The new Google Home pits Google against Amazon’s popular Amazon Echo and Alexa. Home listens for a keyword, just like Amazon Echo, and then answers questions or plays content. How does Google’s connected information speaker compete with Amazon’s? And what kinds of things can a user do with Google Home?
Like Echo, the Google Home connects to the Internet and plays music, answers questions, tells users when their next appointment starts or how long it will take to get to work. It’s kind of like having the Star Trek computer in your home, but without as much power or information, at least that’s what we all would hope. Of course Home falls far short of that, but we’re getting closer. The Google Assistant that powers Google Home can do more than the old Google Now available on Android phones by saying “Ok Google…”.
Google Home Design
The Google Home appliance sits on a shelf or other surface and connects to the Internet through your home or office Wi-Fi. It’s not very big, measuring 3.79-inches in diameter and 5.62-inches tall. The round device comes with a slanted wedged top. It’s white on the top two-thirds and the bottom comes with a mesh patterned base.
On top, we get a pair of mics and some LEDs. The surface responds to touch, which raises the volume or lowers it.
The AC cable plugs into the bottom of the Google Home. It has a rubber cord which is long enough to put the device on a higher shelf.
On back, there’s a physical button to mute the built-in mics that sit on the top. A green LED indicates power state and flashes when the Home’s ready to set up.
The base comes with a gray color. Google offers replacement bases in multiple colors and materials for $20 each.
On top of the Google Home, we see some LEDs that show when the user interacts with their device. They come off easily. Unplug the AC cable and grab the bottom to pull it off. The base magnetically snaps back into place when you put the new base on the Google Home.
The LEDs on top of the device function in a few differnent ways. The Google Help site shows a chart listing all the ways these LEDs communicate to the user. One important indicator is volume. The circle of lights show the volume level. Swiping in a circular motion turns it up or down.
Internally, there’s a set of “Far-field” mics that can recognize your voice from across the room. It does a good job of hearing the user and interpreting their words accurately.
The speakers in the Google Home sound decent. In fact they’re better than the Amazon Echo. No one will mistake these for high-end speakers, but they work fine for some ambient music or listening to podcasts. The speakers adequately share the results of your commands and searches.
Google Home Functionality
To interact with Google Home say OK GOOGLE or HEY GOOGLE. For those with an Android phone that has always listening waiting for you to say “OK Google” use the “Hey Google” so that you can differentiate which device you’re talking to. Otherwise both will try to answer your query or command.
Google Home can do many kinds of things. For example, connect it to your favorite music streaming service and then tell it to play music. It works with subscription services like Google Play Music, Pandora, YouTube Red and Spotify. Tell Google Home to play some music to randomly let it play anything based on your earlier music choices. You can also specify a playlist or album or play a genre or artist. If you like a music in a service like YouTube Red, then you can like or dislike it by saying “Ok Google, Thumbs Up!” Set the default music streaming service inside the Google Home app.
If you want to listen to a podcast, tell Google Home to play it by saying, “Ok Google/Hey Google, Play This American Life”. If you missed an episode, tell it to “Play previous episode” after telling it to play the podcast.
Get the news by telling Google Home to “Catch me up” or “Listen to the news”. Set up what news it plays from the Home app.
Any Android app that supports casting content can play audio from that app. I prefer the Pocket Cast app for podcasts. This also works from the Chrome browser and Chromebooks.
Users can also work with their Google Calendar or with Google maps for important information like commute times or accident warnings on the way. A user will have to use a regular Google account and NOT a G-Suite or Google Apps account to hear about appointments, add appointments or add items to a To Do list.
The fact that Google Home doesn’t work with my Google Apps account is the most frustrating and annoying aspect of the Google universe. They always limit G-Suite/Google Apps accounts by not adding the newest features to these accounts.
Users with home automation devices like Hue lights, a Nest thermostat or Logitech Harmony TV remote can also control these using Google Home. Any device that’s compatible with Smart Things will work. Learn more about home automation from Google’s site. It’s handy to tell the Google Home to turn on the TV or dim the lights. Also, Google Home works with IFTTT so you can create a lot of controls not already built in. Search for Google Assistant on the IFTTT site.
There’s a large collection of other cool functions Google Home can do. Play a trivia game by saying, “I’m feeling lucky.” Search for information about movies, sports, restaurants, movies or a slew of other fun or even boring facts. Get dictionary definitions or calculate complex math problems. Google Home even has some fun hidden skills that it will tell you if you just ask. Put one in the kitchen and use it as an egg timer or create a shopping list.
Google Home vs. Amazon Echo
Comparing Google Home and Amazon Echo makes sense since they’re so similar in function and form. Google Home looks a lot better than Amazon Echo in all its forms. The Echo Tap, Dot or the original Echo all look more industrial. Google Home looks like the designers planned for users to put it out in the open. Add the colorful bases and Google Home fits your room’s decor better than the boring black or white Echo.
If you don’t like the Google Home’s design, then you’re out of luck. At least with Amazon Echo, you get a few options. The original Amazon Echo stands taller than the Google Home and takes up about the same space on a shelf or desk. The smaller Tap fits in a bag and goes on the road thanks to the battery. The Dot hides better and plugs into a set of speakers for better sound. That makes the Echo more versatile than the Google Home.
The design and look don’t matter if they don’t work. Amazon’s ecosystem of Skills are way ahead of the Google Home because it came to market earlier. If you can think of it, someone’s probably created a Skill that can do it with Echo.
Google Home comes with more limits. It doesn’t enjoy as many features as Echo has Skills. Also, it doesn’t work with Google Apps accounts (G Suite). If your Google account comes with an email address of anything other than XXX@gmail.com, then you can’t manage your calendar, contacts or To-Do lists. That’s incredibly annoying. It means that Amazon Echo works with such Google accounts better than Google’s own device. This practice has to end! I’ve yet to hear a good reason to limit such users.
Both devices will recognize your voice incredibly well. Both devices will also accidentally respond when you don’t want them to. Amazon Echo seems more sensitive and responds to words in TV shows or audio recordings that I’m listening to more than Google Home does.
One of the biggest problems comes from the vast array of functions both devices can do. It’s hard to remember all that Echo or Home can do. You have to train yourself to remember the commands and to use them. I often find myself picking up my phone to do things I could easily do with Google Home or Amazon Echo.
The Google Home costs less than the Amazon Echo, but more than Amazon Dot. The Tap and Home cost the same. Here’s the list of prices.
- Google Home – $129
- Echo – $179
- Tap – $129
- Dot – $50 or 6 for $250 (about $42 each when bought together)
Should you get a Google Home? If you’re a Google user and your account’s not tied to a school, work or personal domain account, then it’s a good option. It’s already excellent early on and will likely grow more useful as new features get added.
If you use a Google Apps account (also called G Suite), then don’t bother yet. Wait till Google opens it up to these kinds of accounts. If you really want a voice activated speaker, but want to use it with your G Suite or Google Apps account, then get the Echo, Dot or Tap. If you want to get the flavor of each server, try the Alexa Skill Testing Tool from Echoism. The only way to try the latest version of Google Assistant, which powers Home, is to try it on a Google Pixel or Pixel XL phone. You can see the older version using the OK Google command on other Android phones or tablets or from a Google Chrome browser. It’s not the same, but close.
In spite of the weaknesses of Google Home, I prefer it over Amazon Echo. Echo has more skills and plays my Audible audio books. However, Home looks more like a decoration and seems to find more obscure facts thanks to its connection with Google’s search engine. I also believe that it will improve and hopefully the limitation for Google G Suite users will get lifted.