Google is not used to being second. And yet, that’s uncomfortable the position it finds itself in within the smart speaker space.
The reasons for that are twofold: first, Amazon was fastest out the blocks. Although the Echo may feel relatively new in the UK, it has been a feature of futuristic American homes since 2014. Second, Amazon twigged early on that buyers might not feel comfortable dropping £150 on a trumped-up Bluetooth speaker, and came up with the Echo Dot, a £50 version that offers all the functionality but lets both cheapskates and picky audiophiles plug it into their own sound system. It acted as the perfect introduction to the world of Alexa; just cheap enough to be an impulse purchase, while still showing the full potential of voice assistants in the home.
Google can’t turn back time (yet – who knows what they’re cooking up in their labs?), but it can neutralise the second problem and that’s where the Google Home Mini comes in. It does everything Google Home does (which includes the brilliant new Google Assistant “broadcast” feature) but is designed to link to your sound system and costs £50. Just like the Echo Dot.
Google Home Mini review: Design
While the cylindrical design of Echo Dot looks like someone decapitated the Echo, Google has had to think a little more outside the box to make the Home Mini look like a relative of the Home. What you get in the box is something not too far removed from a playing piece from the Go board game – or, if you’re not too familiar with the game Google’s AlphaGo has got unnervingly good at, picture it as a giant fabric Galaxy Minstrel.
It’s discreet and understated, blending in just as seamlessly as the Google Home did when it burst onto the UK scene earlier this year. When it’s talking to you, four lights appear through the fabric on top, flashing to let you know it’s listening. This used to be a touchpad, but Google had to get rid of that feature because of a bug that would leave the device constantly eavesdropping on you.
There’s not much to get too worked up about either way in the Google Home Mini. It’s artfully non-descript, with no obvious branding at all. There is one fairly big issue, however: there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. You can’t even connect the speaker to another via Bluetooth. Instead, if you want to beef up the sound quality, you’re left either relying on a Chromecast-enabled speaker, or buying a Chromecast Audio for your dumb setup.
Now the Chromecast Audio is a great device, but this still feels like a massively boneheaded move by Google. I have two Echo Dots in my house, and both are connected to better speakers via a 3.5mm headphone jack. Forcing a £20 Chromecast Audio on me on top of the £50 price of entry feels deliberately bloody-minded and, I imagine, many buyers will be massively put out when they find out, too.
Google Home Mini review: Performance
With that in mind, an awful lot is resting on the speaker element of the Google Home Mini, and those are expectations it was always going to struggle to meet. While to my ears, it sounds better than the Echo Dot without an external speaker, that’s hardly a tough ask – and sound quality is thin. Talk radio, podcasts and so on sound fine, but I wouldn’t want to listen to music for long on it.
Which is a real shame, because, in my subjective comparisons between Google and Amazon’s smart speakers, I always ended up on Team Google – and that’s mainly thanks to the quality of Google Assistant. Amazon isn’t bad, but Google is just far better at establishing context from a wide variety of questions. In short, you’re less likely to end up stumping Google Home than you are the Amazon Echo.
That functionality is all present and correct here, as you’d expect. And if you’re tied into the Google ecosystem, things work magically. You can ask the Google Home Mini to send directions to Google Maps on your phone, and it’ll do it. You can ask the Google Home Mini to play a specific film trailer, and it’ll spring your Chromecast-connected TV to life and show the video on YouTube. In short, it’s a little marvel that may sound unnecessary on paper, but becomes increasingly tied to your daily life as you learn to live with it.
Google Home Mini review: Verdict
The Google Home Mini would be a nailed-on five-star product if Google had only spent a couple of quid putting in a 3.5mm headphone jack in every unit. I just can’t understand the rationale of skipping it – maybe Google sees its products as more about voice than music?
But even if that is the case, seeing its big Seattle rival packing a headphone jack in should have been enough incentive to compete, even if Google didn’t think anyone would use it. As it is, despite preferring Google Assistant to Alexa, I find it impossible to recommend this over the Dot – unless you happen to have Chromecast-connected speakers already.