Friday, November 11, 2016
Google Home: Google's run at the Amazon's Echo has potential, but feels like it's too slow off the starting block
For over a decade, Google search has been indispensable. It’s the first place we go whenever we need to find information on virtually anything. It’s used countless times a day on our computers, our phones, sometimes even in our cars and on our wrists. Using Google search, whether it’s to win an argument, self-diagnose an injury, or just to look up what other people are saying about you, has become second nature.
Our interactions with Google have always revolved around screens. But if you ask futurists what the next platform for interaction is, chances are they’ll say there’s no screen involved. In the future, we’ll be able to access information without having to type on keyboards, tap on screens, or even hold anything in our hands. So it’s not surprising that Google is making a massive effort to make its services accessible via voice, for all those times when you don’t have a screen in front of you.
And the most obvious way it’s doing that is with the Google Home, a $129 voice-controlled, connected speaker.
The Home is a squat little device that’s intended to sit in your house or apartment, providing an access point to all of Google’s services whenever you need them, even if your hands are full or you’re not in front of a phone or computer. It can play music, answer questions, tell you the weather, wake you up in the morning, control smart home gadgets, and do other tricks.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that this sounds awfully familiar. That’s because everything the Google Home is designed to do can also be done with Amazon’s wildly popular Echo, which launched two years ago. The similarities between the two are near-endless: like Google Home, the Echo has no touch screen or any screen for that matter, connected speaker that’s always listening for a voice command and can play music, answer questions, turn your smart lights on or off, and more. There’s a lot of overlap between these products, and for most intents and purposes, they are all but identical in use.
But the Home has something that the Echo doesn’t: a wealth of knowledge about the world, my personal preferences, and my habits. In other words, it has Google.
Google smartly designed the Home to blend in with the rest of the mundane products in your home. It’s roughly half as tall as the Echo and arguably much nicer to look at. Most people would say it looks like an air freshener, and I’d agree. That’s not a bad thing: it’s easy to put the speaker anywhere in your home — your kitchen, bedroom, living room, etc. — without having it stick out like an obvious piece of gadgetry.
The Home is only available in white, but Google is selling optional bases for $20 each that can be had in fabric or metal finishes with a variety of colors to match your décor. The company provided me with a blue/teal fabric base and white metal option to accompany my review unit’s standard gray fabric, and they are both quite modern and appealing. My wife doesn't mind the look of the Echo, but she found the Home to be cute and inoffensive, which might be the most praise she’s ever given to a piece of technology.
On top of the Home is a touch-sensitive panel, which can be used to control the device’s volume, play and pause music, and activate its listening mode. There are colorful lights embedded in the panel that come to life whenever the Home hears its wake word or is responding to a command. It’s a subtler and more friendly approach than the Echo’s blue light that feels like it’s looking at you when you talk to it, but the Home's touch-based volume controls are not as easy to use as the Echo’s physical ring.
Also integrated into the top panel are two far-field microphones, which let the Home hear voice commands from across a room. The Home doesn’t have the seven microphones of the Echo, but I haven’t had many issues with it hearing my commands, even when it was playing music and I was speaking from across the room. Occasionally, the Home would not respond immediately, but it didn’t ever perform a different action than requested. Other colleagues that have tested it, however, have noticed that it doesn’t pick up their voice quite as well from a distance.
Like the Echo, the Home comes to life with a wake word, which is either the familiar-to-Android users "OK Google" or the easier-to-say "Hey Google." Neither are particularly natural to speak out loud, and both make it feel like you’re talking to a brand instead of a human assistant. Google says it is looking at and testing different wake words and phrases, but it would not commit to offering a fully customizable option when I asked. (Selfishly, I want to set the wake word to "Alfred," so I can pretend that I’m Batman protecting the city of Gotham everyday.)
This always-listening feature is what makes the Home (and Echo) so useful, but raises a number of privacy concerns you might not be comfortable with. In order to perform actions and provide responses, the Home sends its information to Google’s cloud for processing. The company insists that it only does so after it’s heard the wake word, so it’s not constantly recording every sound and conversation around it. There’s also a mute button on the back of the device that turns off the listening feature entirely.
