Google Home Mini

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If you’ve not de­cided what you want for Christ­mas this year, let us help you with that: a Google Home Mini. (Or mul­ti­ple such de­vices if your loved ones are feel­ing gen­er­ous.) Why? Be­cause it’s awe­some.

We love the stan­dard Google Home, but the Mini of­fers the same func­tion­al­ity at a frac­tion of the price. It of­fers a frac­tion of the au­dio qual­ity, too, of course, but that doesn’t make us love it any less.

Avail­able now for £49 di­rect from Google or third­party ven­dors such as John Lewis, Cur­rys, Ar­gos and Maplin, Google Home Mini is suf­fi­ciently af­ford­able to gift, and cheap enough that you can dip your toes into the new world of smart home voice as­sis­tants with­out a sig­nif­i­cant out­lay. Bet­ter still, its £49 ask­ing price means you could po­ten­tially af­ford sev­eral de­vices.

We do not pre­sume to know your bud­get, but if you were plan­ning to pay sev­eral hun­dred pounds on a home au­dio sys­tem or new speaker sys­tem any­way we’d sug­gest you in­stead look to the Mini. Mul­ti­room au­dio sup­port means you could have one in the kitchen, one in the lounge, another in the bed­room and even one in the land­ing, still with change from £200. You could then blast your favourite tunes through­out the house, or con­trol smart-home tech such as lights and heat­ing from wher­ever you stand.

What is the Google Home Mini?

For the unini­ti­ated this is an im­por­tant ques­tion. In its most ba­sic form the Google Home Mini is a small speaker, but not a por­ta­ble one since it is al­ways-on and needs to be plugged in via its Mi­cro-USB port at all times. If you wanted to, you could use it sim­ply for play­ing mu­sic from your phone or tablet.

But you would be miss­ing out on so much do­ing just this. This isn’t just a Blue­tooth speaker, it’s also wire­less, which means you can stream In­ter­net ra­dio or con­nect it to your Google Play Mu­sic or Spo­tify ac­count. Spo­tify Free ac­counts are also sup­ported, but if you’re not pay­ing the monthly Google Mu­sic sub­scrip­tion only your playlists will be ac­ces­si­ble.

In our opin­ion, the mu­sic stream­ing and sup­port for multi-room au­dio alone make the Google Home Mini worth its £49 price tag. But that would be for­get­ting the Google As­sis­tant, and that’s what rock­ets this tiny box way out of the league of or­di­nary wire­less speak­ers. If you’ve pur­chased a new flag­ship An­droid phone this year you may have al­ready in­ter­acted with Google As­sis­tant, but you’ll find her far more use­ful here. In her new com­pact home Google As­sis­tant is the dogs­body you’ve al­ways wanted.

Want to know the weather for the day ahead? Ask her. Fancy hear­ing the lat­est head­lines? Ask her. Need help solv­ing a maths prob­lem? Ask her. Not sure what you’re do­ing this week­end? Ask her. Got a ques­tion only a Google search will re­solve? You guessed it, ask Google As­sis­tant.

The Google As­sis­tant tells jokes, funny sto­ries and in­ter­est­ing facts, she can host quiz games, sing you happy birth­day, help the chil­dren with their home­work, set alarms and timers, play mu­sic and cast videos, movies and photo slide shows to your TV.

If you have any smart tech in your home – lights, heat­ing, switches and so on – she can con­trol it, and if she doesn’t al­ready have in­te­grated sup­port you’ll likely be able to con­fig­ure it through IFTTT, which is

not as scary as it sounds. Part­ner­ships are al­ready in place for big names such as Philips Hue, Sam­sung Nest and WeMo and more will cer­tainly fol­low.

Why Google As­sis­tant is bet­ter than Ama­zon Alexa?

If you’re new to smart speak­ers and the idea of smart vir­tual as­sis­tants, try­ing to work out whether you should go down the Ama­zon Echo route or the Google Home route could be tricky. Both of­fer rea­son­ably cheap en­try points (the Echo Dot costs £49 from fave.co/2yLE2aZ), both are said to of­fer much the same func­tion­al­ity, and for now at least the Ama­zon Echo has by far the high­est mar­ket share.

