Hey Google, your search engine is showing
Both wildly intelligent and supremely versatile in the ways in which it can be used, Google Home is farther along in its first week than Amazon Echo was in its first six months. It still has a ways to go to catch up – starting, perhaps, with better integration with Google’s own services – but it has real potential to one day be the smart home command center Google wants it to be.
- Customizable base
- Massive song library
- Expanding hardware ecosystem
- Six-month YouTube Red trial
- Missing Google’s own services
- Phrasing needs to be precise
- No Bluetooth
It’s hard finding a good roommate. Some leave dishes in the sink. Others stiff you on rent. But Google, or more specifically, the Google Assistant, isn’t like that at all. Everything considered and as far as roommates go, it’s actually one of the best you’ll ever have.
That’s because Google Assistant, the smart artificial intelligence that’s built into the Google Home, actually makes life easier rather than more difficult for you.
You can ask it to lower the thermostat for you when you leave, diagnose your symptoms when you’re feeling ill or have it locate that funny clip from Colbert last night and throw it onto your Chromecast without any backsass or hesitation.
It’s smart enough to tell you how much plane tickets cost from where you live to any exotic destination you can think of, or prattle off oddly specific information like how much a Macaw weighs (2.6 to 3.3 pounds, apparently) or how much a new piece of technology costs (“According to TechRadar, the PlayStation 4 Pro costs $399 or £349”).
But, ask that very same question using different words or in a slightly different tone, and Google’s ultra-smart assistant suddenly forgets what it just told you.
That general problem – ”it works sometimes but not all the time” – isn’t just symptomatic of the $129 (around £100, AU$170) Google Home; the Amazon Echo, the current smart home incumbent, is far from immune to them as well. In due time, both devices will get smarter, but as it stands both are more novelty than pragmatic purchases.
That said, if a few misfires and unanswered inquiries don’t scare you off, Google Home offers an interesting proposition for you: a smart home hub, a virtual assistant and a decent Wi-Fi speaker, all rolled into a device that’s shaped like an air freshener.
Now, because “air freshener” can be a varied description depending on where you are in the world, a more apt description of its shape might be a small vase – it has a wide bottom and a tapered top. Each Google Home comes with a standard, gray fabric base with a rubber bottom that can be swapped out for a different material or color for around $20.
So far, Google offers two types of bases to match your home decor: metallic and fabric, each with different colors and finishes. Metallic bases are made out of either painted steel or polycarbonate and come in copper, snow or carbon colors. On the fabric side, the three colors are mango, marine and violet, in addition to the standard white mesh listed above.
From a pure aesthetic point of view, Google Home is the far more attractive option when compared to the Amazon Echo’s all-black canister shape. It’s less ominous than the black monolith and it’s also a fair bit shorter at 5.62 x 3.79 inches (142.8 x 96.4mm; H x D), which means it’s easier for the Home to blend into its surroundings.
There’s also some function to this form, however. The top, flat, inclined surface of the Google Home acts as a touch-capacitive panel, allowing you to change the volume, play and pause the music or activate the Google Home assistant with a tap. Once activated either by pressing the top panel or saying the wake word (“OK Google” or “Hey Google”), four multi-colored lights twist and whirl to indicate that you’ve caught its attention.
While Google Home generally does a good job picking up your voice thanks to the two built-in microphones located on the top half of the chassis, it doesn’t work 100% of the time. You’ll definitely end up repeating yourself or raising your voice to get its attention more times while using Google Home than you would with an Amazon Echo.
Uncap the bottom base and you’ll find a speaker and two passive radiators, which, considering the sheer volume the little device can put out, is impressive. The Amazon Echo has a few more speakers inside its chassis, and can therefore sound a bit better at higher volumes, however what’s under the hood here is enough to get the job done.
Audio performance and Google Cast
While Google Assistant, the voice and smarts inside the speaker, might be the main attraction here, Google Home is actually a pretty capable audio device as well.
It can access all sorts of streaming services – Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify and Pandora – and works as a Wi-Fi speaker thanks to its built-in Google Cast capabilities.
What that means in practice is that you’ll be able to ask it to play nearly any song you can think of, and it will either find it on Google Play Music’s 30-million-plus catalogue or, if you’ve taken it up on its free trial offer, pull it up YouTube Music. Think about that for a second. Unlimited access to music on YouTube? Yeah, by far and away, Google Home probably has the largest song library of any audio device on the market.
We tried for an hour to find a song that Google Home couldn’t pull up – recalling some seriously obscure music, like the theme song from 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie game on N64 to the title track for Requiem for a Dream – to no avail. Of course, you’ll likely stumble across something that Google Home can’t find, but the fact that we couldn’t stump it after arming ourselves with dozens of songs is absolutely unheard of.
It’s just too bad the expansive library of songs is stuck – for the most part – inside a less-than-amazing-sounding speaker.
Compared to Bluetooth speakers in its price range like, say, the Creative Sound Blaster Roar 2 or Razer Leviathan Mini, music on the Google Home comes off as less robust with little separation and little punch on the low-end or clarity in the mids and highs.
