Google speaker is sec­re­tary, ra­dio — and work in progress

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By an­ick Jes­da­nun AP Tech­nol­ogy Writer

Google’s new smart speaker is at once a sec­re­tary, a li­brar­ian and a ra­dio.

Ask about your day, and the Home speaker will give you the time, weather, es­ti­mated com­mute, the news and up­com­ing cal­en­dar ap­point­ments. It will con­vert miles into feet, and dol­lars into eu­ros. Want to hear Adele or Cold­play? Home will fetch you some tunes.

If this sounds fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause Ama­zon has al­ready been at it for about two years. Its Echo speaker can do what Home does and more, thanks to Ama­zon’s head start in part­ner­ing with third-party ser­vices such as Domino’s Pizza and Fit­bit. But Home is smarter in a few other ways, as it taps what it knows about you from Gmail, Maps and other Google ser­vices. Home is also $50 cheaper, at about $130 (though Ama­zon of­fers a mini “Echo Dot” ver­sion for just $50).

At your com­mand

Think of both Home and Echo as ex­ten­sions of your iPhone or An­droid de­vice. Sure, I can check weather on the phone, but why not just ask the speaker as I’m get­ting dressed? And no need to lift a fin­ger to check the cal­en­dar. With guests over, I can re­solve trivia dis­putes us­ing voice searches and avoid screens. This week, I was able to keep tabs on the Chicago Cubs’ quest to break a cen­tury-long World Se­ries drought.

Both de­vices work as alarm clocks or timers — great in the kitchen. Both can con­trol lights, ther­mostats and other in­ter­net-con­nected ap­pli­ances, though you need ca­pa­ble de­vices first.

Of course, I have to get used to speak­ing aloud with no one around. Pri­vacy is a con­cern, too, once I en­able all the fea­tures. Any­one within hear­ing dis­tance will know when I’m see­ing the doc­tor or leav­ing my apart­ment empty for va­ca­tion. Home and Echo are con­tin­u­ally lis­ten­ing for com­mands, though Google and Ama­zon say noth­ing gets passed back to them un­til the speak­ers hear a key­word — “OK, Google” for Home and “Alexa” for Echo. A light comes on to re­mind you that it’s lis­ten­ing. You can turn off the mi­cro­phone tem­po­rar­ily, too.

Long­ing for more

Nei­ther de­vice is all that proac­tive. An­droid phones with the Google Now as­sis­tant will re­mind me when it’s time to leave for work or the air­port, based on es­ti­mated travel times. But I’m usu­ally not check­ing the phone as I’m get­ting ready to leave. I could use a nudge from ei­ther speaker. On the other hand, I might find a stranger’s voice jar­ring when I think I’m alone. It’s a new tech­nol­ogy, and com­pa­nies still have to fig­ure out the right bal­ance.

And while Home and Echo of­fer the ba­sics, nei­ther lets me dig deeper. Sure, I have an ap­point­ment at 11 a.m., but where is it and with whom? And how can I get there? It’s back to the phone. An­other lim­i­ta­tion: Both speak­ers are tied to a sin­gle ac­count, so fam­i­lies won’t get in­di­vid­ual cal­en­dars and pref­er­ences.

In unity

The speak­ers are more pow­er­ful when they co­or­di­nate with your other de­vices.

The best stab so far comes from Ama­zon. Ask Echo the weather, and the speaker will tell you cur­rent con­di­tions and the day’s fore­cast. But if you have an Ama­zon Fire tablet nearby, you au­to­mat­i­cally get a full-screen dis­play with the week’s fore­cast. Ask Echo about the Cubs, and you’ll hear the score. The tablet gives you in­ning-by-in­ning break­downs.

Home can con­trol Google’s Chrome­cast stream­ing TV de­vices, but the pre­view I’ve been test­ing has been painful to use. You can pause, re­sume or for­ward video; you’re also sup­posed to be able to rewind and start from the be­gin­ning, but Home gets fussy. It cur­rently works only with YouTube video (Net­flix and Google Pho­tos are com­ing soon). Even then, Home keeps think­ing I’m re­quest­ing a song that doesn’t ex­ist. There’s po­ten­tial here, but con­trols on the phone are much eas­ier. Watch­ing TV shouldn’t take a lot of work.

Ideally, the tech­nol­ogy will just know where and how to present in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment. In such a sce­nario, you can set one alarm, and Google or Ama­zon will find you wher­ever you are — whether it’s on the speaker at home, or a phone if you’re away. Or if you ask the speaker about a nearby restau­rant, di­rec­tions go to your phone. For now, uni­fi­ca­tion is lim­ited to a shop­ping list you can add to and view (or hear) from any de­vice.

Early smarts, early dumbs

Home, with an early in­car­na­tion of a Google dig­i­tal com­pan­ion called As­sis­tant, seems the smarter of the two out of the gate. It knows about my up­com­ing flight, based on reser­va­tions in Gmail. It of­fers com­mute times us­ing tran­sit, as Google al­ready senses through my An­droid phone that I don’t drive to work. Home can also es­ti­mate driv­ing time to just about any other des­ti­na­tion. Echo sends me to work, even when I ask about Boston. And Home is alone in set­ting alarms more than 24 hours away.

But part­ner­ships will make these speak­ers more use­ful. I can ask Echo about my Fit­bit goals or or­der pizza from Domino’s; I can’t with Home. Ama­zon has more than a thou­sand such part­ner­ships, known as skills. Google’s in­te­gra­tions are ini­tially lim­ited to call­ing for Ubers, chang­ing news or mu­sic providers and con­trol­ling smart de­vices from Phillips, SmartThings and Nest (a Google sis­ter com­pany).

Google still has bugs to work out. How are the Chicago Cubs do­ing? Home told me the Cubs are the reg­u­larsea­son divi­sion lead­ers and are based in Chicago. Duh! I had to ask again for the World Se­ries score.

And af­ter the Cubs won in extra in­nings, both Home and Echo were non­cha­lant in giv­ing me the fi­nal score. I wouldn’t have known from ei­ther that the Cubs were now the world champions and that Chicago fans got to fi­nally cel­e­brate.


The new Google Pixel phone is dis­played next to a Google Home smart speaker, left, fol­low­ing a prod­uct event in San Fran­cisco.

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