The data that the Home does send back to Google is stored with all of the other data in your Google account, and can be reviewed anytime at myactivity.google.com. Still, you might not feel comfortable with an always-listening Google device in your home, and that’s perfectly understandable. (For what it’s worth, this is the same policy Amazon has with the Echo, but some might feel more comfortable with the Echo always listening and collecting data versus the Google Home, which touches many more parts of their lives and thus collects substantially more data.)
The bottom half of the Home houses one speaker with two passive radiators. Google says it designed the speaker to get loud enough to fill a room without distorting at full volume. It has surprisingly loud output and, in my experience, had no trouble filling the various rooms in my house with sound. Much like the Echo, it won’t win any awards for sound quality and is mostly comparable to an average Bluetooth speaker, but for everyday listening it’s fine.
Despite Google’s marketing and desire for the Home to be a virtual assistant, most people will use it as a voice-controlled connected music speaker, and it’s quite good for that purpose. In addition to using the built-in sources of Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, and Pandora, you can wirelessly cast audio from your phone or laptop to the Home, opening up a wealth of sources that can be played on it. It doesn’t have Bluetooth connectivity like the Echo, but I haven’t missed that in the time I’ve been using it.
Having a connected speaker in your home changes how you listen to music. A simple "Hey Google, play Discover Weekly" will fire up my personalized Spotify playlist. Or I can say "Hey Google, play some chill music" in the evening and it will comply. The Home works with more precise requests, too: I can ask for specific songs, artists, or albums, and it will pull them up in a matter of seconds. All of this is done without requiring me to pick up a device, open an app, or type in anything — I just say "Hey Google" and ask for what I want, change the volume, skip tracks, and so on. The Echo is controlled in much the same way, and the differences between the two are negligible at best.
The Home won’t replace a full speaker system and it isn’t designed to keep the dance floor going at your next house party. If you do want more volume or better sound, the Home can send its audio to a Chromecast Audio-connected speaker, by just saying "Hey Google, play this on Chromecast Audio." It doesn’t yet work with speakers with built-in Cast support, but Google says this will be coming in the near future. You can also group multiple Home units together and play music though all of them simultaneously, similar to how Sonos works. Amazon doesn’t yet provide this feature with the Echo.
While a voice-activated, connected speaker is great, and probably enough to justify the Home’s cost, Google, like Amazon, has much greater ambitions for the Home. One of those ambitions is for it to become a control center for smart home gadgets, allowing you to turn lights on and off or adjust the thermostat with a simple voice command.
Right now, the Home supports Nest, Hue, and SmartThings, which covers the most popular smart lights and devices. If you’re up for it, you can also program IFTTT commands for other products. The Home has far fewer integrations than are now available for the Echo, but Google says it is working to bring more in the future.
An ambition for the Home is for it to be an entertainment controller, allowing you to ask it to play video on your TV. Right now, it can cast YouTube video to a Chromecast, so a "Hey Google, play the Hotline Bling video on the Chromecast" will kick off Drake’s video on my TV. Other requests I tested, such as "Play the Rogue One trailer" or "Play The Verge on the YouTube" were also successful. It’s very cool to see it in action, but it doesn’t work without some intervention from me: I still have to use my TV remote to turn on the TV, which takes away from the hands-free living in the future aspect of it all. (This, of course, varies on your setup — your TV might turn on when the Chromecast is activated, but mine did not. It did, however, correctly change the input if the TV was already on.)
Casting video to your TV with a voice command to Home is mostly just a demo at this point, but it’s easy to envision a future where you walk into your living room and ask the Home to play something on the TV before you even plop down on the couch. Google says that support for Netflix and other Cast-enabled apps is coming in the near future, which will make this feature much more relevant and useful.
But the killer app for Google Home is artificial intelligence, better known as Google Assistant. The main ambition for this device and the software that powers it is to be a personal assistant that’s always at the ready, waiting for your command. Most of the company’s marketing around the product has been to push the concept of a virtual assistant that manages your calendar, tells you of flight delays, keeps tabs on your to-do list, requests an Uber when you need it, and so on.