So why is that? For a start Ama­zon Echo came out in the UK a good year be­fore Google Home, giv­ing it the head start it needed to find its way into con­sumer homes all over the coun­try. It used some of that time to build up its ‘Skills’ data­base, al­beit with thou­sands of en­tries you will likely never use, such as apps that can in­sult you or tell you what noise a dog makes when given a very spe­cific com­mand. But it does – for now – have bet­ter na­tive sup­port for smart-home ser­vices than does Google As­sis­tant.

It has also ben­e­fited from var­i­ous Ama­zon deals days that see the Echo vastly re­duced in price, mak­ing it worth a punt even if you’re not sure about the whole con­cept of smart speak­ers. And, for a long time, it had no real com­pe­ti­tion. To­day tech man­u­fac­tur­ers are queu­ing up to re­veal th­ese type of de­vices with Alexa, Google As­sis­tant or Cor­tana (Mi­crosoft’s of­fer­ing) built in.

Ama­zon’s Echo fam­ily are bril­liant de­vices, but you shouldn’t con­sider buy­ing one if you don’t sub­scribe to Ama­zon Prime. Also, Google As­sis­tant is bet­ter.

Google As­sis­tant doesn’t need you to search for and en­able skills to an­swer your queries – this de­vice hails from Google, the daddy of on­line search. So while Alexa can han­dle the sort of queries that have a Wikipedia page, or shop­ping ques­tions, Google As­sis­tant can just run a web search for you and throw out the most likely re­sult.

Use both side by side for only a short while and you’ll see that Google As­sis­tant is both more in­tel­li­gent and more re­source­ful than Alexa. While it will try to an­swer any ques­tion you ask it, Alexa will more of­ten than not re­turn its favourite phrase: ‘Hmmm, I don’t know that one.’

But what we love most about Google As­sis­tant is the abil­ity to con­verse with it us­ing very nat­u­ral

lan­guage, whereas Alexa prefers a more for­mu­laic ap­proach. It’s also got a real per­son­al­ity, so it feels less like you’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a box and more like you’re chat­ting to an ac­tual as­sis­tant. Peo­ple skills is some­thing Alexa def­i­nitely lacks, even if it has a great many tech­ni­cal ‘Skills’.

Of course, we’re not com­pletely writ­ing off Alexa, and one of our big­gest gripes with the Google As­sis­tant is there is still no way to change the wake word from either

Okay Google or Hey Google. (You can’t change the Google As­sis­tant’s name either.) It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but over time it be­comes a real tongue twis­ter. Alexa is sim­ply a lot eas­ier to say.

We also would have liked to seen an au­dio jack, as found on the Echo Dot, en­abling you to hook up the Google Home Mini to a more pow­er­ful speaker. That’s a big omis­sion here.

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Google Home and Google Home Mini?

If you’ve de­cided to buy a speaker with the Google As­sis­tant built-in, your next ques­tion will be why the Mini and not the stan­dard box. There’s ob­vi­ously a huge dif­fer­ence in price be­tween the £49 Mini and the £129 Google Home, so the Mini must be lack­ing some­thing big, right?

Ac­tu­ally no, not re­ally. Pro­vided you’re not plac­ing the ut­most im­por­tance on au­dio qual­ity, any­way. The Mini is smaller sim­ply be­cause it has less pow­er­ful au­dio hard­ware, though in our tests we were sur­prised by how loud it was and how well it han­dled vo­cals,

if not mids and lows. You might ac­tu­ally pre­fer its smaller foot­print and new fab­ric cov­ered de­sign, too.

It also lacks Google Home’s cus­tom­iz­a­ble bases, which are avail­able at ex­tra cost, but the Mini comes in a choice of three colours: Char­coal, Chalk and Coral, bet­ter known as black, grey and pink. Surely one of th­ese will suit your home decor.

Orig­i­nally both de­vices of­fered a touch in­ter­face as well as their al­ways-on mics. On the stan­dard box there’s a ca­pac­i­tive but­ton on top that can wake the as­sis­tant, pause and re­sume play­back, and a ca­pac­i­tive dial that con­trols vol­ume.

You can ad­just vol­ume on the Google Home Mini by tap­ping the left side of the de­vice to turn down vol­ume, and the right side to turn it up. But the top touch-sen­si­tive area has been per­ma­nently dis­abled by Google be­cause it was over-sen­si­tive and lis­ten­ing in on con­ver­sa­tions when it shouldn’t. That’s a shame,

and hope­fully not in­dica­tive of Google’s qual­ity con­trol, but it’s by no means a nec­es­sary fea­ture.

