So you’re in the market for a smart speaker. You have quite a few options now, so what do you go for?
Amazon’s Echo? The Amazon Echo Dot? Amazon Echo Show? The Amazon Echo Spot alarm clock?
Then there’s Apple’s HomePod, which has now hit the market to a somewhat mixed reaction. An initial wave of enthusiasm is now being tempered by reports that the device leaves circular residues on wooden surfaces and, at the same time, blind audio testing which suggests the HomePod isn’t actually as good as some key rivals, including the Google Home Max, which scored higher in said testing.
Regardless, when it comes to smart speakers, you’re kind of spoilt for choice inside the beginning of 2018.
Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot are two of the most popular options, a fact helped greatly by Amazon’s massive head start on everybody else. But now Google’s Home unit is here and it too is vying for a position inside your living space.
These new types of smart devices are the hottest things around right now. Everybody is making smart speakers, from Apple to Samsung and Microsoft, but the success of any of them will be down to the capabilities of the AI software that runs inside them.
Google Assistant is one of the smartest AIs around right now; it’s been learning about you for a long time and is now ready to put together all of its creepy knowledge inside a smart speaker.
The pitch and concept behind Amazon Echo and Google Home might sound similar, but the products could not be more different. Amazon’s has more “abilities” but most are geared towards the Amazon shopping and digital content ecosystem, while Google Home is more about leveraging Google search to augment your life and agenda.
Google Home smart speakers have had hands-free voice-calling functionality in the US since late 2017, but the feature hasn’t been available for owners of Google Home devices in other regions, including the UK.
However, the UK is now the second market where the feature has been unlocked. Owners of Google Home, Google Home Mini, or Google Home Max smart speakers in the UK and the US can make a voice call simply by saying “OK Google, call…” and then the contact’s name. This will work with your contacts list, but also with businesses listed in Google Maps/Search.
In addition, Google has now unlocked another feature for all users; location based reminders. You can now ask Google Assistant via the Google Home devices to prompt you with a reminder at certain locations that are recognised by your Google account – say it picks up that you’re in the supermarket via your phone’s geolocation, you can ask it to remind you to buy toilet paper, or whatever.
Google announced the rollout in a Tweet, with an accompanying video.
I’ve been living with Google Home for almost four months now. What follows are my thoughts about the device, its capabilities, and whether or not your home could benefit from it.
Google Home Review – Design
I do quite like the way Google Home looks. It’s inoffensive and kind of just blends into the background. There is nothing loud or in your face about it – and this is the point.
Google Home is designed to be as inoffensive as possible so that it will blend into the decor of any style of home. I have my Google Home installed in my office and I use almost every day.
It sits on my bookcase, waiting for commands, taking up very little space next to my plant. I’ve had people over and most don’t even notice it, so if you’re looking for something like this that simply blends into the background, Google Home does just that.
There are no buttons on Google Home per se, but you can interact with it by tapping and moving your finger on the top portion of the device. If you rotate your finger clockwise this will increase the volume. Conversely, a counter-clockwise to turn reduces it. To stop the music, simply tap the top of the device and it will pause. And that’s about it for interaction, as 99% of your inputs with Google Home will be done via voice.
Whatever Google Home is listening, it will display the familiar Google coloured dots. Once you see these, after saying OK, Google, simply issue your command and Google Home will do your bidding. Simples.
Google Home Review – What It Can Do
So what can you actually do with Google Home? Mostly, I use it for music, though I do find myself using it as a calculator quite a bit as well – finding percentages is always handy.
Google Home can order you an Uber, it can tell you about your day (weather, calendar appointments, and so on), it can set reminders, and it can read back things to do. It can also tell you facts about things you ask it – like, who holds the record for the longest spacewalk, for instance.
Essentially, it is Google search and a handful of Google services on tap. Ask Google Home anything and it will provide you with an answer of sorts.
But where Google Home really comes into its own is in the way it interacts with other things around your home. Things like Chromecast, for instance, whereby you can simply tell it to start playing something in Netflix on your HDTV. It works seamlessly 100% of the time.
It also works with Spotify, iPlayer, and NOW TV. You can even tell Google Home to skip forwards and backwards and it will do it. On top of this, Google Home will also interact with things like NEST and many other connected home appliances and accessories, so you can, quite literally, talk to your home, providing you have the requisite products.
Google is adding new features all the time too, so Home is constantly evolving. And best of all it does all of this evolving without you having to ever do anything – all updates happen in the background without your knowledge.
Google Home Review – What It Can’t Do
One thing I REALLY wish the UK version of Google Home could do is to make and receive phone calls. The US version can do this, but the feature has not yet come to the UK, which is a bit of a bummer.
Google Home also, on occasion, simply wigs out – it just gets stuck in a loop and simply will not work. This seems to happen quite a bit when I’m running Spotify on my iMac and playing it through Google Home. Mercifully, these incidents are few and far between.
Google Home Review – Sound Quality
For my office, which is pretty small, Google Home is perfectly adequate. It has better bass than Amazon’s Echo, though the sound, especially when compared to a SONO Play:1 speaker, leaves quite a bit to be desired.
You can, of course, use Google Home to issue commands, via a Chromecast Audio dongle, to your existing HiFi setup and this effectively makes the sound quality issue moot.
But a lot of users – myself included – will be using Google Home as a standalone device, so scrutiny of its audio capabilities has to be logged. And, sadly, it ain’t great.
This is what Apple’s betting big on with its HomePod – it wants to best SONOS at its own game, just with the added benefit of being able to interact with the speaker itself. Whether this pays off, in the end, is down to Siri’s capabilities, which at present are a long ways behind Amazon and Google’s setups.
For now, Google Home is a great option for both price, overall features and long-term growth. Google is committed to this platform, so you can expect a steady stream of updates throughout the coming years.
Google Home Review – Verdict
Google Home is a constantly evolving piece of technology that, in the right hands, is super useful. The sound quality isn’t great, but it’s smarter than nearly everything else out there and its command of search, voice recognition, and your own personal data is very impressive indeed.
I also think it looks a lot nicer than Amazon’s Echo.