The reality is that the Home is a pretty useless assistant in its current form. Sure, it can answer questions like how far away the moon is, or tell me how many cups are in a liter, or set a timer for my cookies in the oven when I ask it to. I can ask it to wake me up at six in the morning, then ask it to snooze the alarm when I don’t want to wake up at 6AM. It can give me a news briefing on command, put things on a shopping list, or tell me the score of the most recent Broncos game and when the next game will be. A lot of these functions are exactly the same as the Echo’s, but Google’s intelligence shines through in small ways: it knows that when I ask to be woken up at six tomorrow, I’m referring to 6AM and not 6PM. Alexa isn’t smart enough for that and asks me to clarify.
It’s also smart enough to remember the context of prior questions, so I can use pronouns with follow ups, which is something Alexa on the Echo cannot do. An example is asking "Who is the president of the United States?" and then asking "When was he born?" or "When did he take office?" and so on. It will even tell jokes. The only thing that really spoils this conversational experience is the fact that I have to say "OK Google" before each and every question.
But as smart as the Home and Google Assistant is, none of the things it does are proactive — at least, not yet. They all require me to ask it to do something. A true assistant would know when I need to wake up in the morning based on my schedule, or know when I need to leave for my next meeting. It would know that I typically go grocery shopping on Sundays and would have a list of usual things I buy ready to go in the morning and ask me if there’s anything I’d like to add. Even better, it’d place an order for those groceries for me, so they’d be delivered to my door automatically.
Further, the Home’s virtual assistant can’t do a lot of the things I’d expect it to. It can’t add appointments to my calendar, it can’t set reminders, it can’t send messages, and it can’t place phone calls. It can’t even see appointments on a shared calendar on my account. I can do all of those things with the Google Assistant on the Pixel, so why can’t I do them with the same Google Assistant on the Home?
Perhaps the most limiting factor is the fact that the Home only works with one Google account at a time. I have a personal Google account that has all of my search history, music tastes, purchase history, communications, and whatever else Google has saved on me, and 2 work accounts that has most of my calendar appointments and contacts, The Home is most useful when it’s linked to my personal account, but then it doesn’t have any of the critical information from my work account, so most of the time it just thinks my calendar is empty or that I have no upcoming events.
The single account limitation also makes it very difficult to use the Home in a family setting — the precise way that Google advertises it in its marketing. If my spouse asks the Home to add something to a to-do list, it gets added to my account, my to-do list, my devices, etc., not hers. The Home has no idea what her schedule is like, nor does it know her personal preferences for music and other things. All of this is fine when a virtual assistant is baked into a phone, which is primarily used by a single person. But the Home is supposed to be a center-point in the modern home, accessible and useful to everyone that lives there.
Google says that it is well aware of these issues and it is working through ways to resolve them. Company representatives wouldn’t say exactly how it’s going to make multi-account support on the Home work, nor would they commit to a time frame for when it will be available. The fact is that as it stands right now, like the Pixel, the Google Assistant on the Home is not great, though it may be one day.
The takeaway is this: Google has a lot of ambition for the Home that’s just not realized in its current form. Google wants the Home to be the access point to all of its intelligence and services in your home, the thing you turn to when you need a question answered or need something done and don’t have a phone or other screen in front of you. And Google, arguably, is better-positioned to do this than some of its competitors.
But right now, the Home is largely just a Googl-esque Echo: it’s a little better-looking, is a little smarter when you ask it questions, and is a little easier to set up. It’s a pretty good voice-activated connected speaker and a pretty good way to control smart home gadgets, if you have them.
Despite Google’s wealth of knowledge about me and my habits, information I’ve been handing it for over a decade, I’ve really just found the Home to be useful for the same things I’ve been doing with the Echo for the last 18 months: playing music, controlling my lights, setting my alarm, and setting timers. If you’ve been tempted by the Echo and haven’t yet jumped in, the Home will give you largely the same experience for $50 less, which is a good thing. A lot of people love the Echo, and I think a lot of people will love what the Home can do for them right now.
But for the Home — and by extension, Google Assistant — to be as indispensable as Google is everywhere else, it needs to do a lot more. It needs to be a lot smarter; it needs to know a lot more about me, my family, and our habits; and it needs to be more proactive with its assistance. Google says this is just its first effort, and it has a lot more planned for the Home, including addressing many of the specific shortcomings I’ve pointed out.
If Google succeeds with its ambitions for Home, the question will not be whether or not the Home is ready to do everything you need it to, it will be are you ready to have an always-listening Google bot in your home?