If there's one thing Google is good at, it's search. Its 20 years of experience has helped it to become the number one site we all go to when we want to look up anything. Heck, most people just say "Google it".
Beyond search we use Google brands for a range of tasks, including getting directions, sending email, and watching videos. In early 2016 Google came up with Google Assistant: a voice-based, conversational way for us to interact with Google's products and services.
These have all been stepping stones to Google Home: the company's £129/$129 connected speaker. A home hub device that, for the first time in Google's history, allows you to leverage all of what Google offers without having to tap or click on a screen.
Which all sounds very exciting. But then there's Amazon's competitor, Echo, which has been in the market since 2014 and is further down the line in third-party app integration. Do two decades of search experience give Home the edge it needs over Echo?
Google Home review: Flexible design
- 96.4mm (D), 142.8mm (H); 477g
- White finish, interchangeable bases
- Touchpanel and voice control
Home is a minimalist's dream. It's a short device - about half the size of Echo - that complements anything from Ikea. It's only available in white, but you can still match it to your decor by swapping out the bases (Google is selling £18/$20 optional bases that come in a variety of fabric or metal finishes and colours).
We have to mention it though: most of our friends say Home looks like an air freshener. We don't mind as that just means we can place it anywhere, from kitchen to bedroom. It doesn't smell like potpourri, thankfully.
The top of Home slopes at an angle and hides a touch-sensitive panel that you can swipe gestures upon to change volume, play and pause music, and activate Assistant's listening mode. You'll see colourful, very Googley lights glow in the panel when Home hears its wake words "OK Google" or "Hey Google" or it responds to a command.
Amazon Echo, on the other hand, has a blue ring of light at the top with a physical rotation ring. Echo also has physical buttons to press to mute the listening mode and whatnot, which just doesn't look or feel as futuristic as Home's setup.
Google Home review: Voice control
- Voice-control using "OK Google" or "Hey Google" wake words
- Far-field voice recognition for hands-free use
The only other things you'll notice about the top-half of Home are these two divots for the far-field microphones, which theoretically allow Home to pick-up your voice commands from across a room. That's key for a largely voice-controlled product.
However, we found that pickup wasn't very accurate when the device's speaker component is blaring out tunes at full blast. At least with higher pitched voices: i.e. women and children. With louder, typically deeper male voices it seemed to hear almost every time, even with music playing through multiple speakers within the same space.
With quieter or no music playing, however, Home has no problem hearing us. Google has tweaked the device for regional accents, so the UK version comes with a distinctly more British accent than its American cousin. It can do translations in various accents too (but, as yet, isn't available in all countries and languages as an assistant).
Similar to Amazon Echo, Home can listen and respond to your voice commands. You can't change the OK Google/Hey Google wake words, and you must say them every single time you want to interact with Home. This can be a bit of a barrier for Assistant's potential conversational capabilities and, just like with Echo, we'd like a more natural to-and-fro conversation.
Some people don't like the idea of Google always listening to you and your household while relaying information to the cloud for processing. So, in an effort to alleviate any privacy concerns, Google has promised it's not constantly recording you, and it even includes a mute button that completely turns off the listening feature.
Google also allows you to peek at all the data Home sends back and forth (go to myactivity.google.com). When we looked at our activity, it was obvious that we mostly use Home as a connected music speaker, or to play music throughout our home with Chromecast Audio's multi-room feature.
Google Home review: Speaker quality
- 2-inch speaker driver
- Two 2-inch passive radiators
- No Bluetooth connectivity
As for the audio quality, Home has two passive radiators for bass and the output is adequate enough to fill a room. We think it's plenty loud, with fair sound quality for its £129 asking price. If you're just looking for an average speaker to sit on your kitchen counter or bedroom nightstand and casually play some tunes, rest assured that it'll get the job done just fine.
We've streamed tunes from built-in sources like Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, and Pandora. We've even used it to wirelessly cast audio from our phone and laptop.
Unfortunately, Google Home doesn't have Bluetooth connectivity like Echo, so you'll need to use apps and services with it that support Google Cast - but that's basically everything.
Home can also send audio to a Chromecast Audio-connected speakers. Just say "Hey Google, play this on Chromecast Audio". For multi-room playback, just say "Play my easy listening playlist on [whatever the group name is]" and it'll play music from your chosen music provider through speakers connected to that Chromecast Audio group. In our testing, we used Spotify and grouped the Home unit together with two Chromecast Audio units to create a three-room group. It worked very well.
Finally, you can group multiple Home speakers together and stream through all them at the same time. Echo can group Echo units together, too, plus it supports casting to Fire TV devices.
As for video streaming, if you plug a Chromecast into, let's say, a bedroom TV, you can say "OK Google, play Pocket-lint videos on my bedroom TV", or "watch Iron Fist", and it'll play those immediately (it only does this with YouTube and Netflix at present, but there's scope for that to expand - probably never with Amazon, though, given the competition between the two devices).
