You’ve heard of the Amazon Echo, now meet Google Home. A new smart home speaker from the daddy of online search and services, it should be the smart device to rule them all. (Also read our Google Home Mini review and rumours on Google Home 2)
It’s behind the Echo in development, and in terms of ‘Skills’ (though many of those available to Alexa are a bit rubbish or gimmicky). It also has a much lower market share – mostly because it came to market much later.
Google Home still has much to learn, but actually we think of the two it’s a lot easier to get on with than Alexa using natural language, and it can answer most things you throw at it while Alexa simply replies “Hmmm, I’m not sure.” Also see: 100 funny things to ask Google Home
Google Home is improving all the time, too. Following the addition of support for multiple user accounts, in August it became possible to use the Google Home as a Bluetooth speaker, and the company added support for Spotify Free streaming. Now in September it’s reported that support for reminders is rolling out.
Google Home was first announced at Google I/O in May 2016. It became available in the US later in 2016, and in the UK on 6 April 2017.
Costing £129 (direct from Google or via Argos, Currys, John Lewis or Maplin), I’d recommend it over any budget Bluetooth speaker. It’s currently even cheaper, enjoying a massive reduction to £78 for Black Friday 2017.
Also see: Which Google Home should I buy?
So what is Google Home?
Google describes its new Home device as a hands-free smart speaker. Always-on, it wakes to the command “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google”, and though you can’t currently change this wake-up command (that functionality is rumoured to be coming soon) you can alternatively tap the centre of its capacitive-touch top surface should you begin to get a little tongue-twisted. Also see: How to set up Google Home
It plays music, sure, but doing so isn’t simply a case of hooking up your phone via Bluetooth and using it to blare out tunes. While you can now finally do that, instead you’ll stream music via online radio services, Google Play Music or Spotify Free/Premium, or Cast-enabled apps. Also see: How to play music on Google Home without a subscription
(Also see: Is Google planning an Echo Show rival?)
Google Home is perhaps better thought of as the physical home to the new Google Assistant voice assistant that debuted in Android Nougat on the Pixel and Pixel XL.
It’s not yet as intelligent as the Assistant demoed during Google’s presentation, which could find a restaurant and place a reservation on your behalf, but it is possible to hold a conversation with Home. You might ask it, for example, what is the nearest pharmacy and then separately when do they close, but the need to say “Okay, Google” both times is a pain – we wish it would keep listening until we’re done.
Today, Home is a voice-operated speaker that can answer any question for which you might Google the answer – whether or not you need an umbrella, how long it will take you to get to work, what are the latest headlines, where you should go for dinner and even the answers to complicated mathematical sums. In most cases it’s clever enough to understand natural language, though trying to get it to do too much at once can confuse things.
It’s more than that, though. Tying into a Google account it can tell you what’s on the calendar for your day, add items to your Google Keep shopping list, and even pull up a slideshow of images from Google Photos via Chromecast.
Home’s integration with Google apps isn’t universal, and the ability to add only one Google account was previously a limitation. From the end of June 2017, users in the UK and US can connect up to six Google accounts to Google Home, and it will recognise each user by the sound of their voice. In practice we’ve found this works well for male users, though it struggles to differentiate between the female voices in our household.
We’re sure it’s only a matter of time before Google Home is able to send navigation instructions to your phone, pull up your most recent Gmail messages and allow you to dictate notes. Even placing a phone call over Google Home could become a reality – according to Redditor andybasecleff the feature has begun rolling out to devices, allowing users to call contacts stored in Google Contacts. The functionality has since disappeared, but it is coming soon.
Google Home can set alarms and timers, and support for reminders is rolling out now too. If you have any other smart-home tech installed in your home chances are it can control it, too.
Google still needs to nail down more third-party partnerships, but Home is already compatible with popular smart devices such as Philips Hue, Nest, Samsung SmartThings and WeMo, while IFTTT support means there may well be a simple workaround for devices not on the list.
Using IFTTT we were able to use Google Home to complete tasks it isn’t technically able to do yet – send a text message to one of our contacts via an Android phone, for example, send an email via Gmail, or modify its answer upon completion of a task (you really can get it to say anything you want). More practically, through IFTTT Google Home was able to turn on and off LightWave lights and switches in our home.
Google Home has a fun side too, and will happily tell you a joke or a fun fact, attempt to beatbox and even host a game of Trivia or Crystal Maze. It will sing you Happy Birthday, ably demonstrate various animal noises and appeal to your childish side by giving you audible definitions of any term you like. Just tell it you’re bored and see what happens.
Right now the Google Home stands out against the £149 Amazon Echo only in price and design, but with time on its side and Google in charge Home could eventually mature into one of the best smart home speakers money can buy. Let’s take a closer look.
Google Home design and build
It’s very rare that you would find yourself wanting to buy a bad-looking piece of consumer tech, but for smart-home tech appearance is more important than ever. And especially for a device such as this, which by its very nature will become a talking point in your home.
