By Dan Moren
January 3, 2017 5:35 AM PT
Google Home: Early impressions of an Echo competitor
As a happy Amazon Echo user for nearly two years now, you might think I wouldn’t be in the market for any other voice-controlled virtual assistant—and you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
Upon returning home from my lengthy trip last month, one of the boxes awaiting me contained a Google Home that I’d ordered while abroad. Given how much I enjoy and appreciate the Echo, I’ve concluded that it’s incumbent upon me to at least try out the major competitors in the field, and right now that means Google’s lady-in-the-canister.1
To date, I’ve only had a fairly limited opportunity to put the Home through its paces, and if the Echo is any indication, these devices are evolving quickly. With that in mind, here are some of my first impressions of Google’s foray into the smart speaker market.
Why the heck is it that Apple’s Siri seems to be the only virtual assistant that can have either a male or female voice? Where’s our gentleman-in-the-canister?! ↩
From a purely aesthetic point of view, I’ll say that though Google’s smart speaker doesn’t exactly put the Echo to shame, it does raise the styling stakes. Despite the numerous comparisons to an air freshener, the Home is an attractive object that does a nice job of blending in to its environment. Shorter and squatter than the original Echo, it’s slightly tapered with a top cut at a bias towards the front of the device and no obvious buttons or logos. The Echo, by comparison, screams “gadget.” People often ask me about it when they catch sight of it, but my girlfriend didn’t even notice the Google Home until I pointed it out.1
The Home’s analogue to the ring at the top of the Echo, which illuminates when it hears a command, is a circle of LEDs embedded in the face of the Home. They light up in Google’s iconic primary colors and spin when the Home hears its cue. (The Home’s wake words are either “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google”, both of which seem less likely to be accidentally triggered—though it does happen—and have the benefit of, you know, not being someone’s actual name.) The only other visible features of the Home are the two small microphones on either side of the face.
The top surface of the Home is touch sensitive: tapping it will pause or resume any currently-playing audio; you can also use it to adjust volume by placing a finger on the top of the device and moving it clockwise or counterclockwise—the embedded LEDs turn white to show you the current volume level and reflect any changes.
As with the Echo, the Home has a button to disable the microphone if you want to ensure a little privacy. Unlike the Echo, however, the Home’s button is on the back, in the place where your finger naturally rests if you cup your hand around the device. When you trigger it, four orange lights appear on the Home’s front surface and the device announces the microphone is off; it will similarly alert you when you toggle the microphone on again.
Google’s made another aesthetic concession here by offering swappable colored bases for the Home. The bottom of the device, where the speaker is located, is by default covered with gray fabric. But, if you unplug the Home—the power jack is on the bottom of the device—you can just pull off that gray fabric base, which is magnetically attached to the bottom of the device, and swap in one of the different colored options.2
The other big comparison point against the Echo is sound quality. I don’t pretend to have an audiophile’s ear, but to me the Google Home sounded like it had a little more bass than the Echo but an overall muddier sound. While it’s definitely superior to the Echo Dot—low bar there—it’s certainly not too hard to find a better-sounding speaker than pretty much anything in this class. They’re all serviceable for listening to podcasts or casual background music, but they won’t stack up to a nice pair of computer speakers.
Overall, the Home treads a lot of the same ground as the Echo when it comes to functionality. It plays audio, answers questions, integrates with online services, and lets you control other devices.
As far as speech recognition and synthesis goes, Google Home is solid. I think I actually prefer Google’s voice to Amazon’s—something about it seems slightly more human in its intonations and cadences. Google’s speech recognition is, unsurprisingly, very good, and I haven’t ended up with many mistakes in comprehension.
I’ve been impressed by Google Home’s handling of context: for example, the ability to ask what the smallest country in Europe is—the Vatican—and then follow up with “What’s its population?” But Amazon has begun rolling out a similar feature to the Echo in the past few days, which somewhat mitigates Google’s advantage in this department.
In any case, voice recognition and synthesis are table stakes for these devices. The real question is whether or not the Google Home has any functionality so compelling that I’ll switch to using it over my Echo. The answer to that, so far, is…not really.