Interestingly, we found that Home needed to know the exact name of a song if we asked it to cue something specific, and it wouldn't understand us when we accidentally left out a word from the song title, whereas Echo never seems to have this problem.
Google Home review: Google Assistant
- Supports Android 4.2 / iOS 8.0 and higher
Home is all about Assistant, really, which is the gateway to question-and-answer information. Assistant doesn't have a real-person name, like Alexa or Siri, but it does have a (sort-of robotic) female voice; a voice that you can't change.
And she's always waiting for you to talk or ask it something. Currently, you can call on those everyday, mundane tasks like managing cooking timers, setting morning alarms, and remembering shopping lists. You can also ask Assistant to fetch weather and traffic information, look up flights, check your calendar, get local business information, and order an Uber for you.
Assistant even does jokes and trivia: Just say "OK Google, entertain me", and see what happens next.
However, Assistant is a fairly basic assistant right now - especially for Google and when considering the bigger picture. We'd love it if Home could check our Gmail for new messages or track our packages, but it can't do that. We'd also like it to text or call our friends for us, even through our wirelessly connected Android device, but it can't do that either. We'd even love the ability to add appointments to our Google Calendar or set reminders, but again, it can't do any of that... yet(?).
At least it's got some of the typical stuff down; it quickly became our daily alarm clock and the easiest way to check the score of the most recent Miami Hurricanes game.
Google Home review: Searching for answers
Where Home has a notable upper hand over Amazon Echo is in search capability.
First, understand that Assistant can follow your use of pronouns and remember context for follow-up questions, whereas Alexa cannot. That means you can ask "OK Google, who is the President of the US?" and then ask "OK Google, how old is he?", and Assistant will know you're asking about the President's age.
Second, Assistant pulls from most of Google's online services as well as its deep well of search knowledge. You can ask what you should have for dinner, and Google Assistant will locate local places to eat and serve up suggestions. There are endless things you can ask, and nine times out of 10 it will have an answer for you. Alexa, on the other hand, really seems to love the phrase "I don't understand the question." If you do happen to stump Assistant, it simply apologises and says it can't do that "yet", which is a subtle way for Google to remind people that more features are coming.
Assistant is supposed to smartly hand-off commands too. We use a Google Pixel XL, which also has Google Assistant built-in and is meant to be clever enough to understand when you're talking to Home rather than the phone. Sadly, that's not the case: more often than not we wouldn't get a response from Assistant on Home, but rather on our phone.
At launch, our biggest gripe with Home was that it only worked with one Google account at a time. That is still the case in the UK, but will soon change. With our US-based Home we can now register up to six accounts. Better still, Assistant is clever enough to distinguish between voices, so you don't need to instruct the system to switch accounts. Very family-friendly - and the sooner this feature arrives in the UK, the better.
What apps does Google Home support?
Home is designed to sit in your house and not only be your assistant but also your primary means of controlling smart home gadgets - with just your voice. And, yes, Echo does this too. With either speaker, you can turn your smart lights on or off, control your smart thermostat, and more. You can also program IFTTT commands. They're true control centres for the home.
However, because Echo has been around for two years longer, it has a big leg up in terms of integrations. Right now, Home supports Google Nest, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Belkin Wemo, and Honeywell smart devices. That list has increased since its US launch, and will continue to grow, but it's not quite as wide-ranging as the Echo's extensive list.
It's a game of catch-up, though, and we get the strong feeling that Google integration will be accelerating fast.
Does two decades of search experience give Home the upper hand over Amazon Echo? In terms of search results, yes. But is it the better product? Not always. Home might be better looking, but it's not as well-rounded... yet.
That's largely because Home is in its early days and can't hold a candle to Echo when it comes to controlling the home. Amazon's Alexa assistant has thousands of skills: it can send texts and read recipes from Allrecipes.com; it's got tonnes of app integrations available from the likes of Expedia, Thrive, Capital One and beyond. So if you want the full-blown voice-activated connected speaker experience right out of the gate, you're silly to consider anything other than Echo.
But here's our prediction: within two years, Google Home will probably have just as many integrations and partnerships available as Echo, perhaps even more. Home is already better at conversational points and search. Plus it's £30 cheaper than Echo and doesn't want you to add an annual Amazon Prime subscription into the mix to get the most out of it either.
So, in many ways, we prefer Home. If you don't mind waiting for it to mature, then it's the speaker to get. It's better looking, better sounding and, we suspect, has the potential to be the best voice-assistant speaker going.
The alternative to consider...
With its Alexa voice-control assistant, Echo is the premier home product: it can play music, interact with third-party apps (including home controls, such as Nest heating adjustment and Hue lighting controls) and plug-into all the great and the good of an Amazon Prime subscription too. It's perhaps not as smart or conversational as Home for everything, but it's the must-have voice-assistant home speaker to buy right now.