As soon as Amazon scored a runaway hit with its Echo intelligent speaker, it was inevitable that at least some of its big league rivals would make a play for the same space in the smart home.
Google Home is the first major challenger to break cover, promising advanced voice recognition capabilities and sophisticated voice control functionality that makes your home a more relaxing environment with easy control.
Google’s smart speaker does everything you might expect a connected speaker to achieve – it can stream music from a number of sources, including Spotify, TuneIn radio, Pandora and, of course, its own YouTube Music service. It can order you an Uber, or tell you what’s you’ve got coming up on your calendar that day (although, frustratingly, this is limited to one user at present). It can answer almost any factual question you can throw at is, from the name of Pakistan’s prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) to the number pi to a hundred decimal places (we’re not going to repeat it here as we’d run out of space).
The latter function is where the Home really shines. With the built-in natural language processing of Google Assistant, the device combines the extensive search abilities Google is known for with the ability to understand follow up questions in the correct context. During our initial tests, the Home was able to tell us extra details about a number of famous people, including their age, number of children and even, in one case, their net worth. The Home occasionally supplements its answers with extra detail, which can be interesting or tedious in equal measure, depending on the tangent it decides to expand on.
There are a couple of downsides to these conversations, notably the need to caveat each request with ‘OK Google, …’ or ‘Hey Google, …’ rather than simply continuing the conversation naturally. This is a natural development decision to make users feel more comfortable about the ‘always-listening’ element of the smart speaker, but it does lead to disjointed, strange conversations where the user ends up asking the same question twice on a regular basis after forgetting to start their sentence with the wake phrase.
Additionally, Google Home still struggles with more abstract requests such as comparisons, yet is still a significant step-up in terms of a generating a more natural flow of two-way communication and more human-like conversation between user and machine.
Turn it up… or maybe don’t
Google Home is meant to be a smart home speaker and, although its streaming abilities are admirable, it’s hardly an audiophile’s dream. The bass tends to overpower everything else, while at high volumes the highs, lows and mids get increasingly muddied.
The lack of an audio equaliser is a big miss here, as that would allow a user to adjust the speaker performance to suit their preferences and the variety of spaces that a unit like this might be employed.
Ability to adapt
Despite not being available in the UK right now, the Home adjusted quickly to its surroundings, giving accurate weather information for London and setting an alarm for the correct time without having to be told where it was. Considering that the Echo initially needed to be fooled into thinking it was still in the USA to work in the UK for a long time after it was first release, this is an out-of-the-box bonus for the Home.
In loud places with multiple people speaking in the background, Google Home’s far-field voice recognition works reasonably well, allowing it to pick out a wake phrase and respond to a request, although the closer the user stands, the more likely it is that casual conversation won’t be mistaken for a command.
For a device called Home, it promises more in terms of smarts than it delivers on the smart home control side. Currently Google Home works with Honeywell, Nest, Philips Hue, WeMo and has also just added SmartThings support. Although this is a solid start, it is some way from rivalling the abilities of Alexa in this area, which has a considerable list of compatible products that grows larger each month. It also doesn’t yet support multiple users, which means that ordering an Uber or accessing Spotify can only be done though a single account for now.
One key advantage, however, is Chromecast integration, which allows the Home to act as a controller to stream media from services such as Netflix on your television or play music from Tidal, Pandora and the like through your home’s speakers. Being able to place Chromecast and Home devices into separate groups also makes it easy to create basic multi-room audio and video, so you can use it in the way would a Sonos system. This also means that while the audio on Google Home itself isn’t great, streaming that music to your speakers is as easy as asking for it. Considering that with Alexa you need a whole new smart speaker for this (the Echo Dot), for those already embracing Chromecast in their properties, the Google Home can add plenty of convenience with little extra effort.
It is clear that Google has plans to expand in this area and for the device to become much more than simply a speaker, but for now it’s not really hugely useful apart from those who rely on the Chromecast family to add streaming capabilities.
Much like the company’s other new products – the Pixel phone and the Daydream VR headset – Google Home is a delightful example of Google’s newly-discovered commitment to good design. In the same way that Material Design led to a unified Google experience across online platforms, there is a homely thread that runs between its most recent physical products, making them stand out from the crowd as items that reduces the jarring effect that a lot of technology has on its surroundings.
The short, slanted stature of Google Home is small but perfectly formed, able to sit comfortably on a table or sideboard without dominating the area. Google’s vivid branding has been reduced to four coloured dots that appear occasionally on the top of the unit, and a small logomark on the rear of the device. Its design has been compared to a candle or – less flatteringly – to an air freshener, but it is definitely an improvement on the Pringle-tube aesthetics of the original Amazon Echo.
A work in progress
While Google Home’s language recognition and logic processes are currently more advanced than those of Alexa, it shares many of the same flaws as its Amazon competitor in terms of offering mediocre sound quality, struggling with more complex questions that can’t easily be found via a quick search. Both are still clever speakers with voice-control extras included, as opposed to the all-singing, all-dancing personal assistant that both aspire to be.
Despite this, Google Home has the potential to be a great way to control and manage your home’s technology and entertainment systems, while making your everyday life easier in the process. Armed with the incredibly deep search knowledge of Google and a solid intelligence and learning framework, there is nothing to say that Home cannot become as good as – if not better than – the Amazon Echo. It’ll have to move quickly though, if it wants to disrupts Alexa’s growing homogeny as the de facto voice recognition system for the smart home.
Google Home is priced at $129 RRP in the United States. It is not currently available for customers in the UK.