We adopted Google’s new voice-controlled smart speaker to see if it can really pull its weight around the house.
Imagine this: You have a new roommate that turns the heater for you when you get home, warms up the coffee machine before you wake up in the morning, reads you to sleep at night and makes sure to turn off the bedside light when you’re drifting off. This roommate shows patience when you yell, does their best to dig out answers to the obscure information you ask for, knows your personal taste in music and will play new songs that you might like. And while your roommate isn’t always the sharpest, you know it’s there to listen. And it’ll even call you ‘Supreme Leader’, if you want. That roommate is the Google Assistant, and it lives in the palm-sized pod that is the Google Home.
PRETTY FLY FOR A WI-FI SPEAKER
Google Home wears a few hats, but its primary function is to act as a voicecontrolled, internet- connected speaker. The Google Assistant can be called upon to play specific tracks from connected music streaming services like Google Play, Spotify or the radio-streaming service TuneIn, but if you don’t have a subscription to any of these services, the Google Home comes bundled with six months free access YouTube Red, allowing you to cast music. If you happen to have a Chromecast Audio attached to an old receiver or your favourite speakers, you can also get Google Home to cast music directly to your living room. Sadly, at the moment you can’t cast the same song across Google Home and a Chromecast Audio yet.
Of course, those audio streaming services aren’t going to satisfy everyone. At present, you can’t control any other services using your voice, but Google Home has all the tech needed to act as a Chromecast receiver, so it’s just a matter of going into the third party app and clicking the ‘Cast to Google Home’ button. That does bring popular apps like Pocket Casts, TED, Plex, SoundCloud, CloudPlayer and Chrome into the fold.
THE STAMP OF A GOOGLE
Google Home is a smart little wireless speaker, so when you factor in that it costs $200 — notably less than many similarly-sized portable Bluetooth speakers — it makes you wonder how audio actually sounds. But this bowling pin shaped boom-box has one major advantage over it’s portable compatriots... it’s connected to power. The fact that the Google Home’s single 2-inch driver doesn’t need to be optimised to use as little battery power as possible means it’s got a competitive edge — and they do punch well above their weight. It’s no match for a dedicated hi-fi system, but for basic music and podcasts that you’ll listen to in the background, it’s perfect. Dual 2-inch passive radiators add more than enough punch at the low end, while the full-range driver adds warmth through the mid-tones and precision at the top end, and a reasonably-loud maximum volume with minimal distortion.
IT’S THE LITTLE INTERNET-OF-THINGS THAT COUNT
The audio element of Google Home arguably makes it worth the asking price on it’s own, but playing tunes is really less than half of what the unit can achieve. This little penguin-shaped butler is also the best central smarthome hub we’ve yet come across. At launch, Google had already done a lot of legwork to make sure the Home can talk to any smarthome gear you might have. The search giant has added compatibility with Belkin’s WeMo, TP-Link’s Kasa, D-Link’s Home, Alphabet’s Nest, Phillip’s Hue and Telstra’s Smarthome products to
name just a handful. And though all these devices have different jobs and utilise different apps to make them work, connecting them to the Home smartphone app follows the same easy-tonavigate process — which requires opening the connected-devices tab, signing into the third-party app and authorising connection permissions, then simply importing the list of connected devices.
Every single device we connected during testing worked seamlessly under the command of Google Home, too. We were actually astounded to find that Belkin’s WeMo devices were more responsive and consistent under Google Home’s eye than when controlled through the company’s own app. It’s not just that everything works exactly as you’d expect, but it also puts all smart devices under the one roof and allows you to use your voice to control them, which is both significantly faster and requires far less effort than using apps. You will want to correctly name each device so that you can remember the audio description of, say, your living-room lamp over the downlights in the kitchen, but the Google Home app does let you group devices and allocate them to rooms, so you can “turn off all living room lights” with a single command. There’s no way to conjoin multiple commands by just asking, but if you want to get really tricky, you can preconfigure custom phrases (dubbed ‘Shortcuts’ in the Home app), which, for example, will cast your Google Photo’s album to the Chromecast and play soothing music when you say “How’s the serenity?”. Alternatively, you can connect it to the IoT rulecreating-service IFTTT ( ifttt.com), to create any customisable trigger you can muster.
THE HAND OF THE KING
This overachiever has even more up its sleeve, though. You can dictate notes to Google’s cloud-based notetaking application Keep, so that they’re copied to all your devices and tap into Google’s web-based Shopping List application to add items — we’re assuming the latter will eventually get some kind of supermarket integration for voice-activated purchases, as this feature exists in the US already.
If you like to keep up with the news, you can sync the Home to your favourite Australian publications and prioritise them, so Home knows what headlines and news stories you want to hear first when you ask it to “give me the news”. To top it off, it can read anything upcoming pegged on your Google Calendar and with the ability to sync up to six Google accounts and link them with a personal “OK Google” voice signature, you’ll never have to worry about other members of your household peeking on your schedule.
There’s still a few key functions that aren’t available in Australia just yet — sending text messages or emails and reading stepby-step recipes for cooking being two we’re particularly keen for — but we’ve been assured that they’re on the way. The other limitation we found in testing was that the Home’s effective microphone range is really only one room, and there’s no prospect of adding additional ‘satellite’ listening devices — as you can with, say, Amazon’s Echo Dots (which admittedly are also yet to officially arrive Down Under). You can yell at the Home from adjacent rooms, but the reliability drops considerably.
As far as downsides go that’s really it, though, and there’s a heap more useful things that Google Home can do right now that we haven’t been able to cover deeply here, including providing dictionary definitions, local food and event recommendations, nutrition tips, timer, translations, travel info, unit conversion and weather forecasts.
The two-toned Google Home will always have a white tip, but you can swap out the subdued grey speaker grill on the bottom half for a jet black ‘Carbon’ or a polished ‘Copper’ colouring if you think it’ll suit your house better, with either costing an additional $59. Personally, we liked the iceberg appearance of the white-on-grey that comes bundled, but each to their own.
While we weren’t sure just what to really expect when we took in the Google Home — the first smart-assistant to land in Australia — it didn’t take long at all for this handy helper to feel like a part of the family.
For $59, you can swap out the stock grey speaker grill for a Carbon or Copper base that’ll add some drama to this subtle piece of tech. SMART SPEAKER $199 | MADEBY.GOOGLE.COM
The single 2-inch full-range driver and dual 2-inch passive resistors combine to pump respectable audio for the device’s price point.
Google Home is compatible with a range of existing smarthome devices including: Belkin WeMo, D-Link Home, TP-Link Kasa, Alphabet Nest, Phillips Hue and Telstra’s Smarthome.