Google has done a great job designing Home to blend into any environment. It’s a reasonably compact device that stands just 142.8mm high and weighs 477g. It has an angled white matte plastic top half and a coloured mesh base that conceals the speaker. Compare it to the tall black cylindrical tower that is Amazon Echo and we know which we prefer. Also see: Best Google Home tips & tricks
These bases are interchangeable, magnetically snapping into place, so you can swap the grey slate version that comes in the box for a coloured fabric (£18) or metal (£36) base that may more comfortably slip into its surroundings. Fabric bases are available in Mango, Marine and Violet, and metal bases in Carbon, Copper and Snow.
No buttons are visible from the top, but with capacitive touch you can tap a finger on its centre or say “Okay, Google” to activate a ring of Google-brand-coloured LEDs that show you it’s listening. By drawing a circular gesture around this area you can also adjust the volume.
Our home is clean (OCD bleaching clean), but we did find dust collected rather quickly on top of the speaker – and that’s not ideal if people are routinely going to be wanting to take a closer look. But we have a duster, we can deal with that.
Google Home is wireless in terms of its connection to the internet and to your devices, but to power the device itself you’ll need an available mains socket.
As power cables go, Google Home’s is largely inoffensive – white in colour, reasonably short in length, and with a neat white Google-branded plug to sit in the socket. That said, if you can hide it out of view then you should – Google Home is designed to be left on at all times, so there’s no need to be able to quickly access the socket.
Just a single button can be found on Google Home, with a mute button for the mic at the rear.
The speaker itself is reasonably powerful, if not the loudest compact speaker you’ll find, with a 2in driver and twin 2in passive radiators. In this respect the Google Home is useful if only as a kitchen radio.
It can stream any online radio service, and if you have a nearby Android device (which needn’t be associated with the same Google account as Home) you will see a notification pop up that allows you to also control playback via TuneIn.
The twin mics are also competent, and with far-field voice recognition it can pick up commands even if you’re not in the same room. But whereas Google Home has two, Amazon Echo has seven.
Background noise can complicate things, of course, and we often found it stumbled if we tried to task it to do multiple things at once. Often times you’ll get a more accurate response if you pause audio before asking a question, for example – we found it more likely to misinterpret our mumbling at such times. But the fact is every so often you will need to ask it to do something twice, or to re-phrase your original request. It’s like a kid, and it’s still learning.
Naturally there will be areas within your home where you can’t hear the speaker or Google Home can’t hear you. It’s possible to connect multiple Home speakers to create multi-room audio, though with only one to test we weren’t able to try this.
Must I subscribe to Google services to use Google Home?
Most of what Google Home does it does without requiring additional services. You can set up Home using either Android or iOS (versions 4.2+ and 8.0+ respectively), simply by downloading the free Google Home app and following the instructions.
You don’t need to be using Google apps on your iPhone to make use of the Google Assistant, though you will need to set up a Google account. Chances are you already have one anyway.
Finally in the UK Google Home can support up to six different Google accounts, and recognise each user by their voice and serve up information relevant to their preferences. It’s great news: until recently, only account could be assigned to each device, which was frustrating in a family setup and meant it would work only with the preferences and services associated with that account.
If you want Google Home to be able to read appointments in your calendar, work out how long it will take you to get to work or add an item to your shopping list then naturally certain Google apps will need to be installed. However, there are really just two instances that stand out to us as requiring subscriptions: music and video. Both you can get around, though, so don’t be put off just yet.
The first is arguably most important, since in its most basic form this is a speaker – a smart speaker, sure, but a speaker nonetheless.
Google Home comes with a free three-month Google Music subscription, but if you wish to continue with the service after this period it will cost you £9.99 per month.
Google Music is great, with a gigantic music library from which you can play whatever song you like on whatever device you like, provided it’s signed into your Google account. But at £120 a year, it costs nearly as much as your initial outlay on Google Home. And if you subscribe to other unlimited music services you will unlikely be keen on the extra cost.
It’s worth pointing out that Google Home can alternatively work with Spotify Premium and now also Spotify Free, and it supports Bluetooth audio so you can stream music from your phone no matter which service you’re using.
So if you don’t subscribe to Google Music, what can you play via Google Home? For a start there’s radio, and as we’ve mentioned any online radio service can be streamed via TuneIn – just say “Okay, Google, stream Capital FM’ or whatever service you require. And you can Cast content from supported apps.
As for audio purchased via or uploaded to Google Music, this is accessible only if it is featured within a playlist. You have minimal control over the playlist, so you won’t be able to choose a certain song within that group. To play a playlist you say “Okay, Google, play [name of playlist]”.
You can play videos on YouTube via Chromecast, provided you know their names, or you can ask for a less general type of content such as funny videos.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can also tell Google Home to play a specific video via Chromecast. Once again, though, that will require an additional cost.
As of 7 March 2018, Google has added the ability to make calls with the Home devices. This means you can use your voice to say “Hey Google, call Mum” and it will know to call your mum, not someone else’s – even when you have multiple users set up because it knows your voice.
You can also ask it to “call the nearest gift shop” or other local businesses. Google says the calling feature allows outgoing calls to most phone numbers in the UK, but doesn’t support calls to emergency numbers such as 999 or premium rate numbers.
Read next: Google Home vs Amazon Echo