Google is looking to embed itself in your home, in a bid to one-up Amazon.
In the growing world of voice-controlled smart speakers, Google has thrown down the gauntlet with its introduction of the Google Home, a Wi-Fi speaker, digital assistant, and smart-home controller similar to Amazon’s Echo. The Google Home brings Google’s search and voice-control expertise to the category, making this device especially compelling for people who have already entrusted their digital lives to the Google ecosystem.
What is Google Home? Google Home is Google’s entry into the smart home hub field. It is a small speaker tower that is activated via voice commands, can search the web, and perform other functions added by third-party Actions.
Why does Google Home matter? Google has been a proponent of AI and machine learning for a while. Google Home is the first part of what is likely to be the future of Google: On-demand access to personalized information.
Who does Google Home affect? Google home affects anyone who wishes to invest in the growing smart home market, especially if they are already heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem.
When is Google Home happening? Google Home was announced in May 2016 and was available for purchase in November. It’s now available online and in many electronics retail stores.
How do I start using Google Home? You can purchase Google Home online or at major electronics retailers. Using one doesn’t require a Google account, but having one is the only way to gain access to many of the features.
Google Home, a small speaker you can converse with using natural language, is an ambitious way to weave the company’s search engine and artificial intelligence into every fabric of your daily life. The company announced the new product today onstage at its I/O developers conference, and it will be available later this fall.
More than anything, Home represents Google’s answer to Amazon’s competing voice assistant Alexa and the myriad number of devices and services Alexa runs on and connects to. In a video released today, Google laid out how it imagines people will communicate with its software to do everything from play music in the morning and check the weather to changing dinner reservations and sending texts.
regularly updated to include new information and remove features from the list that have been added to Google Home’s capabilities. Since launch, Google has added shopping with Google Home, sending Netflix shows to Chromecast using your voice, Logitech Harmony support, multi-user support, voice calling, reminders and Bluetooth. Four features — sending directions to your phone, notifications, music alarms and — were added to the list.
Google Home, like Amazon Alexa, is a Wi-Fi connected smart home hub and digital assistant. Home is a small speaker tower that contains far-field microphones designed to pick up speech at a distance as well as touch controls, a microphone mute button, and lights that let you know when it’s listening.
There’s only a single speaker in Google Home, as compared to the two in the Amazon Echo, which can have an effect on how well noises at both the high and low ends of the spectrum sound. Google Home isn’t going to replace a high-end Bluetooth speaker, but it works fine for everything else.
Google Home is a host for Assistant, Google’s answer to Siri and Alexa. Unlike Siri, which is available on all currently supported iOS devices, Google Assistant is only available in Google Home, the Pixel phone, and inside the Google Allo app.
Google Assistant is able to perform most of the same tasks as Siri and Alexa, like checking the weather, searching the internet, and playing music, and is expanded through third-party Actions (similar to Alexa Skills).
Unlike Alexa Skills, which have to be manually added, Google Home Actions are all available right out of the box. There’s nothing to install, and as long as you know the Action’s key word you can use it right away.
There is one catch, however—there aren’t very many Actions available right now. So few, in fact, that the list of them in the Google Home app is just that: An A to Z list without categories or any way to search it. Google Home Actions are open to developers though, making it just a matter of time before the offerings expand.
How the Google Home works :
The Google Home uses Google Assistant, the voice-recognition system that’s also found on the new Google Pixel phone. The Home includes two built-in far-field microphones that are always listening in on your conversations, ready to leap into action when it hears the right trigger words. The Home will respond when you address it with either “Hey Google” or “OK Google” but not just plain “Google,” so you won’t accidentally trigger the device when you’re casually discussing your favorite Google searches over breakfast.
No buttons, dials, or switches mar the Home’s design, though a microphone mute button is hidden in the back. When you query it, four color LEDs light up to let you know that it hears you. The top of the device is touch sensitive; to turn the volume up or down, you touch it on its head and swipe your finger in a circle clockwise or counterclockwise while a ring of white LEDs indicates the volume level. We found the touch-sensitive top a little awkward to operate, preferring the Echo’s buttons and dial, but a person could get used to it.
Judging the Google Home as a speaker :
If you buy the Google Home for music, you have several music services to choose from. First off, all Homeowners get access to Google Play Music (free), Pandora (free and paid accounts), Spotify (paid accounts only), TuneIn for Internet radio, and YouTube Music (paid accounts only). Within the Home app you can select which service your system defaults to, but in use you can always specify which service you want the Home to access. Google’s free Play Music service isn’t as user-friendly as Amazon’s Prime Music for Alexa (which requires a $100-a-year Prime membership). It’s more like Pandora, in that you get mixes based on your artist or track request, rather than music solely by that artist. And after an update announced at I/O 2017, the Home is now a Bluetooth speaker, so you can stream music from your phone, just as you can do with the Echo (and the Tap, but not the Dot).
