The smart home arena is getting even more crowded, with Apple’s barrel-shaped HomePod speaker on the horizon. Once the Siri-powered device lands in February, expect a three-horse race between Google Home, the Amazon Echo and the HomePod, all competing for shelf space in your living room.
You can read our hands-on impressions of the HomePod here. In a nutshell, Apple is pitching its device as the speaker-of-choice for audio junkies, able to modulate its sound to fit the acoustics of any given room. If you’re considering what piece of hardware to opt for, you may want to check out our review of the HomePod when it lands, as well as our comparison between the Google Home and Amazon Echo 2.
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Google Home is the future but in the present. The home of tomorrow is quickly becoming the home of today and thanks to devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, disembodied voices can help you fill the organisational void in your life. Google Home’s USP is helping you out in the home – it’s designed to be the hub of your family’s life, helping you stay on top of what’s going on while also answering those burning IMDB queries about that actor in that film you once watched ten years ago.
Don’t expect Google Home to offer The Jetsons robot maid Rosie-levels of household help though – it’s not going to clean your car or mop your floors – but it will let you know if little Timmy has football practice after school next Wednesday and what the time is in New York.
Google’s AI assistant is, in fact, a compact, internet-connected speaker no bigger than a small vase. It’s designed to be unobtrusive and stylish – to blend in with your home decor.
The elephant, or cylinder, in the room is the Amazon Echo, to which last year we gave a solid four-star review. It’s a very similar product aiming to do very similar things, the only real downside being the uncertainty around its competency for connected home applications.
Google Home, on the other hand, is more than just a connected speaker with some search and reminder functionality; it’s designed from the ground up to be the beating heart of the home of the future.
Google Home is the device for the Google generation
Amazon may have millions of registered users but I’d hazard a guess that Google has far, far more. Google Home is the device for anyone who has invested even the tiniest bit of time into Google’s ecosystem. Got a Gmail account? Google Home is for you. Use an Android phone? You bet you’ll get something out of Google Home. How about if you use Google Chrome, Drive, Docs, Play Music or YouTube? This is definitely the device you need in your home.
Want to know what you’ve got going on during the day, but don’t want to flick through Google Calendar or check the weather? Simply ask Home “Tell me about my day” and it’ll pull all of your appointments from Gmail, Calendar and even check the weather for you without you needing to ask separately. Wondering where your calendar appointment is taking place? Home will tell you (assuming you were organised enough to enter that info in the first place) and it’ll give you a rough estimate of how long it’ll take to get there, too.
It’s so contextually aware (far more than Amazon Echo) that you’ll occasionally think there’s some sort of trickery going on in that air freshener-shaped ornament.
Google Home isn’t just good with people, though, it also excels at talking to other bits of tech in your home. Controlling Chromecast devices is a breeze, allowing you to stream Netflix to your TV by simply telling it to cast whatever you fancy watching. You will need to have Netflix installed on your phone, though, just as you would if you were casting by swiping and tapping (how old-fashioned).
Because it works via your phone, which can stay in your pocket or left untouched on the side the entire time you’re using Home, apps like BBC iPlayer, YouTube, NowTV and so on all also work right out of the box.
Spotify is a dream to use with Google Home. Simply say: “play Daft Punk, Discovery” and Home will fire it up and play it either out of its speaker or any Google Cast-enabled speaker you fancy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to support Bluetooth connections, so you can’t send audio to those types of speaker.
Google Home will, eventually, be more third-party app friendly compared to the Amazon Echo. For now, however, Home is at a disadvantage as there aren’t yet quite as wide a choice of third-party integrations available. That should change over time, however, with developers able to produce their own integrations via Conversation Actions and the Conversation API that’s currently used for developing commands for Google Assistant.
Google Home can also connect to many IoT devices, too, meaning you can get it to turn your lights on and off or dim them with a simple voice command or prescribed phrase. Got a Nest thermostat? You can set it to turn up to a set temperature and, if you’re the sort with an internet-connected kettle, you can get it to stick a brew on for you, too, although you’ll have to fill it with water first.
During a demo of what Home is capable of inside a completely connected smart home, I experienced being able to say “Okay Google, start my day” and have Home turn up my lights, knock the thermostat up to a more palatable 20 degrees and start the kettle boiling. Saying “Okay Google, I’m leaving now” saw it drop the temperature back down to around 15 degrees and switch off all the lights and nonessential connected electronics.