Now, it’s not completely incapable for playing decent-sounding music – it does have some bass and some mids – but, if you’re expecting Google Home to replace your Hi-Fi setup, you’ll be severely disappointed. (Audiophiles, keep in mind that a vast majority of the time Google Home sources its music from YouTube, a site infamous for its audio compression.)
But Google Home makes up for its less-than-pristine audio quality with a feature that other speakers don’t have, and that’s its ability to both receive and send Google Cast signals, making it the only audio device that can not only stream music from your phone, but send video streams to any Google Cast-compatible connected devices as well.
There are few better indications that we’re living in the future than saying “OK Google, play the latest episode of Clueless Gamer on Chromecast” and having Conan O’Brien appear on your TV. But, moreover, it’s this ability to connect to Google Cast-enabled devices that give Google Home the expandability it will need for years to come.
Google Home as the center of your smart home
Of course, Chromecast isn’t the only device that Google Home can talk to. There are a half-dozen devices that can hook into Google Home right now, or will be able to do so soon. (We’ve compiled a list of the best Google Home smart home devices so you don’t have to waste time tracking each one down.)
The highlights of what Google Home can connect to right now are Nest thermostats, Philips Hue lightbulbs and Samsung’s SmartThings platform, while support for even more third-party devices like LIFX lightbulbs and LG MusicFlow speakers should be coming soon.
Once more devices support Google Home it will truly begin to feel like the open ecosystem we’ve come to expect from the Mountain View-based company, but so far it feels a bit like a walled garden with just a few smart home device options to pick from.
That said, what’s here is enough to get a good jump on building your smart home hub – a thermostat to control the temperature, a slew of lights that can be turned on and off with a few words and Samsung SmartThings, one of the largest players in the space right now.
But while integration with hardware is nice, the largest problem Google Home faces is that it can’t integrate with many of Google’s own services, some of which have been its bread and butter for years.
Take Gmail, for instance. You’d think Google Home might be able to rattle off the subjects of your top 10 emails – but, surprise, it can’t. The same goes for Google Calendar where it’s unable to create new events, make phone calls with Google Voice or jot down some quick notes in a Google Doc. Google has a dozen services that the Home should be able to link into and yet, in its current state, simply cannot.
And while it’s easy to hammer this point home and point out all Google Home’s shortcomings in one long winded tirade, we’re not going to. That’s not because we’re avoiding the harsh criticism or defending the Home, we’re not.
But we’ve already fallen into that trap of being overly critical of a smart platform once before with Amazon Echo, and since then it has flourished into an amazingly smart, connected platform that can answer hundreds more questions than it could two short years ago. It can order pizza or restock the refrigerator or call an Uber or check what time a restaurant closes, and the list of everything it can do grows week over week.
Google Home can do some of that already, making it far and away a better system now than the Echo was when it first launched. Some of that it can’t. But, speaking from experience, it’s only going to get better, smarter and more robust in the coming weeks, months and years.
One thing’s for sure: You might never appreciate just how much music is on YouTube without buying a Google Home. While some of the biggest music streaming services in the world boast libraries of 25, 30 and even 40 million songs, they’re far from complete. We’re not saying Google Home is capable of playing any song you can think of, but after dredging the depths of the ’90s we still couldn’t find a tune Google Home couldn’t find.
And while Google Home excels as a DJ, it’s also a surprisingly intelligent smart home hub. It already hooks into some of the largest platforms now by including Nest, Philips and Samsung’s SmartThings, and given a few months that number will grow even more.
Clearly the lack of integration into Google’s own services is a huge issue. The fact that it can’t shoot an email to someone in your contacts or help you schedule events through Google Calendar are massive oversights that vastly reduce how useful the Home could be.
The other problem with Google Assistant is how precise you have to be when asking your questions. Asking what year a song was written might not turn up any results, while asking what year a song was released might unveil the exact answer you were looking for. Follow up any inquiry with a simple request like “OK Google, tell me more about it” and it suddenly forgets what you’ve been talking about for the past 30 seconds.
Admittedly, this lack of contextual awareness isn’t something that Alexa deals with – which is surprising considering that the Echo doesn’t come from the company with 20-plus years of search engine experience.
It’s easy to feel disappointed with Google Home when you buy one and expect it to be the coveted center of the smart home Google has marketed it as. It’s just not there yet. It’s a bit too rigid in its language comprehension, its list of smart home devices is growing but still a bit underwhelming in number and, perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, it doesn’t have many of Google’s core services built into it.
The best comparison for Google Home, obviously, is the Amazon Echo. They both have identical functions, draw music from the same sources and are stumped, largely, by the same set of questions. And while the Echo is still the more formidable of the two thanks to the dozens of developers who have created bespoke commands, the Home is – at worst – about six months behind in development.
Given the same attention from hardware and software developers and some of those additional Google services, the Home could quickly grow from a nascent smart speaker with Chromecast integration to the first and most critical piece of the ever-expanding smart home.
For now, however, the Google Home is simply a smart novelty with access to YouTube Music, built-in Google Cast and the ability to save you a trip to the light switch.