that I was able to test out was integration with Chromecast. This feature is pretty half-baked for the moment (it can’t do things like play Netflix or Hulu shows quite yet), but it can do the most basic of actions. You can, for example, tell your Google Home to play the latest 9to5Google video from YouTube on your Chromecast. (“Ok, Google, play the latest video from Philip DeFranco in the living room.”) You can tell it to pause the media you tell it to play, and you can tell it to stop playing entirely.
Another service that works in this context is whichever music streaming service you decide to set up when you first set up the device. I went with Spotify of course (because Spotify is the best), which means I can play Spotify on my Google Home directly (it is a pretty nice speaker, after all). Or I can tell it to cast whatever music I’d like to a Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra, or Chromecast Audio. My living room Chromecast is called “living room,” so I can simply tell Google Home to “play some Michael Jackson in the living room.” It knows that I prefer Spotify, and it opens up the Spotify app on my living room Chromecast and plays some music. It’s magic.
I can’t speak for the other services like Google Play Music and Pandora, but I can say that my experience with Spotify was better than I expected. You can tell Google Home to play a specific song by a specific artist, a specific album, or even a custom playlist, and you can additionally specify where in the house you want to play it using the names of your Chromecasts. I was impressed overall, because — like with other voice commands — the Google Home correctly interpreted what I wanted almost every time. As for speaker quality, I’ll say it’s just okay. It’s not as good as many standalone Bluetooth speakers (like the JBL Charge 2, for example), but it’s good enough to fill a room.
There were some exceptions to the rule, however. When I tried asking it to play “the latest 9to5Google videos on my living room Chromecast,” it simply searched YouTube for “9to5” and played whatever was the top result. Sometimes it just isn’t smart enough to get to the right destination even if it hears your directions perfectly. But as the Home keeps reminding me, it’s “still learning.”
Demoed at Google’s October 4th event last month, Google Home also comes with an exclusive voice-enabled “My Day” feature, which basically puts together a collection of personalized info from your Google Calendar, the local weather, your work commute, and reminders, to play a quick summary of what to expect for the day. You simply say “tell me about my day,” and you get this quick rundown of information along with a news summary. All of this is customizable, so you can choose your news sources, tell it where your work office is located, and choose between fahrenight and celsius for weather reports. Honestly, I’m not sure how much I’m going to use this feature. I’m going to try to give it a week of asking for it every day, and we’ll see if I keep doing it after that. Based on my first few days, I don’t think the “My Day” feature is going to see much use from me. (Perhaps this might be due to the fact that I don’t have a commute, and the weather is oftentimes irrelevant to my day.)
The hardware is great
I said that voice is pretty much the only way to interact with Home, but that’s not entirely true. The top of the device is a touch panel that lets you do things like change the volume, tell the Home to shut up if it starts rambling on, and manually activate listening if you need to. The most useful of these is definitely the tap-to-shut-up feature, and I’m really glad Google added it. I have My Day set up to play my News, and it’s nice to be able to just give the Home a poke to tell it that I’m all caught up and I don’t need to hear anything more about this election. You can also turn the speaker on and off entirely with a button on the back.
The rest of the hardware is just really pleasing to use and look at. You can tell that it’s built really well, it has a nice weight to it, and the touch sensitive top panel is just a great experience for changing the volume. Of course you can say “OK, Google, change the volume to [any number between 1 and 10]”, but — assuming you don’t have grime on your hands from working in the kitchen — it’s nice to just be able to change the volume with a quick swipe. I haven’t had a reason to turn off the microphone yet, but it’s also nice way to just basically put the device in “off” mode without having to unplug it.
It’s a solid start
I’m still getting used to using this speaker in my daily life, but all things considered, I’m happy. I think that for $129, the functionality it offers is enough to convince me to buy one — and if not, having a voice activated assistant in your home is still useful enough I think for it to be worth to at least pitch $50 for the Echo Dot. Google Home has more than the Echo Dot in the form of a pretty decent speaker that plays not just by voice command, but is also another Chromecast device in your home. Maybe you would want to have a Chromecast enabled speaker in your bathroom that can read you your daily updates while taking a shower. That would be a great use case here.
And while I don’t have more than one unit to test it out, Google also touts with the Home that it’s smart enough that you can have multiple in your house and only the one closest to you will respond. The device handles this seamlessly with phones (if you phone hears you at the same time, it simply tells you that it’s going to answer you on “another device” — the Home), so I have no reason to think that having multiple Homes won’t work similarly as well. Now, if only Google could somehow find a way to distinguish between my own voice and the voices of those saying “OK Google” in the countless number of Google Pixel ads that the Mountain View company is airing…
But I think the thing that makes the Google Home a buy for me most is that it has a lot of potential. Amazon’s Echo has a couple of years head start, but in that time it has picked up third-party support for wemo, Samsung SmartThigns, Philips Hue, tp-link devices, Nest, Ecobee, and plenty of services like iHeartRadio, tunein, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Music, StubHub, Huffington Post, Automatic, Fidelity, and even Campbell’s Kitchen. As of today, the Google Home pretty much just has a few music services, Uber support, NPR news, and a few of those internet of things platforms. So right now, the Echo clearly wins in that area (sheer capability), but I think that we’ll see that change over the next year.
Google Home, much like the Pixel, is just a starting point. It’s a foundation for Google to keeping mining your speech and interactions to help build its artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies (however controversial that may be), which will in turn improve Google Assistant and these consumer devices in the long run. It’s not fully capable yet, but it does exactly as advertised or better. I was pleasantly surprised with just how reliable it is. It’s basically the opposite of using Siri on an Apple Watch. And if voice assistants are ever going to be a ubiquitous part of our lives, we need to be able to interact with them like humans. As far as I can tell, this is about as close as you can get to that in this price range, and it’s only going to get better.
Where to buy one
In the United States, you can buy the Google Home at Best Buy or Walmart, or you can get one directly from Google. It’s going to run you $129 no matter where you buy it. If you have some extra cash on hand, however, you can pick up some additional shells for the bottom of the speaker to give it a unique look. We took a look at two of these in the above unboxing video.