(Pocket-lint) - 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 stuff. 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. Then, in 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 the range of Google Home devices, now consisting of the original Home, the Home Mini, the Home Max, the rebranded Nest Hub and the upcoming Nest Hub Max. Here we are concentrating on the original Home, Google's £129/$129 connected speaker that allows you to leverage all of what Google offers without having to tap or click on a screen.
It directly competes with Amazon's Echo, which has been in the market since 2014 and is a little further down the line with integrations, but do two decades of search experience give Home the edge?
- 96.4mm x 142.8mm; 477g
- White finish, interchangeable bases
- Touch panel and voice control
Google Home is a minimalist's dream. It's a short device - about half the size of the original Echo - and while it's only available in white, you can still match it to your décor by swapping out the bases. Google sells optional bases for £18/$20 in a variety of fabric or metal finishes and colours.
It has been likened to an air freshener but we really like the design because it doesn't look out of place anywhere in our home - bedroom, kitchen or living room. It also doesn't smell like potpourri, thankfully.
The top of Google Home slopes at an angle and hides a touch-sensitive panel. Swipe gestures allow users to change volume, play and pause music, and activate Google Assistant's listening mode. 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. There's also a microphone on/off button on the rear.
By comparison, Amazon Echo, has a blue ring of light at the top with physical controls for volume as well as mute the listening mode and whatnot. The Echo range has developed over time, now offering a material surround in numerous options for a more premium finish but it arguably doesn't look or feel as futuristic as Home's setup.
Google Home voice control
- Voice-control using "OK Google" or "Hey Google"
- Far-field voice recognition for hands-free use
The only other things you'll notice about the top-half of Home are 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.
Similar to Amazon Echo, Home can listen and respond to your voice commands. Unlike Echo though, you can't change the OK Google/Hey Google wake words, whereas Amazon's Alexa can be changed, making it a little more human. You must say the wake words every single time you want to interact with Home too, but there is a setting in the Google Home app to allow "Continued Conversation", whereby Google Home will continue listening after it responds for a follow up question.
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 as we mentioned, it 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, and as a smart home controller, as well as to play music throughout our home with Chromecast Audio's multi-room feature.
Google Home speaker quality
- 2-inch speaker driver
- Two 2-inch passive radiators
- No Bluetooth connectivity
As for the audio quality, Google 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 Home will 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, 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.
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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 from various services, including YouTube and Netflix.
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 doesn't seem to have this problem as often.
Google Assistant on Google Home
- Supports Android 4.2 / iOS 8.0 and higher
- Smart home controller
- Alarms and reminders
- Calling capability
Google Home is all about Google 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 and you can change the voice. There are a couple of different options.
Google Assistant is always waiting for you to talk or ask it something. 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.
You can also control any compatible smart home devices, from smart lights to smart plugs. This is an area that has significantly improved for Google Home since it first launched. There are a lot more compatible devices now, making Home much more useful as a smart home controller.
Home still isn't able to do a few things we'd like to see, such as check our Gmail for new messages or track our packages but it is now able to call our friends for us, something it wasn't able to do originally. It is also able to do things like add appointments to our Google Calendar and set reminders, also things it wasn't originally able to do when we first reviewed it.
And it definitely has the typical stuff down; it's now our daily alarm clock and it's a very easy way to check the score of our favourite teams.
Searching for answers
- Follow your use of pronouns
- Remembers context
- Multiple user support
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.
At launch, our biggest gripe with Home was that it only worked with one Google account at a time. That's now been addressed in both the UK and US, with Home allowing the ability to register up to six accounts. Assistant is clever enough to distinguish between voices too if you teach it through the Google Home app, so you don't need to instruct the system to switch accounts. Very family-friendly.
What apps does Google Home support?
- Nest, Hive, Honeywell heating all compatible
- Philips Hue, IKEA lights compatible
- Growing 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, as we briefly mentioned. Amazon's Echo does this too, with both speakers allowing you to turn compatible smart lights on or off, control a smart thermostat, turn smart plugs on or off and more.
We use our Google Home for this every single day and it works brilliantly. You can also program IFTTT commands. Both Home and Echo are true control centres for the home, the decision between them will likely come down to the platform you prefer or the system you have bought into.
Echo has been around for longer than Home so it originally had a big leg up in terms of integrations, though Google is closing this gap quickly. Home supports a huge number of smart home companies now including Google Nest, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Belkin Wemo, Honeywell, Arlo, Ikea, TP-Link and plenty more.
It might not be as wide-ranging as the Echo's extensive list still, but Google integration has accelerated fast and continues to do so.
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? That really depends on what you are after from a Wi-Fi connected speaker and what products you already have in your home. When we first reviewed Google Home, it was better looking than Echo, but not as well-rounded.
Home has improved significantly over the last couple of years though. There are now a huge number of third party integrations and partnerships, which are expanding all the time. It might not have Amazon Alexa's thousands of skills as yet, but it is certainly improving all the time with more and more features appearing.
Home is already great at conversational points and search too, plus it's a great sounding speaker, not to mention a brilliant smart home controller if you have compatible devices. The Home range has expanded too, offering more ways to get Google's Assistant into your home, with the Home Mini a great companion to the original Home and the Nest Hub the perfect device for those with smart home devices.
So, in many ways, we prefer Home. It's matured a lot since it first launched and continues to, so if you don't mind waiting for it to reach its full potential, then it's the speaker to get. It's good looking, great sounding and, it has the potential to be the best voice-assistant speaker going.
Amazon Echo (2nd-gen)
Amazon's refreshed Echo line-up resulted in a cheaper Echo and a tweaked Echo Plus, to stave off Google and the onslaught of Alexa-powered speakers now launching from other manufacturers. It steals headlines with a more compact design and a cheaper price point, and it's difficult to ignore the £90 price, especially compared to the £149 of the original.
Google Home Max
If price isn't a thing and you're mostly concerned about audio quality, consider the Google Home Max speaker. It's the same as Google Home, only it's physically bigger and packs a far bigger sound. The Google Home Max is far from budget but it's a great speaker for those who are married to Google and its ecosystem.
Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini is a smaller, cheaper model of the original Google Home. It takes a similar design approach with all the same features - just with a smaller speaker as a result. It's a great way to get Google Assistant into your home, without spending a fortune and it's a great companion to any of the other Google Home devices.
Google Nest Hub
The Google Nest Hub offers everything the Google Home does, but it adds a 7-inch screen to the mix, allowing you to control your smart home devices on the screen as well as with your voice, whilst also offering the ability to watch YouTube videos there and then and read news snippets. It's a speaker too, though not as capable as the Home.
Review originally published in 2016.