Google Home tiptoes the line between a fun novelty and a taste of the future. While it's voice recognition is top notch, the smart speaker is best suited for those willing to invest in other smart home appliances and technologies. Google Home is fine as a standalone product, but better as part of a bigger ecosystem.
What we love
- Excellent voice recognition
- Reasonable price
- Easy to setup
- Six-month free trial of YouTube Red / Google Play Music
What could be improved
- Average audio quality
- Limited integration with third party services
- Wonderful when it works, frustrating when it doesn't
- Works best with other smart home devices
What is it?
Google Home is essentially Google Assistant in a box. Well, a cylinder.
Home takes Google's voice activated digital helper out of your phone and into your house. Want to know something? Just shout out "Hey Google" followed by your question or command, and you'll get a response. It's science fiction wish fulfillment.
It might not quite be the Computer from Star Trek, but whether you need to know how much traffic there is on the way to work, to hear your favourite song, or even just to set an alarm, Google Home can help.
Google Home is part of an emerging category of devices colloquially referred to smart speakers. Amazon Echo kickstarted the movement, but isn't available here without jumping through hoops. Apple's Siri speaker - HomePod - isn't due until December.
For the most part, these are all still first generation products, so if summoning Siri or Okaying Google gives you nightmares, there's a good chance Google Home isn't for you, at least yet.
Google Home is the first smart speaker to make it to our sunburnt country, and does a wonderful job of packaging an alien idea into an accessible product. From the simple setup process to the clean, inoffensive design, Home is almost begging for a spot in your home.
Getting up and running with Google Home should take less than 10 minutes, but from there, it becomes a question of utility. There's no denying that Google Home is an awesome party trick, but long term usefulness will come down to where you keep it and what other devices you own.
I was absolutely floored the first time I used Google Home to control my Chromecast. Like an intrepid starship captain, I commanded "Hey Google, play Rick & Morty on Netflix on my TV". Thanks to HDMI-CEC, the screen flickered to life, already displaying the familiar loading screen.
This felt like the future. A future where I can blurt orders into the aether, and computers around me fall in line.
Unfortunately, as satisfying as bending machines to my will was, I haven't really used this functionality since. My TV's native Netflix app delivers better quality than my Chromecast, makes it easier to jump back into whatever show I was watching, and is all round easier to browse.
Where Google Home really shines is more day-to-day tasks. Home, for example, is the perfect sous-chef. It will cheerfully blip out conversions, set timers, and suggest substitutes for ingredients you don't have on hand. I hope gen two can chop onions.
These might all be things you can do on your smartphone, but Home offers more immediacy; you don't have to take off your oven mitts, you don't have to wash your hands, you don't have to spend 30 seconds searching for where you left your phone.
The "my day" feature is another example of this. If you ask Google Home to tell you about your day, it will prattle off weather forecasts, any calendar appointments or reminders you've set, estimated commute time to work, and a customisable news briefing.
Again, these are all things you can do on your smartphone, but Google Home makes them a little bit more immediate. It takes a number of complex tasks and simplifies them down to one command.
My favourite Google Home feature is, however, smart home integration. I've got my living room and bedroom kitted out with Wi-Fi powered smart bulbs (LIFX, if you're curious), and Home essentially lets me to talk to my lights.
I can holler out "Hey Google, turn on the living room" when I get home in the evening, saddled with groceries. I can turn off my bedside lamp without fumbling around with the awkwardly placed switch. I can dim my bulbs from the comfort of my couch. I can turn my lights red and promptly freak out any guests.
Using a physical light switch is starting to feel weird. I guess I live in the future now.
Of course, all of this functionality would be useless if Google Home sucked at speech recognition. It doesn't, and even does a respectable job of picking up your voice over music, the blare of a TV, or other background noise. There's been one or two times I've spoken too quietly for Google Home, but for the most part, I haven't had to repeat a command because it hasn't heard.
Enunciation and phrasing are another matter. I've had Home mistake "turn the lights on" for "turn the lights off" a couple of times when I've spoken too quickly or haven't used enough emphasis. And while you can talk to Home quite naturally, there are times where you have to speak in a specific order or using specific words to get Google Home to understand what you're on about.
This adds a slight learning curve while you're working out the right way to phrase your questions, and has occasionally left me wondering why I didn't just grab my phone. Nothing kills the sci-fi fantasy faster than hearing "I'm sorry, I can't do that".
What's not so good?
Google Home may be a speaker, but don't expect too much when it comes to audio quality. Home doesn't sound bad, but it's not amazing either; it's about on par with the much cheaper UE Wonderboom, which isn't a bad thing. The quality does however fall short of similarly priced Bluetooth speakers or entry level multiroom speakers such as Sonos' Play:1.
While we'd say music playback isn't the main reason you'd buy Google Home, it is a key part of Google's pitch; you even get a bonus six-month subscription to Google Play Music and YouTube Red with your purchase. If you don't care about using Google Home for music or you're okay with "just okay" sound, this isn't an issue, but if you were hoping Google Home would also be an awesome speaker, you're out of luck.
Third party apps that can integrate with Google Home are currently non-existent in Australia. Google has been slowly rolling out this functionality around the world, but we're not yet able to ask Home to book an Uber or order a pizza. Fingers crossed this makes its way here shortly. Personally I'd love to see integration with Hey You; calling out "Hey Google, order my regular coffee" as I leave home in the morning would be a little amazing.
As a standalone device, Google Home can feel a little limited. For me, Google Home has been the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to smart home technology, everything else is just a bonus. Daily briefings, timers, conversions, and alarms are nice to have, but I wouldn't necessarily buy a Google Home for those features.
I would however buy a Google Home to let me talk to my light bulbs. But if you are after smart home functionality, you'll be need to commit more than Home's $199 asking price; the lights I use start at around $60 a bulb.
Support for third party apps could very well make Google Home a lot more useful as a standalone product, but as it stands, Home is at its best with friends.
Who is it for?
Google Home manages to tiptoe the line between fun novelty and a taste of the future. Provided you're comfortable talking to your tech, Google Home can make life feel like science fiction.
The problem is Google Home still feels a little beta or "first generation". There's no middle ground; it's wonderful when it works, and frustrating when it doesn’t. If you hate repeating yourself to colleagues, friends, or partners, you're going to hate it even more when you're talking to a Google-powered robot.
Google will almost certainly keep improving Home over time, but it's best suited to early adopters for the moment. If you're okay with being on the bleeding edge or you've already got some compatible smart home kit in your house, Google Home is easy to recommend. Home is a little niche and a touch limited, but it achieves what Google set out to do.
If you're more of a "wait and see" type, Google Home is more of a gamble. It's the kind of tech you can fall in love with, but it's not without its quirks.