Google Home review - Is this the future?

David Gilbert explores whether it's worth having the smart device in your home

Google Home review - Is this the future?

Google Home (PA)

Many view voice as the next computing platform.

From Siri on our smartphones, to Cortana baked into Windows 10, and Google Assistant in our cars, today it is already possible to talk to your computer rather than type or tap.

But there is a problem with this. We, especially the Irish, are not very comfortable talking to inanimate pieces of glass and metal, in particular when in public. Saying "Hey Siri, what does my day look like?" in the middle of a crowded cafe or pub is just not the way we do things.

While the era of pervasive voice interaction with our devices may be some way off, there is one place this revolution might be able to take off; in the home, where no one but our dogs can hear us.

Following the surprise success of Amazon's Echo speaker in 2015, Google announced its own version called Home last summer. Home is a voice activated speaker powered by its digital assistant, Google Assistant, which promises 'hands-free help' for us all.

Like the Echo, the basic premise is that this is a smart speaker which will respond to your voice - answering your questions, playing music, controlling smart home devices, and a myriad of other things which you have probably never thought to get a speaker to do.

The question is, is this really the future of computing?

Availability

First, a note about availability. Google Home is not officially available in Ireland, and Google told Newstalk FM that it doesn't have any details to share about a launch at the moment.

However it is available in the UK, costing £129 (€152), and using one of the many postal services which allow you to ship any item from the UK to Ireland for a few euro, such as Parcel Wizards, Address Pal or Parcel Motel, you won't be adding too much to the cost.

There will be no Ireland-specific services available, but all existing features of the Google Home will work as normal.

Design and hardware

The basic Google Home model comes in white, but the company does offer interchangeable bases in a range of other colours and materials to match your home's decor.

The squat speaker is pretty nondescript and that is a good thing for a device which is meant to blend into its surroundings rather than dominate them.

 

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As well as controlling the unit with your voice, you can also control certain aspects of Home with the touch-sensitive panel on the sloped top, including turning up and down the volume, playing and pausing music, and activating the Assistant.

There is also a discreet mute button on the speaker, which allows you to make sure you know it is not listening to what you say.

Sound

The actual speaker element of Home is not great, though it's also not terrible. Don't expect to throw out your sound system.

I found that the sound quality was significantly lower than the Bluetooth speaker (BeoPlay A2) I had been using in my kitchen.

For listening to radio and podcasts the sound was acceptable, but for those wanting to use this as their primary source of listening to music, you might want to rethink your strategy.

Setup

Setting up the Google Home is pretty straightforward and painless: Plug it in, and when you hear the lady tell you to do so, launch the Google Home app on your smartphone to finish the set-up, connecting to your Wi-Fi network and logging into the Google account you want to use on the device.

Initially Google Home only supported a single user account, but in a recent upgrade it now supports up to six, meaning it will recognise different users and answer according when they ask questions like "What's on my calendar today?"

Talking to Google Home 

For the most part, Google Home sits there and does nothing. But when you need it, simply say "OK Google" and it will kick into life.

Unfortunately you can't change the activation phrase, and it does get annoying having to preempt everything you say.

I found that Home was excellent at recognising my voice (even from a room away) and understanding what I was saying.

I used it mostly to play music and radio (Newstalk FM obviously) by simply saying:"OK, Google, play Newstalk." The device is smart enough to know that Newstalk was a radio station and that it would use the TuneIn app to play it.

Google Home (PA)

Even with audio playing, Google Home's two microphones were still able to pick up my voice, without me having to scream in order to be heard. It lowers the sound of the audio to allow you complete your request, returning to the normal level when your question has been answered.

While you can pick and choose the services through which your music and audio are played, you can only do this if the service supports Google Cast - notably that means Apple Music is out. Podcasts are also a pain point, as they are only supported through Google Play Music, which isn't ideal.

Google Home also acts as a hub for all your smart home devices, such as lightbulbs, doorbells, thermostats and pretty much everything else connected to the internet. It allows you control supported devices with your voice, so turning down the lights and turning up the temperature can all be done through Google Home.

So far, the list of compatible devices is limited to Nest (which is owned by Google), Philips Hue and Samsung's Smart Things, but more are sure to follow. If support broadens then this aspect of Google Home could become its biggest selling point.

Google also allows you control your television when it is connected to Google's Chromecast, an Android TV box, or has Android TV built-in. Simply say: "OK Google, I want to watch Season 1 of Better Call Saul on Netflix on the living room TV" and within a few seconds the show will begin to play.

There are dozens of cute and clever things you can ask the Google Home, but these quickly become boring after you have shown the 10th visitor to your house the same tricks.

Google knows you

Unlike Amazon, for most people, Google has a much better understanding of who you are and what you like. This makes Assistant potentially much more powerful (and creepy) than Alexa.

It allows Google Home to surface upcoming flights (scraped from Gmail) when you ask about your calendar. It allows it to know that lamp you ordered from Amazon will be delivered in two days time.

For some this will be too much of an invasion of privacy, but if we want these systems to work in the way science fiction films have been telling us they will work for years, this is the price we probably have to pay.

Another advantage Google has over Amazon is that Google search results and answers are infinitely better than Bing, which are used to power Alexa.

Google Assistant also understands context. Ask it how far away a restaurant is, and, after getting the answer, you can ask: "When does it close?" and Google will automatically know the "it" you are talking about is the restaurant. It may seem basic, but it's something Alexa is not capable of doing right now.

What Google Home doesn't do

There are lots of things: You can't send a message or an email. You can't buys items online. You can't make a phone call. You can't take notes...

The list is long, but remember this is just version 1.0, and so it is no surprise that there are many gaps in the Home's repertoire.

Google has already updated Home's abilities significantly since launch (adding the ability to add more than one account for example). You can expect constant updates in the coming 12 months, especially once third-party app developers get on board and beginning supporting the device; just this week it added five million recipes you can use hands-free while cooking.

Is Google Home the future?

Even though it is in my own home, I still find talking to an inanimate object strange. It is going to take a long time for that to change, especially when there are other people in the room.

That said, the ability to play music without having to take my phone out of my pocket, or turn the lights on without having to get off the couch, are compelling reasons to get used to using my voice.

It is still to be seen if voice is the future of computing, but if it is, then Google has a winner on its hands with Home.