It’s finally here, the smart speaker that Google announced in May at its I/O conference. And the biggest thing to know is that it’s priced to beat its main competitor, at $129 to the Echo’s $179. I got a brief chance to mess around with the Home last week at Google’s campus in Mountain View, and my takeaway is that it has a decent shot at giving the Echo a run for its money.
Let’s start with how it looks: I think it’s basically kind of cute. It has a sloped, touch-sensitive top with some hidden dancing lights underneath it. The speaker grille on the bottom pops off with a little tug — it’s held on with magnets — and you can purchase different colors to make it match your decor.
If you think it’s not cute at all, I won’t disagree. As far as Google’s design decision, it says Home is designed to be invisible and inoffensive in your home. It’s meant to sit on a kitchen counter and blend in. So when Google employees hear the joke about it looking like a giant air freshener, they own it. Air fresheners do the same thing: sit there, mostly ignored, performing a function.
Of course the function that Google Home provides is acting as an always-listening (but only when you say the “OK Google” keyword) speaker connected to the Google Assistant. It can do most of the sorts of things you’d expect from a smart assistant these days: set a timer, play some music, answer simple questions.
For Google, the test is whether it can beat out the surprisingly successful Echo in a few key areas. The first was price. The second is hardware. I think it looks better, and it definitely sounds better to my ears. There are three decently sized speakers underneath that grille, enough to fill a room but not enough to really add much bass. Google decided to use a custom AC adapter instead of USB, which I will grumble about but ultimately not worry about.
Another notable difference: Google Home has only two microphones in it. The Echo has seven. Multiple microphones are important for beam-forming, which allow a device to recognize what direction your voice is coming from and pay more attention to it than to the noise surrounding it. Google claims that it uses complex machine learning algorithms in the cloud to allow two microphones to do the same work as seven.
I’ve only had limited tests, but in a small room with a couple Home speakers in it, the one that was further away always stopped listening after I said “OK Google.” It was designed from the start to work in multiple rooms.
Unfortunately, it is not designed from the start to work with multiple Google accounts. It has to be tied to just one — so your work calendar or your roommate’s music library is going to be a hassle to get on this.
There’s a mute button on the back and you can just tap the top to pause or play music. You can also drag your finger around the top like it’s a wee little rotary phone to adjust the volume — and little white lights will show you the current volume level. There are spinning colored lights for when it’s listening to and processing your question.
Google set up Home to work with a bunch of Google ecosystem stuff: it plays YouTube music by default, it can give you a summary of your day that combines your calendar and reminders and news and weather from the web, and it also works with Chromecast. When you ask it to play a specific video on your TV, it’ll activate your Chromecast and start playing that video. For now, it only works with YouTube, but more services are coming.
It also works with Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. You can set a default service in the Android or iPhone app so you don’t have to keep appending “on Spotify” to your queries. That app will be called “Google Home,” it will also control Chromecasts going forward.
Home is most impressive when you start pushing the boundaries of what you expect a smart assistant to be able to figure out. In the demo I tried, we asked it to “Play that one song from Frozen” and it played that song — you know the one. Then we asked it to play a different version (again, we never said “Let It Go”) and it pulled that off, too. We asked it how to defrost a chicken and it read the relevant section from a trusted cooking site.
That’s all great, but it’s not quite enough. One of the reasons that the Echo is so interesting is that it has “skills” that let it work with any number of third-party devices and services. Google Home can talk to some smart devices — Nest, Hue, and SmartThings — and some services like Uber, but developers can’t add their services to Home without setting up a partnership with Google. The company promises me that will change later this year.
You can preorder Google Home today, it goes on sale November 4th.