(Pocket-lint) - The home smart speaker war is on. Some might say Amazon already won it, with its Alexa voice-assistant Echo range and third-party support in other respected brand speakers but Amazon has competition, predominantly from Google.
The original Google Home looked like a big air freshener and, arguably, took a more design-first approach than the original Amazon Echo. With Home's inoffensive white matte plastic and swappable colour bases, it could fit in among all your home furnishing a lot better.
The Google Home Mini continues down Home's path, offering a smaller model with a similar design approach and all the same features but how does this mini version stack up?
It's Home, but mini
- 98mm diameter x 42mm height; 173g weight
- Chalk, Charcoal and Coral colour options
- White power cable, irrelevant of colour choice
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the Home Mini's "homely" fabric material covering looks nice. However, fabric does limit where you can put it, because it's not easily cleaned. This likely means you probably won't want it in a kitchen within reach of dirty hands, or accidental splashes and crumb-drops.
Still, Mini is attractive and has a well-considered look and use of materials. Four circular LED lights hide beneath the fabric, which light up when you utter the hot words "Hey Google" or "Ok Google", letting you know it's ready to receive your command.
Similarly, they illuminate white when you touch either side of the top panel to increase/decrease volume. To show you the volume level, the lights decrease in brightness sequentially. The only time you'll see other colours of light is when the mute switch is on, at which point they turn orange, or when you boot it up and it shows the red, yellow, blue and green Google colours.
As with the larger Google Home, the search giant keeps things minimal in regards to ports and buttons. There's one Micro-USB port on the back, recessed neatly into the plastic casing. Just over an inch to the left of that port is the single switch for disabling voice detection.
On the design front there's one thing that irks - the power lead. It's white. In other words it's not colour-matched to the grey. Sad times. If you're placing it on a light surface, this likely won't upset too much. But if it's on top of a dark wood or granite surface, it sticks out like a sore thumb and detracts from that friendly non-techy look that the Google Home Mini achieves without the power cable.
Google Home Mini setup
- Bluetooth 4.1
- 802.11ac (2.4GHz/5GHz) Wi-Fi
- Chromecast/Chromecast Audio
The initial process of setting up the Google Home Mini is a simple one, which matches the procedure you'd have to follow to get any Home or Chromecast product up and running.
Plug it in, make sure you have the Google Home app installed on your iPhone or Android device, then Home Mini should show up automatically within the app, at which point you follow the step-by-step instructions in the mobile software.
In the setup, you tell the Home Mini which home network it should connect to, after which the rest of the process is automated. From here you can change Mini's name and also note which room it's in - useful if you have multiple Home devices.
Features, sound and control
- 360-degree sound
- Single 40mm speaker
- Far-field voice recognition
- Touch-sensitive volume control
It's clear from its design and size, that Mini is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Dot. It is missing a couple of features, however. The first is a manual command button. It's voice commands or nothing with the Home Mini.
The second absent feature is an audio output - so Mini could be used as something of a Google Home/Chromecast Audio device when connected to a better speaker. It's clear that Mini isn't made to be a quality audio product, it's all about the voice-control part of things.
As you'd expect, having that one small speaker for sound means it's not as loud as the bigger Google Home or the newer Google Home Hub. It's also not the best quality sound. It's quite treble heavy and harsh, with very little bass at all. To the point where it's not even a good replacement for a small Bluetooth speaker.
Again: the purpose of Home Mini isn't to be a primary audio device, not for music anyway. It's a way to get Google Home into more rooms without costing a fortune. For those with the Google Home Hub, it is the perfect companion, allowing you to have the Hub in the kitchen for example and a Mini in the living room or bedroom, or even both.
That said, it is possible to pair up multiple Google Home Mini devices and group them for multi-room audio. We've even done this in adjacent rooms to successfully create a better audio experience and a semi-decent way to casually listening to some tunes.
Voice detection performance is generally decent. When placed in one of the smaller rooms of the house, Mini seems to have no trouble detecting the "hey Google" hot word. As with any smart assistant, it wasn't a 100 per cent success rate, but it understood our commands and responded far more frequently than not.
However, it is worth noting that if you have several Google Home Minis and they are in close proximity they sometimes have trouble working out which one you're talking to and you end up getting a response from neither as one always assumes the other is listening and vice versa. This problem is something Alexa handles more successfully in our experience.
What can Google Home Mini do?
- Smart home device control
- Play music
- Deliver search results
Since the original Home launched, the number of supported smarthome products has grown significantly. Most of the bigger smart home products and companies support Google Home now, though the list of partners is still smaller than those offered by the Amazon-branded competition.
We first tested Mini using a TP-Link colour-changing smart bulb and our Tado smart home thermostat, but our team has also used Mini with Ikea smart lights, Nest Learning Thermostat E, Nest cameras, TP-Link smart plugs and Netatmo cameras and the experience is great. It also supports the likes of Wemo, Arlo, Ecobee, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Hive, LifX, Lightwave and WiZ. Ultimately, you can use Mini to set your heating at a specific temperature, or switch your lights off, among other functions, all with the power of voice.
Of course, you can also use it for various media services too. That means for any Chromecast- or Chromecast Audio-equipped device you can play music or video through Spotify, Google Play, TuneIn, BBC Radio, YouTube and Netflix. It won't sound great, but you can nonetheless.
Perhaps Google's greatest strength, however, is in delivering search results in a way that feels more natural and conversational. For most questions you'll get a direct answer, with mention of the information's source. If Home Mini doesn't understand your request or command it'll tell you - which is something that happens at least once or twice a day. At which point, rephrasing can sometimes yield the result you want.
Google Home Mini's capabilities have changed a fair bit since it finished launched as well. Additional features can easily be pushed by Google in software updates and enhancements and this happens reasonably regularly. Things like "continued conversations" for example, make the experience much more fluid and you can ask multiple related questions in a row in a more satisfying way.
We'd also recommend checking out our Google Home tips and tricks guide to see all the things Google Home Mini is capable of.
Home has got a sense of humour, too, which is always a nice touch - especially if you have kids in the house. Ask it to tell you jokes, use questions with references to popular culture and it'll generally come up trumps.
There's nothing especially remarkable about Google Home Mini, except a couple of things: it does everything the bigger Home product does, but is much, much smaller. It is also cheaper and it is a brilliant companion device to the Google Home Hub.
Home Mini isn't designed as a speaker for music, though. Sure, it has a speaker, and can connect to music services, but it doesn't sound that great. But then it's not supposed to: Mini is all about voice-control and expanding the system around your home. And on that front, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do.
First published on 4 October 2017. Now updated to reflect the changing smart home market and various software enhancements since launch.
Amazon Echo Dot
It may not come with the same search expertise as Google's Assistant, but the fast rollout of support for third-party smarthome partners means it's more likely to be of use if you have smart, connected technology from multiple brands in your home. You can also plug it into a bigger speaker, for better audio and the new design is much more appealing than the first-gen model.
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Read the full article: Amazon Echo Dot review