Goodbye Alexa, Hey Google: Hands on with the Google Home
After months of waiting, Google Home finally launched in the UK at the beginning of April. Amazon's Echo has sat firmly unchallenged in the personal assistant market over here for what feels like forever whilst Google dragged their feet, but at long last there's a viable alternative for those who feel the Echo isn't quite up to the job.
When the Echo launched, I ordered one immediately; I had high hopes it'd easily match Google Now's capabilities on my phone and add just that little extra to my day. Unfortunately at the time (a few months back as of writing) I found while the Echo was quite good at some things, like music, most general knowledge questions, voice recognition and so on, others, like asking about the traffic between my location and work, or the distance and time from point A to B as a car would drive, rather than a crow would fly, etc, left me with the less than satisfying answers. It also wasn't able to buy items from Amazon at the time, one of the things I was looking forward to trying!
With the launch of Google Home in the US and news it'd be making its way over the pond soon, I made the choice to pack up the Echo and ship it back to Amazon.
I was definitely not expecting to wait so long, however when I did get an email notification to state it was in stock on the Google Store, I bought it immediately and haven't stopped using it since. Here are my thoughts on the device.
I find myself struggling to find an adequate comparison for the Home's shape; a Pear perhaps? A deformed tear-drop? In any case, the Google Home is quite a bit shorter and less imposing than the tall cylinder that is the Echo. Beyond that, though, they're not a million miles away from each other as design goes - both have LEDs on top and speakers on the bottom - admittedly I much prefer the sharp directional LEDs of the Echo to the opaque dots of the Home, but I didn't buy a digital assistant to stare at it, so that's not a big deal.
On the back of the Home sits a microphone mute button to disable the two internal mics and on top is touch area for physically interacting with the device; a swipe left or right will adjust the volume, a tap will start or stop what it's currently playing (very handy) and a long press will prompt it to listen for a command.
Behind a removable cover sit the multi-directional speakers; they offer a good, strong sound with adequate bass to comfortably fill an average sized room. The cover can be swapped for any number of alternatives to suit the decor around which the Home will sit, though the white top half is unfortunately not customisable. Replacement covers come in at £18 for material (such as the grey above) and £36 for metal - a lot to pay for a bit of additional colour!
Like a few recent household Google products, the Home is designed to sit on display rather than hidden away, and although perhaps not to the taste of everyone, I think they've done a decent job designing a device that while isn't by any means a centrepiece, equally isn't offensive to the eye either.
It currently sits on my desk in the office, pretty much directly in front of me beneath the mounted monitors. This makes interacting with Home incredibly simple and the touch commands even more useful; I frequently pause and resume music when taking a call with a quick touch, for example - much more convenient than Hey Google, stop.
Setup and use
Like the Chromecasts before it, the Home (arguably just a larger Chromecast with speakers) is an absolute doddle to set up; simply turn it on, open the Home app from a mobile device in the vicinity and it's detected. Setup includes a sound test, assignment to a Google account and after that you're away.
Being a G Suite user, I received a message almost immediately stating Home wasn't able to integrate with my calendar or email. That was a little unexpected and somewhat disappointing, but actually not all that surprising; G Suite accounts have always come second to products and services launched by Google. Hopefully that'll change in the near future.
With that aside, I switched entirely from asking my phone questions (which I do quite often, as it happens) to asking the same on the Home.
Hey Google, tell me about my day
One of my most frequent requests from Home is Tell me about my day. Excluding calendar appointments currently, Home returns the time, weather and news based on a curated list of sites I provide it (via the home app); I can carry on working on what I need to rather than perusing the news, which can often be a bit of a time-suck. As news and weather change through the day, it hasn't once yet repeated information it had told me earlier.
Other frequent phrases include music; I have it connected to my Spotify account and linked up with several Chromecast Audio's around the house in various group configurations. Though a single unit, I can request it plays music in almost full surround sound due to the way everything works so wonderfully together. When music is playing occasionally Home won't hear me say Hey Google, though this has only happened a couple of times and I can understand why.
Then there's video; while I don't do much with Google's paid TV/movie offerings, I can ask Home to bring up pretty much anything from YouTube on my NVIDIA SHIELD hooked up to the TV with very little fuss, useful in situations where the remote has wandered off (which happens an astonishing number of times per week, that remote is too sleek, but I digress..).
Naturally it also covers off many of the same questions I've historically asked Google Now/Assistant - what's this, define that, how's the traffic to somewhere, etc. All pretty flawless where the question is supported.
I haven't had the opportunity to test the Smart Home capabilities of Home just yet, but knowing it can control my lights, power outlets and many other component around the house, I'm eager to give it a whirl.
It isn't perfect, though
Despite the pretty obvious self-imposed limitation on calendar details and whatnot (entirely my fault for not ditching GSuite already, really), there are other ways Home could be improved.
The volume can go pretty high and fill an average-sized room quite well as I mentioned earlier, though I think the Echo beats it on sound quality. There's not much in it, granted, but nonetheless. I sold my two Sonos Play:1's earlier this year and although I definitely didn't expect Home (or Echo) to live up to that sound quality, I think for the size and price there's definitely room for a little more quality.
It doesn't know everything
I found Alexa's inability to assist with some - what I'd consider - simple questions a little exasperating, however Home actually isn't that much better in some scenarios. I've noticed in particular rather than reverting to a web search by default as I'd expect Google Now to do in situations it can't help, it simply tells me it doesn't know what to do and that's that.
A simple divert to the phone with a Google search would be an improvement here.
Integration could be improved
I'm not referring to services per se, though more services would be obviously better as Amazon is way ahead here. What I mean refers back to Home not knowing how to do things - asking Home to send a message for example - if it's smart enough to divert some queries to another device, it should surely be able to do the same with a text, WhatsApp message, etc. My phone often tells me my query is being handled by Home, there's no reason, to me, the phone can't take over.
Just come on already Google, please.
So as it stands today both the Echo and Home offer a reasonably consistent experience. They're both improving day by day and though Amazon have had a pretty incredible head start, Google's experience with digital assistants shines through frequently.
Between the Echo and Home I'd side with Google; it's cheaper, more tightly integrated with Google accounts, seems to have more answers with more contextual awareness and with features like multi-user support rolling out, it's going to shortly live up to the whole family theme Google have been pushing from the start.
I look forward to being able to use Home to it's fullest, hopefully before I get fed up and migrate everything back to an @gmail.com account.