Editor's note: This is a review of the Google Home in the US. It is not currently available in the UK, but we've now imported one and we'll be updating this review soon with our UK findings. Stay tuned.
You’ve heard of the Amazon Echo, right? Google Home is the search giant’s attempt to muscle in on that action. It’s a voice-activated, internet-connected home speaker that can play music, control smart home gadgets, offer answers from Google Search, and deliver personalised information from the Google services you use daily.
The Google Home speaker’s secret weapon is the new AI-powered Google Assistant, which can offer contextual, conversational replies to your query. Is there an Echo in here? Or does Google’s deferential interpretation trump Amazon’s original?
Related: Siri vs Google Now vs Cortana
Google Home feels far less imposing than the Amazon Echo. It’s lightweight and much shorter, albeit a little fatter on the bottom end. It’s R2-D2 to the Echo’s Darth Vader. However, unlike R2, Google Home can’t roam the galaxy wirelessly because it needs to be plugged in at all times, just like the Echo.
There’s only one actual button on the Google Home, which turns the microphone on and off. Pressing it will serve up voice confirmation from the Google Assistant.
The entire top surface of the Google Home is touch-sensitive. It can be tapped to pause and restart musical playback, or long-pressed to activate the microphone. You can alter the volume by swiping clockwise or counter-clockwise in a circular motion. This feels a bit laggy at times, though.
Speaking of the microphones, there are only two far-field mics within the Google Home, compared to seven on the Echo, but I can’t say I noticed a difference when issuing commands. When Google Assistant is summoned with an “OK, Google” (or “Hey, Google”) command, a circular light arrangement – in the Google logo colours, of course – rotates in the centre of the touch-sensitive surface.
Home also offers more customisation options than its rival. The speaker grille, which sits at the bottom of the device, can be twisted off and swapped out, with a number of alternate colours available from the Google Store. The idea is to ensure it fits the décor of your home.
As with all smart home hubs and personal assistants it seems like I'm in a perennial state of setup, as I progressively discover new skills (Google calls them Actions) and add more apps and gadgets into the mix.
However, as far as the initial setup goes, it was super-smooth sailing and completed within a few minutes.
It’s just a case of plugging in, downloading the Google Home app (formerly Google Cast) and asking the app to search for the new Google Home. You’ll give it a name (i.e. Living Room Home), configure your Wi-Fi network, connect your Google Account, and off you go. The app, as well as an insert inside the box, provides a list of some of the things you’re able to accomplish by starting a sentence with “OK, Google.”
If you also have an Android device with hands-free “OK, Google” voice commands enabled, you may accidentally activate both devices via a single command. You’d think there’d be a way to prioritise them when both are within earshot.
When comparing audio playback on Home and Echo, both have their pros and cons. Google Home offers meatier bass and a more rounded sound, but the Echo goes much louder. Google Home’s 100% volume wasn’t as loud as I’d expected it to be, and once you get to about 70% it starts to feel a little distorted.
It doesn’t come close to the sound quality of my $200 UE Boom 2, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be at the much lower price of $129.99. It’s not a gadget you’d want as the primary speaker at a house party, but for general, everyday use it's fine.
One thing I enjoyed about using Google Home was the ability to make requests while music was playing. Firstly, I didn’t feel like I had to yell commands over the audio as I sometimes have to with Alexa. Secondly, instead of pausing playback completely, Google Home just lowers the volume to a moderate level while it completes your request.
Pairing with services such as Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube and TuneIn was easily accomplished within the Home app, which also enables you to choose a preferred provider. There’s a quirky range of voice commands for accessing news, playlists and podcasts from all of those services, too.
Unfortunately, there’s no ability to pair a Bluetooth device, as you can with the Echo. I missed this functionality, as I often pair my phone with the Echo when listening to sources without Google Cast support. Thankfully, those are few and far between these days, but it might peeve Apple Music users, for example.
It's also possible to link multiple Google Homes and Chromecast Audio speakers together to enable a multiroom experience. Home and Chromecast Audio are affordable enough to work as a voice-activated alternative to Sonos.
There are a few advantages Google thinks Home has over Amazon’s device. Firstly, it uses the power of Google Search over Bing. That’s a clear win.
