Editors’ Note, May 25, 2017: After roughly six months since it first went on sale, the Google Home has grown up a lot. We’ve updated the review to account for its many new updates and features.
Amazon’s Echo is the undisputed ruler of the nascent smart home market — a tabletop speaker with a voice-controlled online “smart assistant” named Alexa at your beck and call to answer your questions, tell you a joke or control dozens of compatible networked products in your house.
But with the release of the Google Home, Google’s own voice-controlled smart speaker, the Echo is finally getting some serious competition. Google, of course, already knows as much as or more about you than Facebook, thanks to your web history, your Gmail metadata and the GPS records on your phone. And now the tech giant is aiming to use that data to out-Alexa Amazon, making its little countertop speaker a friendly face for its search-engine-powered online brain.
The Google Home pulls info from your Google account to keep you informed about your calendar appointments and the traffic on your commute. The Home even remembers your previous questions to better answer you in the future. It can also control some of your smart-home gadgets along with your TV and speakers if you haveor .
Thanks to all of those features, I liked the Home when it first came out, but it wasn’t ready to dethrone the Echo. Now, after a number of updates over the last six months, the Home stands toe-to-toe with its rival. The Home is better as a home entertainment device and as a personal assistant. It can even tell voices apart and give personalized responses to each of your family members.
The $130/£130 Home costs significantly less than the $180 Echo, but the petite $50 Echo Dot is the best deal of the bunch and plugs into your own speakers. (Converted, $130 is about AU$175. The later in 2017.) Since Alexa still has more capabilities in the smart home, I’d recommend an Amazon Echo device if you’re primarily interested in home automation — head here for a breakdown of which Echo device is right for you.
If you’re more interested in an entertainment accessory or you’re invested in Google already, I’m now happy to recommend the Google Home. Plus, the balance of power isn’t set in stone. Google’s Android went from a one-time iOS wannabe to the world’s dominant mobile operating system in just a few short years, and the Echo is pretty much the iPhone of the smart-home world right now.
In other words: Game on, Alexa.
Getting to know your new assistant
Now on sale in the US and the UK, purchase the Google Home for $130/£130 and you’ll get six free months of YouTube Red, the site’s premium ad-free service, which normally costs $10 per month. Again, the Home’s US price converts to around AU$175; the Home will be available in Australia soon. It’s also expanding to Canada, Germany, France and Japan. It’s gaining support for multiple languages as well: French, German, Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese soon with Italian, Spanish and Korean coming later.
Without a doubt, the Home’s design is excellent. Yes, it bears some resemblance to a canister of Glade air freshener (or Renuzit, if you really want to dial in on Home’s doppelgänger), but I like the slick, clean look. The customizable bases snap on and off easily, letting you add a splash of color. The top responds well to touch. You can move your finger clockwise or counterclockwise to change the volume, tap to start or stop the music you’re playing, or long-press to give the Home a command without saying the wake words, “OK, Google,” or “Hey Google.”
Here’s a sampling of things you can ask the Home to do:
- Add items to a shopping list
- Check your calendar
- Set an alarm
- Snooze that alarm
- Set a timer
- Tell you about the weather
- Check traffic for your commute to work
- Play the news
- Answer a question involving a quick Google search
- Perform a calculation
- Call an Uber
- Play a customized daily briefing including traffic, weather and a news briefing you curate with the app
That list doesn’t touch on what the Home can do as an entertainment device or a smart home controller — more on both in just a bit.
The Home app is easy to use on both iOS and Android and integrates the Home with, Google’s answer to Siri and Alexa. First showcased in the company’s , Google Assistant makes use of Google’s services to provide personalized results in response to voice commands. However, Google Assistant on the Home can’t do everything it can do on your phone. Some of the things the Home can’t do yet include:
- Remove items or change your shopping list
- Send directions to your phone
- Create lists other than a shopping list
- Set reminders
- Interact with email
The Home also endeavors to have a personality. Alexa can be positively charming, and Google follows suit by offering Easter egg responses to statements like “I am your father.” Google’s responses, though, tend to either be bland or way over the top. Much like an assistant who’s new on the job, the Home is friendly, but it’s definitely trying too hard.
For more, check out our full breakdown of, as well as , specifically.
Learning on the job
Already a competent aide when it launched in November 2016, the Google Home has only improved since then. Most importantly, it will now customize answers for all of your family members based on who’s talking. Each of your family members needs to download the Home app to a phone, then they will be able to train the Home to recognize their voices by repeating the wake words a couple of times.
The Home supports up to six different accounts, and offers individualized responses to questions about calendars and traffic. The Home will also play personal playlists on request. The feature works well for the most part, as long as your family members don’t sound similar. You can fool the Home’s voice recognition fairly easily, which is why Google hasn’t used it for anything security-related — such as unlocking doors or making purchases. For the sake of integrating multiple calendars, it works well enough.
You can now also use your Home as a recipe source. Search for a recipe on your phone, and you can send any of 5 million different options to the Home. It’ll walk you through the ingredients and step-by-step directions. As opposed to just rattling through the instructions like it did at launch — and like Alexa does now — the Home can wait until you tell it that you’re ready for the next ingredient or step, and skip forward and back in the directions.
Thankfully, you can also add events to your calendar with your voice now, and soon, the Home will offer proactive notifications. If traffic’s getting ugly en route to your next appointment, the Home will let you know. Better yet, you’ll soon be able to make phone calls with the Home. Alexa and the Echo now offer something similar, but you can only call other Alexa-enabled devices. The Home will let you dial anyone in your address book.
Let’s talk about privacy
As the Google Home deepens its integrations into more aspects of your life in the service of convenience, the inevitable questions torn from the pages of dystopian science fiction novels become more and more pressing. Is Google listening to me? How safe is my information? How do I weigh privacy against convenience?
With the smart home at the Google’s saying the right things on this front. The Home only records what you say after you activate it with a tap, or with the wake words. You’ll see it light up in response so you’ll know that it’s listening. In the Home app, you can look over your search history and delete a specific query or clear the history entirely if you’d like. There’s also a mute button that stops it from listening for its wake word at all. The Amazon Echo does all of those things as well, so the two are neck-and-neck here., these are worthwhile questions to ask, and the Home probably won’t have the answers to assuage all of your worries. That said,
The art of conversation: Google Home vs. Amazon Echo
The Home’s far-field microphone is about as effective as the Echo’s — just be sure to speak clearly to either device if you have a complex command. Most of the time, I talked to the Home without hassle from across the large main room in the CNET Smart Home, a distance of roughly 40 feet. The Home heard me from adjacent rooms as well, given clear line of sight, and it even heard me through one wall — although I do have a booming voice.
For those with more of an indoor voice, or a place larger than a one-bedroom apartment, you might want multiple Homes so you always have one within shouting distance. If you give a command with multiple Homes in hearing range, every device that catches the wake words will light up, but only the one that hears you best will respond. There’s aon Echo devices that also works well.
On occasion, the Home wouldn’t respond to commands I know it understands. I’d have to repeat myself and punch up my pronunciation of the consonants. For the most part, the Home performs admirably, even when listening for you over music or background noise, again keeping up with — but not surpassing — the Echo.