De­sign

Google Home Mini is not sim­ply a smaller ver­sion of the stan­dard box. This is a small peb­ble-shaped de­vice with a coloured fab­ric cover through which a row of four LEDs are vis­i­ble. Th­ese light up to alert you when the Google As­sis­tant is lis­ten­ing to you or think­ing about your re­quest.

We reckon it looks nicer than the orig­i­nal, and cer­tainly nicer than the puck-like Ama­zon Echo Dot with which it com­petes. You’d proudly dis­play the Google Home Mini within your home. But you might have to give it a dust ev­ery so of­ten.

It’s very lightweight at 173g, but as we noted the fact it must be al­ways-on and al­ways plugged in means you’re un­likely to carry it around. A built-in

bat­tery would be handy, but you’d be for­ever recharg­ing it. A rub­ber base (in the case of our black re­view sam­ple a cool or­ange colour) stops it slip­ping on the sur­face. Here you’ll also find a switch to turn off the mi­cro­phone, should you want some pri­vacy for what­ever rea­son.

It feels very nice to the touch, but un­for­tu­nately with the key touch fea­ture dis­abled you’re un­likely to be jab­bing it too of­ten. It’s just as easy to con­trol the vol­ume by say­ing ‘Okay Google, vol­ume up’ or ‘Okay Google, vol­ume 50 per­cent’ from wher­ever you stand as it is to walk up to and phys­i­cally tap either side of the de­vice, though th­ese con­trols are very sen­si­tive.

Au­dio qual­ity

In­side the Google Home Mini is a sin­gle 40mm driver that of­fers 360-de­gree sound. It’s big­ger brother has three 2in driv­ers, so let’s just say we weren’t ex­pect­ing great things from the Google Home Mini in terms of au­dio play­back.

We were sur­prised. The Mini is loud enough to fill a room with sound, pro­vided it is po­si­tioned care­fully. It also does a great job with highs and vo­cals, and is per­fect for play­ing the kind of pop mu­sic you find on main­stream ra­dio sta­tions, but it falls down fur­ther down the spec­trum. It’s not a bass speaker. If you want that you want the Google Max (which comes out in the UK next year).

So, while many users will be more than happy with its au­dio ca­pa­bil­i­ties, au­dio­philes’ ears will bleed tears that even Google As­sis­tant can­not com­fort.

We jest. Sort of.

It’s not the best por­ta­ble speaker we’ve ever heard and it’s not go­ing to win any awards for its play­back po­ten­tial. But it does the job. And for many peo­ple that’s the most im­por­tant thing.

They want mu­sic, they want it loud, and they want it in ev­ery room of the house. Google Home Mini can do that, with a lit­tle help from its friends when you set up mul­ti­room au­dio.

We found Google Home Mini’s twin built-in mics did a good job of un­der­stand­ing our com­mands, even when we were get­ting tongue-twisted over the wake com­mand. You might need to raise you voice if mu­sic is play­ing loud, but over­all it deals with back­ground noise with min­i­mal fuss.

Ver­dict

We’re clearly big fans of the Google As­sis­tant, and any de­vice that makes it more ac­ces­si­ble to the masses is well worth a se­cond look in our book. If bud­get was no op­tion then the stan­dard Google Home of­fers sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter au­dio qual­ity, but for most peo­ple bud­get will un­for­tu­nately come into play should they wish to set up speak­ers in ev­ery room of the house.

Au­dio­philes aren’t go­ing to be im­pressed by Google Home Mini’s re­pro­duc­tion of lows and mids, but we’re not all au­dio­philes. Many users will be quite sat­is­fied with its highs, and for ev­ery­day con­vers­ing with the As­sis­tant the 40mm driver is ad­e­quate.

We do pre­fer Google As­sis­tant to Alexa, de­spite its fewer ‘Skills’, but some­thing we’d love to see Google bor­row from Ama­zon is a more nat­u­ral wake word and the Dot’s AUX port. Add in the abil­ity to con­nect the

Google Home Mini to a more pow­er­ful speaker and its pur­chase be­comes a no-brainer. Marie Black

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• Google As­sis­tant • 40mm driver, 360 sound • Far field voice recog­ni­tion with off switch • Touch con­trols • Dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi • Blue­tooth • An­droid and iOS com­pat­i­ble • Chrome­cast and Chrome­cast Au­dio built-in • Mi­cro-USB • 98x42mm • 173g

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