March 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 3

Product Evaluations and Guides

There's No Place like Google Home: A Review of Google's Voice Assistant

The idea of interacting with a voice assistant is not new. Many of our readers may remember Tellme, a telephone voice portal that offered up weather forecasts, sports scores, and movie listings among other services through an interactive voice response system that was revolutionary for its time. Fast-forward to 2017 and voice assistants are now present in a variety of gadgets including Siri on the iPhone and Alexa on the Amazon Echo.

Google is one of the latest companies to enter this growing market with Google Home, a voice assistant that is designed to blend in with your d?cor and help you with many facets of your life. We put the assistant through its paces and also put it to the test vs. the Amazon Echo.

Physical Appearance

Google Home is a white cylindrical device about 6 inches tall that is designed to sit on a desk or nightstand. Weighing just over a pound, it's about 4 inches in diameter and includes a single monaural speaker near the base. Speaking of the base, the included bottom can be swapped out for a variety of replacements in various colors, a definite indication that Google is serious about the device blending in with any room of your house.

The top face of the device slants downward towards the user and includes some basic controls. Tapping the center of the control face will play and pause music. Raising and lowering the volume is accomplished by moving your finger clockwise or counter-clockwise around the outer edge of the control face. Although the top is basically a flat surface, these controls are easy to manage with a bit of practice, and audible cues are provided. On the back is a single button that will turn the microphone on and off when pressed, or reset the unit if held down. The power plug is connected on the bottom edge of the speaker and is proprietary.

Initial Setup

The setup of Home is accomplished through Google Home app for iOS and Android devices. The app works with virtually any iPhone, iPad, or Android device that has been released in the past four years. While a phone or tablet is not required for operation of the assistant, it is the only way to perform the initial setup.

After plugging in the unit, setup basically involves connecting Home to your wireless network using the app. You can optionally enter in additional information like your address, which then can be used by various services discussed below. The apps are accessible and simple to use with VoiceOver or TalkBack, and online help is available if needed.

Basic Usage

Google Home is an always-on assistant designed to listen for commands from you or others in your home. The two far-field microphones are designed to detect sound from several feet away, and often Home understood me when I yelled from the next room.

Once activated by the phrase "OK Google" or "Hey Google," Home then listens for a command. By default, a ring of colored lights will display on the control face when it recognizes one of the activation phrases. You can have an audio tone played upon activation by turning on an option under Accessibility Settings in Google Home app. In any case, you can say your entire command without waiting for the device to light up or play the tone and it will respond. In most cases, Home responds to your query or command by voice within a second or two. You can also activate Home by holding a finger on the center of the control face of the unit for a couple of seconds, in which case you won't need to say the "OK Google" phrase.

Like most devices in this category, Google Home is always listening and makes recordings of your voice. While Google's privacy policy gives specific details on how these recordings are used, some users may wish to turn off the microphone using the button on the back. The Home will respond with a voice confirmation when this button is pressed.

The assistant is designed to perform a variety of tasks including providing information, setting timers, and playing music. For instance, you could ask, "What was the score of the Detroit Lions Game?" or "Who starred in 'Jurassic Park'?" The Home will provide answers from its own bank of knowledge or from popular websites such as Wikipedia or Allrecipes. It can also provide weather forecasts, movie listings for local theaters, stock quotes, and business listings.

To give you an idea of the power of Google Home, here are a few commands.

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • Set an alarm for 7 o'clock.
  • How many sticks of butter are in a cup?
  • Where is the nearest pizza place?
  • Who is the quarterback for the Broncos?
  • Roll 5 dice
  • What sound does a cow make?
  • Play Mad Libs

Let's Play Some Music

Google Home can serve as the DJ for your next party. It connects with Pandora, Spotify, Google Play Music and YouTube for audio as well as TuneIn for radio stations and podcasts. Some services, such as Spotify, require a paid premium account to work with Home. Google Home also provides daily news updates from a variety of sources including CBS Radio news, NPR, the BBC, and ESPN.

You can control music and audio using your voice with commands such as "Next," "Volume 7," or "Skip ahead 30 seconds." To identify a track, ask, "What is this song?" In our tests, voice control of music generally works well, though you may need to raise your voice if Home is playing music at a loud volume.

Google Home also supports a feature called Chromecast Audio. This lets you send music and audio files from your phone to Google Home. Or put another way, you can use your phone to select music and then select the Cast button to send the audio to the Google Home speaker. This can be done from anywhere on the same Wi-Fi network, meaning you can control the speaker from anywhere in your home. This also gives a possible advantage for speech users, as you can control the music for a get-together without having screen reader audio going through the speaker system.

If you have a Chromecast device or a Smart TV that supports Chromecast, you can control some video apps, including Netflix, from Home. For instance, "Watch 'House of Cards'" will play the popular drama on your nearby television. You can also tell Google Home to play audio on another Chromecast device in your house.

Google Home and the Rest of Your Home

Google Home harnesses the power of a variety of smart home devices, allowing you to control lights, outlets, thermostats, and other household items using your voice. The list of supported devices is small but growing and includes Nest thermostats and Philips Hue lights. New partners are being added often. The Home also works with a third-party service called IFTTT, which supports dozens of additional smart devices and brands.

Additional Services

The Home has recently launched support for what Google calls "Actions." These are voice programs written by other companies that are available from the device. Currently, one can order an Uber or a pizza from Dominos, play the audio game SongPop (like "Name That Tune"), or use Busuu to learn Spanish. Currently, the list of available actions is small but expected to grow rather quickly in the coming months.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo

The question you may have is how Google Home compares to the Amazon Echo. While there are notable differences, each serves as an excellent companion for music or everyday tasks.

Both devices include volume controls and a button to manually activate and deactivate the microphones. Home also lets you touch the center of the control face on the device to play and pause music. Echo's seven microphones best Home's two, though the difference in practice is minimal. Home's forward-facing speaker offers more bass while Echo's 360-degree speaker offers more treble.

As for functionality and computing power, the differences are harder to explain. Amazon released the first generation Echo at the end of 2014 so they have a two-year lead on features and services. That being said, Home, backed by Google's nearly two decades of search knowledge, has launched with a vengeance. Home excels on answering a wider variety of questions, such as "How do you tie a tie?" (the answer is instructions from ties.com). Conversely, Amazon offers far more integrations with smart appliances, meaning that chances are high it can communicate with your smart thermostat, lights, or oven. The blog Android Police has posted a 50-question comparison between the two assistants on YouTube, which may help to make things a bit clearer. You may also be interested in this article from AFB's VisionAware website, which goes into more detail about the Echo.

Conclusion

The era of modern smart assistants is just beginning with several new options being released as this article was going to publication. Surely Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung will want their piece of this emerging market and release Echo and Home competitors--the competition can only serve to make all of these products more powerful and versatile. In conclusion, while my smartphone can do many of the same tasks that Google Home does, it's nice to have a machine that I can yell at wherever I am in my house, regardless of where my phone happens to be. The hands-free operation lets me set timers, read recipes, or call an Uber with little effort, making the device an integral part of my life. Plus, these devices are always being updated with new features and capabilities, making their future value even higher. If you enjoy talking to Siri on your iPhone or are looking for an easy way to accomplish everyday tasks, these devices are well worth the look.

Product Information

Product: Google Home assistant
Price: $129

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