Secondly, Google already knows way more about you than Amazon does – something Home uses to its advantage in many ways.
The Assistant can also call upon all the information from Gmail to announce flight bookings and concert ticket reservations when checking your calendar. Likewise, it can update you on shipping details from stuff you’ve ordered online, or bring up your daily commute, through information you’ve added to Google Maps.
For some reason you can only link one Google account at a time. I have Gmail for work and another for personal use, and would really like to be able to access information from both while using Google Home.
Thirdly, Google believes Assistant trumps Alexa thanks to both of the above, plus the ability to process conversational, contextual requests. For example, you can ask “OK, Google, how far away is the moon?” and follow it up with “OK Google, how long does it take to get there?” Assistant knows where "there" is.
Similarly, you can ask where the nearest pharmacy is and follow it up with “When do they close?” Or enquire, “Who was Luke Skywalker?” and follow up with “Who was his best friend?” and boom! Not only do you get the correct answer of Biggs Darklighter, but also a little synopsis of how they became such good mates.
That’s not to say Google Home is always right, but this is the type of stuff that completely stumps Alexa into a non-response. So in this respect Google Assistant feels a little farther along.
This is largely thanks to the manufacturer’s 20-odd years of indexing every shred of worthwhile information on the internet and some stellar work in the machine learning department. However, it’s still very early days and Assistant isn’t quite at the level it is on the Google Pixel phones just yet.
Those wow-inducing demos we saw showing users asking Assistant for movie showtimes and following through all the way to booking a ticket through Fandango? You can’t do that on Home yet. Nor can you float a restaurant recommendation and then make a reservation through Open Table.
I assume that’s coming, though.
This brings us to third-party support. New Conversation Actions are being added all the time, including Netflix, Uber, Dominos, WebMD, Todoist, HuffPo and WSJ in the last couple of weeks. However, it’s pretty slim pickings compared to the flourishing Alexa Skills ecosystem right now.
Google Chromecast or Android TV owners will probably get a kick out of requesting a Netflix show from Google Home. Seconds later it’ll begin playback on the television set, complete with the ability to pause, fast-forward, rewind and go to the next episode. Those folks can send their Google Photos to a Cast-enabled display or watch YouTube videos, too.
New Actions are linked through the Settings section of the Home app, so it’s important to ensure you always have the latest version installed on your phone.
Elsewhere the Assistant and Alexa offerings are quite similar. You can get weather reports, news updates, sports scores and stock price updates to start your day. There’s plenty of information on local businesses, plus the ability to add stuff to lists, set timers, convert measurements and answer pretty much any question that pops into your head. There isn’t much in it, but Google Home does it with a little more personality than Alexa.
Google also seems pretty pleased with itself over the trivia feature, and there’s a ton of Easter Eggs, which I’ll leave you to discover.
Both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home want to be the voice-activated central hub for your smart home. This requires compatibility with a wide range of smart home gadgets.
Right now Google Home is only compatible with Nest (of course), Philips Hue and Samsung’s Smart Things gadgets. It will need to boost that roster significantly if it wants to challenge Amazon and, indeed, Apple in this department.
We have to give Google a chance to pull in more partners, because this took Amazon a while too.
I can wholeheartedly recommend a purchase of Google Home or the Amazon Echo. Neither will let you down and both are only just scratching the surface of their potential.
However, if you’re choosing between the Echo and Google Home, there are a few things that could swing it either way.
The Echo currently has more available skills and better support for third-party gadgets and services. Alexa is also way further along in its development and you can benefit from Bluetooth connectivity.
However, Home is significantly cheaper and better looking, and it has the huge advantage of Google Search. Assistant, conceivably, has a higher ceiling than Alexa, thanks to its ability to hold a conversation and provide contextual responses.
The choice could also come down to how comfortable you are with either of these data-hungry companies having an ear in your most intimate space. Personally, I’m more comfortable with Amazon than Google. Maybe that’s misguided, but it’s my hunch.
The Amazon Echo and Alexa maintain their crown for now, but the cheaper Google Home and the powerful Assistant have the potential to be better over time.