WE ADOPTED GOOGLE’S RECENTLY RELEASED VOICE-CONTROLLED SMART SPEAKER, GOOGLE HOME, TO SEE IF IT PULLS ITS WEIGHT AROUND THE HOUSE.
IMAGINE THIS: YOU have a new roommate that turns on 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 better than your closest friends and will play new songs that you might like on request. And while your roommate isn’t always the sharpest — you’re not always returned the answer you’re looking for or played the audio you were expecting — communication is very much a two-way street, and more often than not, asking for what you want in a different way will yield a better response. More importantly, you know it’s there to listen, always. 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 voice-controlled, 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 directly to the speaker over your Wi-Fi. If you happen to have a Chromecast Audio attached to an old receiver or your favourite speakers (or a spare $59 for one), you can also get Google Home to cast music directly to your living room by asking nicely. Sadly, at the moment, you can’t cast the same song across Google Home and a Chromecast Audio yet, but the Google Assistant adds particular emphasis on the last word when it responds to this instruction with “I’m sorry, I’m unable to help you with that request yet.”
Of course, those four audio streaming services aren’t going to satisfy everyone, especially when Google Home could really be the perfect little pod-caster if you could, say, pull the latest episode from Pocket Casts just
by asking. 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 at launch — albeit in a way that still ultimately requires you to control them with your phone.
If you’re listening to audio entertainment through one of the four voice-supported apps, you can play, pause, change the volume and skip forward and backwards by just using your voice, but if you’re just casting to the device, you’ll have to resign yourself to the limited set of volume and ‘stop’ commands.
THE STAMP OF A GOOGLE
Google Home is an exceptionally 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... This bowling pin-shaped boombox 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, it’s perfect. Dual 2-inch passive radiators add more than enough punch at the low end, while the of full-range driver adds warmth through the mid-tones and precision at the top end, and a reasonablyloud max volume with minimal distortion.
IT’S THE LITTLE INTERNET-OF-THINGS THAT COUNTS
The audio element of Google Home arguably makes it worth the asking price on its own, but playing tunes is really less than half of what the unit can achieve. The penguin-shaped butler is also the best central smart home 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’s reached out to various smarthome technology vendors, adding compatibility with Belkin’s WeMo, TP-Link’s Kasa, D-Link’s Home, Alphabet’s newly launched Nest, Phillip’s Hue and Telstra’s Smarthome products, to name just a handful. And though all these different smart devices have different jobs and utilise different apps to make them work, connecting them to Google’s Home smartphone app (and subsequently the Google Home itself) follows the same easy-tonavigate process. That requires opening the connected-devices tab in said Home app, signing in to the third-party app and authorising connection permissions, then simply importing the list of connected devices — a simple three-step process.
What’s perhaps dramatically more appealing is that every single device we connected during testing worked seamlessly under the command of Google Home. We were actually astounded to find that smart devices like Belkin’s WeMo plugs were significantly more responsive and consistent under Google Home’s eye than when controlled through the company’s own WeMo 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 to group devices and allocate them to rooms — so for example, 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 rule-creating-service IFTTT ( ifttt.com), to create any customisable trigger your (puny) human brain can muster.
THE HAND OF THE KING
You can dictate notes to Google’s cloud-based note-taking application Keep, too, 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 but aren’t always around for the TV’s evening slot, you can sync Google 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, Google Home 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 step-by-step recipes for cooking in particular — 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 only one room at the moment, and there’s no prospect of adding additional ‘satellite’ listening devices, as you can with Amazon’s Echo Dots. 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, a cooking timer, translations, travel information, 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, with either costing $59.
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.
[ JOEL BURGESS ]
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.
The single 2-inch full-range driver and dual 2-inch passive resistors combine to pump out respectable audio — well, at least considering Home’s compact size and 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.