This isn’t to say that the Home doesn’t have some features that the Echo lacks; most of them come down to the fact that Google has been building its ecosystem for a while, and can leverage other products to good effect. The best example might be Home’s translation features. Say something like “OK Google, how do I say ‘good morning’ in French?” and the device will use Google Translate to translate it and speak the word or phrase aloud.3
It doesn’t speak every language that’s available in Google Translate, but at a quick test it could translate English into Chinese, Japanese, French, German4, and Russian, to name a few. That’s pretty cool. (I had a little trickier time getting it to translate from those languages back into English. It didn’t work all the time, and it was better at words than phrases, but that could easily just be my pronunciation.) The Echo, by comparison, will understand when I ask it to translate something, but it can’t speak the translation out loud—it will only display it in the Alexa app.
Setting translation aside, the Echo’s capabilities are on the whole much, much broader than Google Home’s. Much of that comes from Amazon’s first mover advantage—the Echo has been around for about two years now, and has not only vastly expanded what it’s capable of out of the box, but also features a rich third-party developer community.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in smart home control. Google’s support for smart devices is limited to Philips Hue bulbs, Nest thermostats, and Samsung’s SmartThings, with additional support via IFTTT. Amazon supports all of those plus products by Belkin, Lutron, Insteon, Wink, and Honeywell, giving it a definite edge at present. (Belkin, Honeywell, Lifx, and other vendors have announced support for Home, but it appears to still be forthcoming.)
One place Google Home does have a leg up with connected devices is in media streaming. While the Echo’s ability to connect a smartphone via Bluetooth from a voice command is a nice workaround to a cumbersome process, it still lacks some elegance. Google Home, on the other hand, doesn’t even have Bluetooth built in, but it does allow for streaming over the local network to a Chromecast.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a video-streaming Chromecast anymore, so for my tests I was limited to hooking up the audio-streaming version. Parts of this feature work pretty well: I can say “OK, Google, play Johnny Cash on my Chromecast” and, sure enough, it will start streaming music to the speakers connected to that device. It’s a handy way to output audio from the Google Home to better speakers, but I did have some trouble figuring out how to make it stop playback.5 Amazon doesn’t yet have a comparable feature, though the company’s announced plans to work with wireless speaker purveyor Sonos to offer similar functionality. Currently, Google Home’s main music sources are Google Play Music (which for free offers only streaming radio stations and the ability to upload some of your music to the cloud), Spotify and YouTube Music (which require paid subscriptions to connect at all), and Pandora (which has a free streaming radio station service).
On the photos and videos front, Google is building in support to let you send specific content to a connected device like a Chromecast. That should let you, say, tell it to start playing a specific show or movie via Netflix, or display certain pictures from your Google Photos library. That’s pretty cool, and I’d be surprised if Amazon wasn’t hard at work on a similar feature, given the existence of the Fire TV, which already has its own Alexa implementation.
Google vs. Alexa: Round One
At present, there’s certainly not much to recommend the Home to people who already own an Echo or Echo Dot.6 Most of what the Home can do, the Echo can do just as well, with the exception of translation and Chromecast support.
Those on the fence about which smart speaker to buy have a less enviable decision. Both are attractive, well-made devices in their own way, and both will scratch that itch of a ubiquitous assistant at your constant beck and call. To date, the Echo remains the heavyweight champion of the market, thanks to its deep bench of features and third-party skills, but it would be unwise to underestimate Google’s resources and expertise if the company decides this is a field where it wants to devote its energy.
Amazon’s also set a strong precedent for improvement, rolling out new Echo features on a regular basis; it remains to be seen if Google will follow suit, or merely content itself to more infrequent updates. And then there’s always the question of whether a new challenger7 might enter the market. All of that means 2017 is shaping up to be an interesting year in the virtual assistant/smart speaker field, for sure.
Update: Updated on 1/3 at 9:20am ET to clarify smart home compatibility and Google Play Music features. Thanks Richard Gaywood!
To be fair, the Home is on my desk in my office, as opposed to the Echo, which is in the kitchen. ↩
The other options definitely have a little more pizzaz than the default gray, but I think I’m somewhat less likely to pay $20-$40 for a new colored base than I am to, say, buy a new Apple Watch band. ↩
A pair of my friends is raising their young child as bilingual, and they said one reason they bought a Google Home was its ability to do Chinese translations. ↩
I don’t know why, but the Home weirdly fails when I specifically ask how to say “computer” in German, though it works for other words. ↩
It seemed like the Google Home has a hard time discerning voice commands if the Chromecast speakers are loud and nearby, probably because the audio isn’t coming out of the Home itself. ↩
Unless you, like me, are a gadget fiend. ↩
Rhymes with “Shmapple”? ↩
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