REVIEW: Google Home is a win (and better than the Amazon Echo)
In addition to the excellent new Pixel phone, Google is releasing an enticing new WiFi speaker called Google Home this week.
It's best to think of Home as Google's version of the Amazon Echo, a WiFi speaker that reacts to voice commands so you can play music from streaming services like Spotify, get news and weather updates, call an Uber, or get answers to basic questions like how many calories are in a baked potato. Echo was the first real connected product that actually makes sense in the your home, and this is Google's take on the category.But Google Home is a much more "Googly" take on the concept, injecting the search giant's vast knowledge of the web's information into its new Google Assistant and culling together a lot of the services you probably already use like Google Calendar, Gmail, and search. The result is a more personal and customized helper.
It's everything that made Google Assistant so great on the company's new Pixel phone, stuffed into a $129 connected speaker. Home is a brilliant first step towards Google's ambition to make the Assistant available everywhere.
Home is an exciting product, and you're going to want one.
Google Home is dead-simple to use and install. Plug it in, fire up the new Google Home app on your phone, connect the speaker to your WiFi network, and log into your Google account. That's it.
From there you can link music services like Spotify and Pandora or take advantage of the free six-month YouTube Red trial, which also gives you unlimited streaming music and an ad-free YouTube experience. Logging into your Google account gives you all the benefits of the new Google Assistant.
The Home speaker is a lot smaller than I expected, about half the height of Amazon Echo. But it's also more attractive than the Echo, which has a cold, industrial vibe to it. Home looks like an Air Wick air freshener from the future and fits more naturally into a living room's decor. You won't be embarrassed displaying this thing where everyone can see it. You can also swap out the speaker grill on the bottom with different colors like copper or blue, but I'm boring and stuck with the standard gray color Home ships with.
Voice recognition is shockingly accurate too. Home can understand you from across the room, even if it's pumping out music at a loud volume. (You activate it by saying "OK, Google.") Google already excels at accurate voice recognition, and Home is no exception. It almost never stumbled when I asked it something.
There are also limited controls on the device itself. The top is a touchpad that you can swipe to adjust the volume or tap to play/pause music. But Home, like the Echo, is really designed to be controlled with your voice. I didn't use the touch controls very much, but my cat did figure it out pretty quickly and scared the living daylights out of himself when my Spotify Discovery Weekly playlist started blasting after he pressed his nose against the touchpad.
There's a big flaw with things on the hardware side of Home. Audio quality is borderline terrible. While the speaker is plenty loud, the sound came out tinny or high pitched, which is annoying when listening to anything that requires some bass. It probably won't bother most people, but after listening to the excellent quality of the Echo and my Sonos Play One speaker for so long, I couldn't help but notice the dip in quality. (By the way, Sonos and Echo will start working together early next year.)
Luckily, Google Home does work with Chromecast Audio, the dongle that you can attach to regular speakers and stream music. That's going to be the best option for now if you care about audio quality.
Speaking of the Chromecast, Google Home can also control the version that plugs into your TV so you can start playing videos with just a voice command. It only works with YouTube for now, but Netflix support is coming soon. You can bet other services will want to tie in if Home really takes off. It's a much better solution for TV voice control than shouting into your remote like you have to with Apple TV or Roku. And who needs fancy menus on the screen when you can just say what you want to watch and have your TV light up?
The real star is Google Assistant, Google's new digital helper that had an impressive debut on the Pixel phone that launched last month.
Overall, Google Assistant is smarter and more capable than Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, which I think gives Home a slight edge over Echo for now. But it's also clear that we're in the early days of the growing digital-assistant-in-a-speaker category, and it's going to take some time before these products fully mature.
I've been using Google Assistant on the Pixel and Home for about three weeks, and I'm still surprised and delighted by all the things it can do. Beyond the basics, its real strength is seamlessly syncing with all the Google services you normally use. Need to know if your flight is on time? Just ask Google Home, which can scan your Gmail account for the flight confirmation sent by your airline. Same goes for package deliveries, calendar appointments, and so much more.
This really comes together in the new "Good Morning" feature on Home, which gives you a rundown of your day based on information stored in your Google account. For example, when I greet my Home with "OK, Google. Good morning," I get a weather report, the commute time to my office, appointments in my calendar for the day, and a snapshot of the news from outlets like NPR. It's already the first thing I do when I wake up and start getting ready in the morning.
My only gripe is that I wish I could link multiple accounts to Home, instead of just my personal Gmail account. Most of my calendar appointments are stored on my work calendar, which also happens to be powered by Google, so it'd be nice Home could sync with that too.
Since Google does search better than any other company, Home can answer most of your basic queries. Just ask it anything you'd normally type into Google and Home will spit out the one answer you're looking for. The Echo can do some of that, but Google has a major advantage when it comes to tapping into the vast knowledge of the internet and reliably delivering the information you need. Unlike Siri, it's rare that you'll stump Google Assistant.That's the key differentiator between Assistant and the rest of the competition. No one is better at delivering the information you need than Google. Just ask it anything and you'll likely be surprised.
Music playback on Home is pretty much what you'd expect. It works with Google Music, YouTube Red, Spotify, and Pandora for now, and you can set which service you want as your default.
From there, just tell Home what you want to listen to and you're good to go. I had no problem getting it to play my Spotify playlists, and there's some extra intelligence built in so you can be pretty vague about what you want to listen to and still get the right song. ("OK Google, play the new Lady Gaga album.")
Music will likely be the feature you use the most, and Home works great no matter which streaming service you favor.
The only major thing missing from Google Home right now is third-party app support. It does have Uber and all those music services I mentioned earlier, but it's lacking the hundreds of third-party "skills" the Amazon Echo has.
Of course, Echo has had over a year head start on Home, and Google will be opening Home up to more developers soon. It's hardly a deal breaker, and Assistant is good enough on its own to do pretty much everything you want anyway.
Google introduced a new version of itself at its big product launch event last month. It's finally getting serious about hardware in order to push its excellent ecosystem of services forward. The Pixel phone was a great start, and Home is a thoughtful way to make Assistant even more accessible.
Home may be a brand new category of gadget, but Assistant is so smart and works so well that it's like experiencing a bit of the future right now. It's one of those rare products you didn't even know you needed.