Google Home review: A promising start
- That sense of wonder as you turn on Netflix with your voice
- Good sound quality
- Easy setup
- A growing range of supported platforms
Could be better
- No support for Google Play Movies
- Can't answer a lot of queries
- Occasional quirks with language
Google has started the smart speaker revolution in Australia, but it still has a way to go before it becomes ubiquitous.
The ultimate example of science fiction's take on a smart, digital assistant to manage your life is undoubtedly Iron Man's J.A.R.V.I.S.
Able to respond to every whim of the billionaire playboy Tony Stark (in the dulcet tones of Paul Bettany, no less), J.A.R.V.I.S. can not only control practically every element of Stark's life, but also anticipate his needs, allowing him to suit up to become a super hero.
Google Home is the closest thing Australia has to J.A.R.V.I.S., but it's going to be a long time before any of us suit up in iron armour to save the world. While Home manages to do a great many things well, it's also evident that this is a first generation product, with plenty of room for improvement.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Google Home speaker's design is how compact it is. Taking the device out of the box, I was honestly shocked at its size, expecting something a bit closer to the Sonos Play:1 speaker in size. The Google Home has a diameter of 96.4mm and stands just 142.8mm high.
Around the base of the plastic white speaker comes a replaceable grey metal and fabric base, which covers the Home's speakers. While internationally, you can choose from a selection of different-coloured base styles, in Australia you can currently only choose Carbon, with a Copper option "coming soon". Changing the base is incredibly simple. It magnetically attaches, with the hold so secure that you wouldn't even realise it was changeable when looking at it.
There's not much going on in the way of connections, with only a single power plug port on the bottom. There's a single button on the back of the speaker to mute the microphone, while a touch-sensitive panel on the sloped top of the speaker allows you to adjust volume easily, as well as see when the Home is listening to your commands. If you hate saying "Okay, Google" over and over, you can also press and hold the top of the speaker to activate the mic.
Also on the top of the speaker are the two discreet, small holes for the far-field microphones, which can pick up your voice from a distance, even with music playing, in order to hear you call out the command line "Okay, Google". It's impressive how well the microphones work, picking up a whisper from across the room.
The Google Home speaker is designed to act as the central hub of your smart home, and as you might expect, that means being able to do a lot of things well. First and foremost, Google Home is a speaker and it needs to sound good.
On this front, Google's speaker handles itself well. Because of its size, it's never going to make the foundations of your home shake as it belts out the deepest bass notes, but rather impressively, it doesn't distort at maximum volume.
Home is designed to integrate with digital streaming services – currently, it works with Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube Music and TuneIn Radio – and as such, there's no real support for high-resolution audio to keep the audiophiles happy. Compared to the audio quality of a Sonos Play:1, the Home speaker does sound a little fuzzier, missing some of the high-end clarity that Sonos is able to deliver.
But for the vast majority of people who will place a Home speaker next to their bed, it's a perfectly adequate option, capable of playing at loud volumes without distortion.
Digital assistant performance
Of course, the real selling point of the Google Home speaker is that promise of a digital assistant like J.A.R.V.I.S. On this front, Google Home offers a really solid base to build from but also proves that there's still a long way to go before this technology becomes completely ubiquitous.
When you first set up the speaker, you are given the ability to tie it to your Google account through the Google Home app (which is also used to set up and control Chromecast devices). You can then set the speaker up to recognise your own voice so that you can get daily updates about your day (from your main Google Calendar), find out about the day's weather and get news updates from a range of Australian and international sources.
Because it's connected to the Internet 24/7, you can use the speaker to do menial tasks for you like solve quick maths problems, translate phrases to other languages, define words or get sports results.
And the reality is that for these basic tasks, the Google Home is fantastic. Following a recipe and quickly need to know how many millilitres are in a quart? Ask Google. Curious about how your Telstra shares are going? Ask Google. Need to know how many calories are in an orange? Google's got your back.
But the promise of Google's voice assistant is so much more. Using the power of Google, you can find out almost anything you can discover on the Internet, at least when the service works. It appears that Google Home uses featured snippets – those big boxes that sometimes pop up at the top of your search results – to answer queries. But if your result doesn't have a featured snippet, Google Home's friendly assistant voice will tell you that it doesn't know how to help you just yet.
And that's all well and good the first few times. But as you explore the capabilities of your new smart speaker and discover that really, it doesn't come close to being the assistant you dreamt it would be, you can't help but feel disappointed.
Want to play a podcast? Sorry, it can't do that just yet. Want to turn off your TV after watching something on Netflix? Sorry, it can't do that just yet. Want to get updates from your work calendar and your personal calendar? Sorry, it can't do that just yet.
That frustration is amplified when you start moving into the smart home control space too. I set up a Philips Hue light globe in my bedroom and called the room "bedroom". To control it, I need to specify my "bedroom". If you say "my room" you'll be told that it can't control that just yet.