The Home can also work as a key part of a multi room audio system when you combine it with a Chromecast wireless media streamer (you have three of them to choose from: Chromecast, Chromecast Audio, and Chromecast Ultra). The Chromecast devices allow you to stream music or video to another device such as a powered speaker, an audio system, or a TV, and control it with your phone. Google Assistant can play the same music through all units simultaneously or different music in each room. In this way, the Google offering behaves more like a Sonos system than the Echo and Alexa do.
We tested the multiroom feature using one Home and one Chromecast Audio. With the Audio plugged into a TV, we were able to tell the Home to play music on the TV and to play the same music on both the TV and the Home at the same time, essentially creating a multiroom music experience similar to that of Sonos. Echo/Alexa owners can add multiples of the cheaper Echo Dot to their existing Bluetooth speakers or audio system, but the units won’t play the same music in every room, and you can’t ask the Echo in the kitchen to play music via the Dot in the living room—all of those restrictions make the Echo arrangement ineffective as a multiroom-audio system. Adding Chromecasts throughout your home costs less than buying multiple Sonos speakers, too, though Sonos works with more music services and has an easier-to-use app (and soon will be Alexa compatible). In our listening tests, we found the Home to be a decent speaker for rooms such as kitchens, dens, or bedrooms for casual listening, but it is not a speaker for critical listening, or for entertaining a roomful of people at a party.To find out how the Home and the Echo compare in sound quality, Wirecutter audio expert Brent Butterworth set up some blind-listening tests and borrowed the critical ears of our Los Angeles–based audio editors, Geoff Morrison and Lauren Dragan. We also ran some lab measurements to get a clearer idea of the devices’ technical performance and to better test how well the microphone arrays and voice-recognition systems separated the user’s voice from other sounds.
Complicating our blind test was the fact that the Google Home plays only material sourced through the Internet, which meant Brent would have to use voice commands to cue up the music for the test. Of course, the voice commands would reveal the speaker’s’ identities, so Geoff and Lauren listened to pink noise through Direct Sound Serenity II noise-isolating headphones while Brent told the speakers which tunes to play. On top of that, even though the speakers were hidden behind thin black fabric, the listeners would have been able to identify the speakers as their flashing lights shone through the material. Thus, Brent insisted that Geoff and Lauren each wear a special pair of “blind-testing glasses”—sunglasses covered with painter’s tape. The listeners were so well isolated that when the music started, he had to clap loudly to signal the listeners to remove the headphones. The two speakers’ coarse volume steps made it impossible to match their listening levels perfectly, but Brent was able to get the match within 0.43 decibel, which is reasonably close.
Geoff, Lauren, and Brent all ended up describing the sound of the two speakers much the same way. It was a Goldilocks-style dilemma: The Echo seemed to have almost no bass, so much of the drive and rhythm of the music was lost, and voices could sound harsh and sibilant. But the Home had a muffled midrange and treble, making voices harder to understand. Lauren summed up the group’s unhappiness when she concluded, “I … guess I’d prefer the sibilant one?” Considering that only Geoff picked the Home as his favorite, the Echo has the advantage, especially if you listen to a lot of talk radio programs. But anyone who wants voice command with good sound should get an Echo Dot and connect it to a better system.
Brent also ran some lab tests on the speakers to confirm what everyone heard. Because the Home had neither input jacks nor Bluetooth capability at the time of testing—which would have allowed it to accept test signals from an audio analyzer—Brent had to perform the tests using a pink-noise track sourced from Spotify. He measured each speaker from the same eight locations in his listening room and then averaged each set of eight measurements to minimize the effects that the acoustics of his listening room had on the speaker’s’ performance. He found, to his surprise, that the Home actually had stronger measured treble response, but that the Echo had much better response in the midrange, between 300 and 1400 Hz, which covers most of the range of the human voice.
A few other performance characteristics are worth noting. For starters, in our tests the Echo played +4.5 dB louder than the Home. In a bedroom or kitchen, such a difference probably doesn’t matter, but in a very large living room the Home might not sound loud enough. The Echo is a true omnidirectional speaker, too, so it will more easily fill a large space with sound. In contrast, the Home has a single, front-firing speaker driver with passive radiators on the side to reinforce the bass, and the sound seems even more muffled when you move to the sides and back of the speaker.
The measured frequency response curves of the Echo (blue trace) and the Home (green trace). Generally speaking, the flatter a line is, the better the speaker will sound. The Echo has much stronger response between 300 and 1400 Hz, which is where most of the sounds of human voices reside.