It’s not completely perfect, however, as it did have a couple of iffy moments recognising what I asked of it. It’s also not quite on par with its US counterpart with parts of the YouTube casting functionality seemingly absent in the UK. Ask it to play your YouTube “Watch later” playlist and it’ll reply by saying it’s locked behind the paid-for YouTube Red service – something we still don’t have in the UK.
Google Home review: Always listening
Privacy concerns around Google Home are perfectly valid – after all, who really wants an always-on device listening to everything you say just in case you utter the phrase “Okay Google”? It turns out, however, that Google Home only listens to the things you actually give it permission to. What this means is that it won’t save a record of idle chatter but it will the moment it hears an “Okay Google” command – at least that’s what Google says.
You may be worried about the amount of information Google holds about you, too, especially as Home really drives that point home by collating all of your Google-enabled services in one place. Still, unless you give it permission to access the likes of your calendar, emails, cloud-stored files and various accounts during setup, Home won’t go prying into other aspects of your life. You can also mute its microphone at any time by simply tapping the button on the back of the device.
Google Home feels at home in your home
In terms of aesthetics, Google has got it absolutely right with Home. It’s unobtrusive, yet attractive and, to the untrained eye, it doesn’t look particularly high-tech at all.
Neatly, the entire base of the thing slides off and can be switched out for various others so it suits your decor better, and the top section has soft curves and a slanted flat top to add a bit of artistic edge to proceedings. It’s a far cry from the sturdy cylinder that is the Amazon Echo.
At the top of the device you’ll find a capacitive touch panel that uses gesture-based inputs for a little bit of tactile control. Trace a circle on the top and you can adjust playback volume, with Home’s glowing LED lights transforming into an animated circle under your finger, while tapping the panel plays or pauses whatever you’re currently playing. If you don’t fancy saying “Okay Google”, you can hold your finger on the top to activate it.
Google Home’s audio quality is also pretty darned good. It’s no surrogate for a high quality Bluetooth speaker system, but it’s competent enough. It’s a little bit too bassy and it lacks the definition to pick up the more subtle nuances of more complex pieces of music, but I prefer the way it sounds to the Amazon Echo.
As with any smart device, Google is continually tweaking it and updating its capabilities. At this year’s Google I/O developer conference it revealed a slew of new features would be coming to Google Home over the next year.
These new features include hands-free calls for users in the US and Canada, proactive assistance which will add alerts for upcoming events – flights, meetings and so on – when circumstances change. And Google Home owners will no longer need a Spotify premium account to stream their favourite tunes to the speaker. They’ll now be able to stream music from the free service as well.
The cleverest update to Google Home, however, focuses on its interactions with Chromecast. Ask Google Home to “show my calendar”, for instance, or search YouTube for videos about whatever’s on your mind and it will now have the ability to show the results directly on your TV screen.
Google Assistant, the AI that gives the Google Home its powers, has had support for Netflix for some time, but its features were limited. Until now, you could only pair one person’s Netflix account to a single Google Home device to beam content using a Chromecast, meaning only their shows and recommendations would easily appear.
As part of a recent update, Google has added a multi-account feature meaning different people can now link their separate Netflix accounts to a single Google Home by setting up Voice Match. Google Home will then know who is talking to it and launch the relevant Netflix account via the Chromecast.
Is Google Home worth it?
Aside from a handful of teething problems, Google Home is a remarkable helper for your home and I can’t recommend it higher. Amazon Echo is small fry in comparison to both the technical achievement and lofty aims of Google Home. Not only is Home more of a fleshed-out and complete experience over the ongoing shaping of Amazon Echo. It feels like it has more of a purpose.
One reason I’m rather fond of Home, aside from it actually being able to keep my life in order far more than I can myself, is that it’s not driven by eCommerce. Amazon Echo may not appear like it’s trying to sell you products, but seeing as it ultimately feeds back into Amazon’s services and only lets you purchase goods through Amazon, that’s its real endgame. Home, on the other hand isn’t built around selling products, it’s designed to be a device that helps enrich your life in some shape or form.
As you can probably tell from my review, even in the short time I’ve spent with Google Home, I’ve fallen hard for Google’s latest gadget. While I’m certainly not going to go all Joaquin Phoenix in Her about it, Google Home is an essential purchase for anyone who uses even a sliver of Google’s services, and that just happens to be practically everybody.