Even the most mind-blowingly awesome features are tinged with not-quite-so-perfect aspects too. With a Chromecast Ultra plugged into the TV, you can verbally command your Google Home to start playing any show on Netflix and it will happen, as if by magic. But if you need to pause the show to go and grab a snack, Google's assistant will leave you dazed and confused, throwing commands at it until you eventually give up and reach for your phone to control the Chromecast.
Of course, all of these hurdles will undoubtedly be solved via software updates in the future. The product is less than a year old and Google will be taking lessons from every voice command thrown at it.
Smart home control performance
One of the key selling points of the Google Home is the open platform it supports to control third-party devices. That obviously includes Chromecast and Chromecast-enabled devices, but it also extends to smart home products too.
Among the long list of supported platforms is Philips Hue light globes, Belkin's WeMo ecosystem and Nest products, along with a wide range of others. It also integrates with IFTTT, which can help you work around some missing platforms for automation.
To Google's credit, connecting third-party devices is remarkably simple through the Home app. I set up a Philips Hue hub and light globe and all that was really required was a single button press on the Philips Hue hub's body. Once the globe was connected to the network (and the firmware updated), I was able to simply control the light by commanding Google to turn on and off the lights in the bedroom.
Of course, if you have a wider range of products, you'll need to spend a bit of time setting up scenes and groups of lights to fully take advantage of Google Home's system.
It's still not 100% seamless, though. As mentioned above, while it may seem obvious to me that when I say "my room" and "my bedroom" I mean the same thing, obviously Google hasn't quite made the connection.
Looking through the list of compatible third-party devices, the majority are tied to smart lighting. The ecosystem is still young, but you would hope that we'd see integration with platforms like Insteon and Z-Wave for control of everything from blinds to ceiling fans, as well as air conditioners, smart door locks and security systems.
The easter eggs
To be honest, while I've been using the speaker to play music and control my home's lighting, by far the most fun aspect of the new speaker – especially during the initial test phase – has been trying to find the easter eggs that Google has hidden in there to add personality to the device.
Ask the speaker what the meaning of life is and it will regale you with a long definition of life in humans and animals, before quipping at the end, "Oh, and 42."
Feeling patriotic? Hit Google with an "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" and it will dutifully respond with "Oi! Oi! Oi!". My kids fell in love with the idea of asking Google a very, very, very funny joke, to which Google responded dutifully (though I needed to explain why each joke was funny to them). Ask Google "How's the serenity?" and it replies, "Heaps of serenity."
Of course, for every humorous easter egg, there's plenty missing. Google can't explain drop bears but it can tell you how far away the local Maccas is. Call Google a flamin' galah and it will have no idea what you're talking about.
I expect that over time, Google will help the Home device become even more Australian and understand even more of our cultural identity. But for the launch window at least, it's been painted on with a fairly broad brush.
Google is at a definite advantage in Australia with the Google Home smart speaker. It's been launched almost six months before Apple's HomePod will be released and Amazon's Alexa – the de facto leader in the US – is nowhere to be found in Australia.
But despite the head start, it's still abundantly clear that this is a market in its infancy. The brains behind the platform still have a long way to go before it becomes the centralised hub that digitally helps you with every aspect of your life.
The Google Home speaker is not J.A.R.V.I.S., but there's still plenty to like about it. As a speaker, it does a good job of playing back music and it can be useful for getting a quick snapshot of your day or the latest news headlines.
The fact that you can set up the speaker with up to six Google accounts is fantastic, allowing multiple users to take advantage of personalised responses. It would be even better if Google launched its Family Link service so that kids under 13 could really take advantage of it, but I expect that will come in the not too distant future.
On the downside, it's frustrating that you can't combine two calendars to one account. I don't think it's uncommon that I have a work and a personal calendar, and while Google can share that information, Home will only read out events from the main calendar of a single account.
The fact that the speaker works with Netflix and Stan, but not Google Play Movies, is mind-boggling too. You have to hope that we'll see that integration introduced soon.
There's an argument that there's an ongoing privacy issue when giving Google another access point to your personal information and it's a legitimate point. But that same argument can be applied to all of Google's products. For the vast majority of people, small sacrifices of anonymous private information is a worthy price to pay for the convenience of voice control.
It will be exciting to see how many companies jump on board with Google Home's technology in the coming years. Within a week of having the Home speaker, I've already started planning out replacing all my light bulbs and researching smart ceiling fan controls, smart door locks and power management devices to take advantage of the speaker's skills.
At under $200, the speaker feels like good value, although a lot of that value is placed in anticipated improvements, rather than how it performs right now. That said, if you are thinking about picking up a speaker and portability isn't an issue, then it's hard to see why you wouldn't opt for a smart speaker like this.
It may not be J.A.R.V.I.S. yet, and it may never be. But even J.A.R.V.I.S. started somewhere, and it eventually became Vision. Let's hope for a similar development.
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