Google is starting to sell Google Home, its internet-connected smart speaker, this coming Friday. Google Home is essentially the company’s answer to Amazon’s Echo, and the two devices share a lot of similar features. I’ve had a chance to play with a review unit of Google Home for a few days now, and compare it directly to an Amazon Echo speaker. Ten things stood out during those tests:
Google Home has bumping sound. Google Home sounds acceptable for the price; don’t expect high-end stereo sound from a $129 speaker. Compared to the Echo, the sound is a bit less well-defined, and at times a bit distorted, especially when the device speaks to you. However, the bass is remarkable for such a small package. In a way, the Echo is the speaker you’d want to listen to “Prairie Home Companion” to when working in your kitchen. Google Home is for cranking up that club hit while doing the dishes.
The microphones are remarkable. Amazon has made a big deal about the seven microphones integrated into its Echo speaker. Google Home just has two such microphones, but seems to perform just as good in most situations. In fact, in some cases, Google Home was even better at picking up commands uttered from places without direct line of sight. Only when playing loud music, the Echo performed notably better than Google’s counterpart.
Google Home looks neat. One of the downsides of Amazon’s Echo is that it isn’t exactly a beautiful piece of hardware. With its black cylindrical body, the Echo could easily double as a high-tech explosive device in an episode of “Homeland.” Google Home on the other hand is smaller, a bit chubby, and much more pleasant to look at. In fact, you can even swap out the speaker grill to add some color and match your interior design.
It’s great for music. Sound quality issues notwithstanding, Google Home is great for listening to music, especially if you have a subscription to one of the supported music services (right now, those include Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube Music and Pandora). The ability to ask for any song or album without having to dive into an app is great. Being able to at any point ask for the name of a song is pretty neat as well. Then again, the Echo does both just as well.
Google Home loves house parties. Music listening with Google Home gets even better if you also have Chromecast Audio streaming adapters connected to other speakers or stereo systems around your home. Just ask for a song to play on all of them — and you’ll have an instant house party. The Echo doesn’t support anything like it just yet.
Chromecast integration lives and dies with YouTube. Google Home also integrates with the company’s Chromecast video streaming adapter, making it possible to tell the device to “play the ‘Daily Show’ on TV.” This works well if you know what you want to watch, but the functionality really lives and dies with YouTube’s search capabilities. I once asked Google Home to play “the news” on TV, and it proceeded to play a video from a right-wing conspiracy program that included anything but real news. In another instance, I wanted to cheer up my kids with a “cute guinea pigs” video. Google Home proceeded to show a video of guinea pigs mating. Okay, Google, I guess it’s time we have that talk.
Google knows a lot. Google Home is also great at querying Google about basic factoids. Forgot how many votes there are in the electoral college, how long you can store raw beef in the fridge, or how many calories your Halloween candy has? Google Home has the answer, while Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant frequently has to pass.
“Okay Google” only triggers one answer. One of the issues I was worried about when setting up Google Home was that it uses the same so-called hot word as Google on my phone and desktop. “Okay Google” wakes up any of those devices to listen for voice input, which is why I feared that all of them would try to answer my question at the same time. However, my phone actually knows when Google Home is listening in as well, and simply informs me with an on-screen message that another device is answering.
Third-party services support yet to come. Over time, Google wants to add support for a number of third-party services to Google Home, which could, for example, make it possible to tell the device to play your favorite Netflix show on TV. Right now, very few third-party services actually work with the device. In addition to Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn, there is really only support for Uber, making it possible to call a car with your voice.
Google services are still limited. Even support for Google’s own services is still very spotty. Google Home can tell you about things on your calendar, but not add items to it yet. It can add things to your shopping list, and tell you about traffic to any destination, thanks to a tie-in with Google Maps. But it can’t read you your new emails yet, and also doesn’t support text messaging. Still, it seems like Google has big plans for the device. One example: Asked where my phone was, Google Home told me that device location was “not yet supported.”
So should you buy Google Home? If you already own a Chromecast or Chromecast audio adapter, the answer clearly is yes. Similarly, actively using Google services likely makes Google Home a much better match than Amazon’s Echo. The flip side of this is that Google already knows a lot about its users, and some may feel uneasy about the idea of offering up even more personal information with a voice assisted device like Google Home. If you want the search giant’s smarts at your disposal with a simple “okay Google” voice command, you really do need to be okay with Google.