The battle for smart speaker supremacy is well and truly on, with entries from Amazon, Apple and Google all vying for not only your buying dollar but also control of your smart home ecosystem now and into the future. All three contenders are well aware that whichever platform you buy into now is likely to be the one that you'll stick with for years to come.
Google's smaller smart speaker, the Google Home Mini has been available in Australia for some time now, but it's only relatively recently that we've seen a near-complete suite of challengers from Amazon, as well as Apple's much more expensive and iOS-exclusive HomePod. Against its heavyweight challengers, how does Google's smallest speaker compare?
Functional but bland design
Small enough to conceal behind furniture if you don't like its style
Only supports Bluetooth connections for streaming audio
Google's full-sized Google Home speaker is an entirely functional device with an equally functional design, which I guess is the very polite way of saying that, as a piece of your home decor, it's rather dull.
The Google Home Mini shares a design philosophy with the full Google Home, but there's a distinct sense of playfulness in its shrunken design and choice of three colour designs. I tested one with the more sedate chalk finish, but the charcoal and especially the coral have their appeal too, depending on your home decor choices.
As a smaller speaker, measuring in at just 42mm high with a diameter of 98mm, you could pretty much hide the Google Home Mini anywhere you pleased. The included 1.5m power cable gives you plenty of scope to stash it just about anywhere.
Physical controls are limited to just a single switch, which controls the onboard microphone. Switch it off, and the Google Home Mini is just another small Bluetooth speaker. Leave it on, and it's a much more intelligent device.
One thing you don't get with the Google Home Mini is any way to send audio to it that doesn't involve Bluetooth because there's no inline physical connection. That does play into Google's strategy with the Pixel 2's lack of a headphone jack, I suppose, but it still feels like an omission that could have given the Google Home Mini a little more flexibility.
Like the full sized Google Home, the Google Home Mini features an array of far-field voice activated microphones. As with all things Google, the command phrase by default is "OK Google", although you can also tap the top of the Google Home Mini to kick the microphones into gear.
Tapping the sides of the Google Home Mini will lower and raise the volume, although being circular, this can involve a little trial and error if you're not looking at the location of the power cable relative to where you're tapping.
360-degree audio is pretty lacklustre
Does sound better than the Echo Dot, though
Fully compatible with Google Assistant and a wide swath of other smart home devices
Apple has set a high bar for audio performance in a smart speaker with the HomePod, and that's a vault that the Google Home Mini doesn't even come near to clearing.
Now, you'd expect that given the gulf in pricing between the two devices, because a Google Home Mini will only set you back around $79, where a HomePod will sting your wallet to the tune of $499.
For your $79, you do get 360 degree audio, but it's rather flat and lifeless, with very little bass to speak of. For simple podcast listening, the Google Home Mini is fine, and if you're happy with FM-sounding radio quality, you might even use it as a desk speaker. However, its ability to get your party jumping is seriously limited, at least in a standalone way.
In straight line comparison terms, the more obvious competitor is Amazon's low-cost Echo Dot device. The Echo Dot has the advantage of allowing direct cabled connection to a better external speaker, and that's a big plus for Amazon's cheap speaker because its audio is notably worse than that of the Google Home Mini.
$79 isn't a bad price to pay for a simple Bluetooth speaker, but where the Google Home Mini can be a really compelling option is when you do set it up and pair it to your Google account, fully enabling its suite of smart features.
Where the Home Mini can't match up to the output of its bigger brother in audio terms, there are no such limitations when it comes to Google Assistant. It's the same smart experience across all devices, aided by the fact that Google knows just about everything about the world right now.
Obviously there's a tradeoff there, because you are setting up a live, Internet connected microphone in your home, and you've got to be comfortable with that tradeoff.
It's also true that while Google has a somewhat frightening grasp of the world's knowledge, that doesn't always equate to Google Home Mini being able to answer every question or query you might throw at it.
In some ways that's more frustrating, because while Siri on Homepod is rather stupid, at least she's only a little less stupid than Siri is on a regular basis. Google knows so much more, and it's annoying when you're simply told that Google Home can't answer your query yet.
Like Echo and HomePod devices, you can use Google Home Mini to control a range of smart home devices from a variety of manufacturers. It is worth checking if your current gear is Google Assistant-ready, although that's a rapidly expanding list of devices. I tested with a couple of WeMo light switches for the purposes of review.
Set-up was simple enough, although I did have to do some tweaking to the names of devices. By default with Wemo switches, Google Home wants to put in lengthy strings of words, such that one switch ended up being called "Wemo Light Switch Master Bedroom". Google Home Mini couldn't understand that, apologising each time I tried to switch the lights on. Changing the name of the switch to "Light 1" fixed the issue, but it shouldn't be an upfront problem anyway!
Google Home also allows for more complex settings depending on your needs and the quantity of smart home compatible devices in your home. It's also compatible with IFTTT, which means that even devices that technically don't have Google Home support can be crowbarred into a smart home setup.
Decent for the price, but there are better options out there
Still perfectly suitable as an affordable entry point into smart speakers
As a straight up Bluetooth speaker, the Google Home Mini is essentially unremarkable. You can do worse at this price point in terms of overall audio quality, but it's also not hard to do a whole lot better for only a little more money.
However, that's not the point. The Google Home Mini is a mostly charming, very affordable entry point into smart home integration and the use of Google's wider suite of services using only your voice. Naturally, you've got to be happy to be living within the Google ecosystem, but that's no different to living in an Apple or Amazon world.
Pricing and availability
The Google Home Mini typically sells in Australia for $79 in Chalk, Charcoal or Coral finishes.
If you're after a smart home speaker with more oomph than the Google Home Mini can deliver, the next most obvious port of call would be the full Google Home speaker.
Google also sells a beefier option in the significantly more expensive Google Home Max, but that's a product you'd have to source through a direct reseller because Google isn't selling it locally just yet.
If you're already using an iPhone and want really good audio quality, the Apple HomePod comes highly recommended, but as already noted, it's not in the same price orbit as the Google Home Mini.
Amazon's range of Alexa-enabled Echo speakers does stretch down into Google Home Mini territory via the Amazon Echo Dot. The Dot's audio quality is even worse than the Home Mini, although it's pretty effortless to plug in a cabled speaker to it if Alexa takes your fancy as a home control assistant.
Alex Kidman was the tech and telco editor at Finder and is now a freelance technology writer. He's been a technology writer with experience spanning more than 20 years, writing and editing at Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and many more. Alex has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New England and a serious passion for retro gaming.
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