Google's always-listening smart home speaker is finally in Australia. But do you need one?
What Is It?
The $199 Google Home is the long-awaited smart home speaker from the world's best-known search-and-everything-else-on-the-internet brand. If you want to boil it down, it's essentially the Google Assistant tech straight out of the Google Pixel and other top-of-the-line Android phones, plus a sprinkling of Chromecast Audio.
As what is basically an oversized, room-scale, always-listening microphone and speaker, the Google Home can pick up your voice from the other side of a medium-sized living space whenever you say the words "OK Google" or "Hey Google"; and, without any visible buttons on its body, you'll be talking to it almost exclusively. After triggering it with that catchphrase, you're then able to ask it a question or issue a command in natural language and, with the power of the internet, Google Home will respond.
There is a touch-sensitive panel on the top of the Google Home which you can tap to activate the mics -- if you're sick of saying "OK Google" over and over. You can also run your finger around in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to change the speaker's volume. Beyond that, there's only a power jack for the Home's DC electricity input; you can use the Google Chromecast Ethernet adapter if you really want hard-wired internet on the speaker.
Google Home packs in a set of surprisingly gutsy full-range speakers in its base, arranged in a pattern to fire outwards over 360 degrees for omnidirectional audio. That means you're able to put it on a coffee table in the middle of your room as easily as on a bookcase or side table, but you've still got that power jack to deal with -- it's not a battery powered unit.
What's It Good At?
Throw it a request like "OK Google, play me any music" will work, but then you can also follow up with "Hey Google, what is this?" and have it understand you. This is the huge power of Google Assistant -- it's not just a voice assistant, but a contextual voice assistant. That means you can have more of a proper conversation with it, without having to repeat your initial request over and over -- "what is this" instead of "what is this music", for example. Contextual responses are what make smart devices smart.
And it's so good at picking up your voice, even if you're talking at a normal volume in a medium-sized room. If you raise your voice even slightly to talk to it, it's almost a certainty that it'll be able to hear you and hear you clearly enough to interact. Having the combination of voice controls and touch panel controls is great, actually. Without that touch panel, Google Home would be much harder to interact with; if you've got it anywhere in the middle of your room, it's still the easiest thing to do to tap the top to stop or play music, ask a question or swipe to change the volume.
Google just announced new updates to Assistant and Google Home. The smart speaker leans on Assistant to offer voice controls and artificially intelligent, well, assistance. But until now, the gadget hasn't really been able to do that much. Thanks to some updates, however, that might change very soon.
As a single, smart speaker living in your apartment or small home, a Google Home will give you surprisingly good music or podcast listening given its relatively small size. It won't have the outright audio power of a Sonos PLAY:1, but the smarts it adds are probably enough to make up for that audio deficit. You can hook up multiple Homes, just like Sonos, but it's not a music-only, music-focused speaker -- it has other talents, so you can forgive its slight audio quality deficit.
Because Google Home is essentially just like a Chromecast Audio, you can cast audio from so many apps on your phone straight to it. Want to play a podcast from Pocket Casts? Done. Want to flick audio from Google Play Music to your Home? Done. A future update will also enable Bluetooth direct connections from phone to Home, for all those apps that don't support casting. As a speaker connected to your phone goes, Google Home is world class; better still, it doesn't all live in a single app like Sonos's music services do. This way is much more convenient, plus you have the ability to just talk to the Home itself when you don't have your phone nearby.
What's It Not Good At?
There are plenty of questions that Google Home can't answer for you. I'm not talking about deep, existential am I just a grain in the sands of time stuff, but questions about live footy or cricket scores. Live data works to some extent on desktop Google, but the Home doesn't seem to have the same granular access. These will likely be added in time as Google's local engineers work to add in partner data and enable it for the Aussie voice, but for the time being, it's better to assume that the only up-to-date info Google Home can give you is on travel times and the weather.
At the same time, just like Google's chief rival Siri, you can pretty easily stump Home with a poorly worded question; its natural language processing isn't exactly perfect. You'll often get "I don't know how to help you with that just yet. But I'm learning every day" whenever you deliver it a corker, and as lovely as Ms Google is, it can get a little frustrating when you've tried to ask the same question three different ways before giving up. I quickly learned to try once and then just go and find my phone or sit down at the PC where a keyboard and desktop Google was always close to hand.
There's definitely a learning curve with Google Home, and the voice-only responses limit the feedback that your Google Home can give you. That often leaves you just a bit confused as to what you've said wrong, which is probably my chief complaint with Google Home. There are more than a few times where I've just wanted to shout "WHY CAN'T YOU UNDERSTAND ME, GOOGLE LADY" at the Home speaker. If you don't mind a bit of trial and error you can learn the best way to ask common questions, but it takes patience and practice. To its credit, simple commands -- "volume up", "stop", "turn it up", "next track" -- are all straightforward and trouble-free. One other caveat: whenever Google Home is belting out a certified banger, you'll need to speak that "OK Google" a lot louder to be clearly picked up and interpreted.
A lot of this boils down to the fact that, at least for the time being, Google Home is just new. Especially in Australia. It'll get better with time, just like Google Assistant did on the Google Pixel when it first launched. You can't make hands-free voice calls over Wi-Fi yet, for example. It's new, and if you don't like being a beta tester for something, maybe the Home isn't for you just yet.
Should You Buy It?
I don't think there are too many people out there that need a $199 Google Home in their life. Especially those that are already living in the Google ecosystem with a recent Android smartphone, for one, and especially moreso a smartphone that can do "OK Google" with the screen locked. But there's value in the Home's always-on microphone, because you always know where it is in your house, so you always know when you can ask it questions where a phone is far less reliable.
For picking up your voice accurately, there's no other smart speaker or smart home device I've tried that does as good a job as the Google Home. It's my new benchmark for room-sized voice assistant conversations; you can ask it a Google-able question and it'll probably come back with an answer, or at least a close approximation of one. You can ask it to do things, too -- I've taken to asking it to turn off my Philips Hue lights off rather than ducking into the app. Once you learn those habits, they stick.
Google Home has a few killer features -- your daily agenda, the ability to kickstart video on your Chromecast, voice-activated music and voice-activated smart home controls. If you want or need any of these, and if you learn to use them as part of your daily routine, you'll love Google Home. If you don't, then it'll just be a $200 contrivance sitting on your side table lonely and unloved.