I recently invited Google into my living room. It's in the form of Google Home, a small round device about five inches tall and three and a half inches in diameter with flashing lights on the top.
Google Home provides many features that are already available on the Amazon Echo, which was released 18 months ago. Google Home is less expensive than the full size Echo, but much more expensive then the smaller sized Dot (about the size of a hockey puck).
Google Home uses the Google Assistant to help you play music, automate your home and answer your little (or big) life questions. It's built in text to speech engine lets you speak commands which it responds to.
Google has learned from the best-of-the-best that fancy packaging starts you off to a good experience. Setup is a snap, and carried out from the (newly renamed) Google Home App on your mobile device.
There is no need to train the device with your voice by repeating a series of statements, and does not seem like there is a way. You do need to enter your Google Account, specify the WiFi network, and all else is taken care of. The software is smart enough to use the location services of your phone to setup where the Google Home is (after confirming). Echo setup is more involved.
The colorful flashing lights on the top of the device are fun and whimsical. There are a couple of patterns to watch for. Alternate flashing red, green, blue and yellow lights lets you know a request is in process. White lights on a circular pattern indicate volume level. Four orange lights tell you the device is in mute mode, and is not listening for the wakeword (which is "Ok Google").
Although Google Home is controlled by your voice 99% of the time, there are a couple of controls to notice. Importantly, the Mute button on the back side, turns off the ability for the device to always listen for the wake word.
Touch Sensitive Pad
On the top of the device, the touch sensitive pad works well. It serves to control the volume by sliding your finger across the surface in a circle. You can use your voice to raise or lower the volume, as well as to set it to a discreet level between 1 and 10. A tap serves to toggle stop or play functionality. I like the ability to Tap the top of the device to immediately quiet it. These devices are great, but there are times when all you want to do is shut them up (this goes for Alexa too!) You can always say "Ok Google, stop". It works, but is not as fast as being near the device and tapping.
The First Surprise
What came to me as a big surprise is that Google Home does NOT operate as a Bluetooth speaker. Instead, it uses the proprietary Google Chromecast standard to playback audio. This is pretty well supported for mobile devices.
However, desktop computers do not support Chromecast very well, in my testing. I was unable to stream audio from the Surface Pro tablet running Windows 10. Even when I started up the Chrome web browser, I could not get the audio of my web content to be cast to Google Home. I was able to cast to my first generation Chromecast. I was able to control the volume of Google Home through the Casting feature of Chome. I was able to start and stop the stream of music (already) playing on Google Home.
On a positive note, there is no need to pair the chromecast, as must be done with Bluetooth. However, not having Bluetooth support feels as bad as not putting a headphone jack on a mobile phone!
The device sounds pretty good. I think the full size Echo still sounds much better and can fill a room better. I did not have much of a problem with the voice recognition. It has two microphones compared to the Echo's seven. I spoke from a noisy room, and it was still able to respond appropriately. I think the full size Echo sounds better and can fill a room with fuller sound.
Casting Video Via Voice
To me, the "Killer Feature" is Chromecast integration. You probably already know about this slick $35 streaming device that came out in July 2013. You ask Google Home to play videos and it will automatically start your television, at the same time it sets the input to your Chromecast and then plays the video. You control playback with voice commands through Google Home too. I had a lot of fun controlling my YouTube videos with voice.
With Google Home and a Chromecast working together you can say "Ok Google play music videos on Chromecast". Boom! Your video will immediately playback. This is a great integration point, and oddly, one that Amazon does not yet support between Echo and their (comparable) FireTV. Although, they have built in Alexa support on the FireTV, but is not hands free.
In a brilliant display of marketing, Google lets you buy a replacement base in a different color. It is easily switchable (you need to unplug the power cord though, taking it offline). There are six colors to choose from and cost either $20 for the fabric base or $40 for metal base. I have a feeling this will be like mobile phone cases, that people will purchase several and switch between them for different occasions. It even prompted Amazon to announce a Dot case, with six colors and costs $15. The Echo devices now come in either matte black or white. Google Home is just the white cream color, the top half of which you cannot change (well, without paint at lest).
I like Google Home. I think it is a great device. There are features it has which I think are better than Alexa. There are also features Alexa has that I think are better than Google Home. Predictably, if you have embraced the Google ecosystem, Google Home works especially well.
The thing that excites me the most is the ability to add third party extensions. This is not yet available, but coming by the end of the year. Google says they will have a full SDK and allow third party developers to add their own extensions. Alexa has this and boasts over 4,000 skills available. This functionality excites me the most about both of these devices.
What I especially like is competition in a market! This product gives reason to Amazon to make a better product, and vice versa! In the end, it is win-win for us, the consumer.
Anybody have any thoughts on Google Home or Alexa? Leave a comment.