Google introduced a revamped version of its entry-level smart speaker at a press event in New York Tuesday: The new $49 Nest Mini speaker effectively replaces its Home Mini predecessor with bigger sound, a built-in machine learning chip for faster responses, ultrasound for proximity detection and the ability to pair 2 speakers for inexpensive stereo sound.
The Nest Mini pulls all of this off while staying true to the Home Mini’s size and shape, with a bit of a twist: Google decided to rely on 35% post-consumer plastic for the Nest Mini’s enclosure, and make the speaker’s fabric cover out of 100% recycled material derived from old plastic bottles.
The company also added a hook to the back to give consumers an option to wall-mount the Nest Mini. And in addition to the three existing colors (white, black and red), the Nest Mini is now also available in light blue (pictured above).
But the biggest two new features are the sound improvements, as well as the addition of on-device machine-learning. The latter is being enabled by an integrated machine learning chip, which is being tasked with identifying frequent queries, and then speeding up response times.
For instance, if a consumer frequently asks the Nest Hub to turn on their smart light bulbs, the device identifies this as a common scenario, and responds to it without sending any data at all to Google’s servers. “By the third or fourth time, it just executes this locally,” said Google Nest smart speaker product lead Mark Spates.
Asking for a Spotify stream or a podcasts obviously still requires the Nest Mini to request data from the cloud, but Spates explained that frequent requests could still be answered more quickly by doing voice command recognition locally. “We are bringing the Google Assistant down to the device itself,” he said.
The other big improvement is the sound: The Google Home Mini always sounded good for its size, but wasn’t exactly the speaker you’d want to listen to music on for longer periods of time. The new version does sound a lot better, and features twice as powerful bass sound. To pull this off, the Nest team to completely redesign the speaker’s internal driver. Google Nest smart speaker product manager James Howarth told Variety during a recent interview that this process took “many, many” months, during which his team built around 25 prototypes for the new device.
To more accurately test these prototypes, Google actually developed its own audio testing suite. This allowed the company to iterate more quickly than it would have been able to with third-party tools, explained Spates. “We turned audio programming into a software problem.”
One of the areas that required testing was the recycled material developed for the Nest Mini’s fabric cover. To get that material mix just right, the team working on the speaker tested dozens of fabric swatches. Even changing the dyes could impact the test results, explained Google Nest lead audio engineer Frances Kwee.
Another big boon for music lovers is the ability to pair two Nest Minis for stereo sound. Previously, Google only allowed this type of functionality for its high-end Home Max speaker. Now, consumers can get true stereo sound for less than $100. With that feature, Google is effectively catching up with Amazon’s smart speakers, which has been allowing stereo pairing for its $50 Echo Dot for some time.
Google also added two LED lights to indicate where to tap to change the Nest Mini’s volume — something that previously was a bit of a literal hit-or-miss process. The twist: These two LEDs only light up when your hand is between 1 and 6 inches away from the speaker. To do this, the Nest Mini automatically adds inaudible ultrasound frequencies to any audio it is speaking. These ultrasounds bounce off your hand, which then gets detected by the device’s 3 internal microphones.
Most of the hardware features of the new Nest Mini had leaked in recent weeks. However, the leakers did get one detail wrong: Unlike previously reported, the Nest Mini doesn’t come with a line-out port. Asked about this, Spates argued that there were already other options for consumers to connect their existing speaker systems.
That may be true, but Google also removed one of those options when it discontinued the Chromecast Audio adapter last year. Spates said that the company was still evaluating options to serve consumers who want to bring casting or voice control to their stereo systems. “The team is thinking about how to do that,” he said.
Google also used Tuesday’s event to introduce an updated Google Wifi system, which now features endpoints that effectively double as a Nest Mini smart speaker, complete with casting and far-field microphones for voice control. In conversations with Variety, company representatives made it clear that its hardware efforts are about far more than just selling routers and speakers.
“We are going from mobile computing to ambient computing, and the shift is happening in the home,” said Spates. But while most consumers just own a single phone, the home was about a multitude of devices working together, he argued. “There is no one device that runs your home.”