Not just because Home is smaller, cheaper ($130 versus $180) and prettier than the Echo, but because Google Assistant, the built-in digital assistant Google’s big AI bet on the future is supposed to put all other digital assistants to shame.
Echo’s Alexa is no dummy. With its year head-start, Alexa’s gotten so much brainier that I was surprised it was able to answer many of the questions I asked. Alexa also has over 3,000 “skills” integrations with third-party products and services at its disposal. For instance, you can now easily set up your Echo to order you an Uber or read Twitter updates on command.
But as smart as Alexa is today, Google’s Assistant is potentially a lot smarter because of the work Google has put in to understand context. It can also tap directly into Google Search and other services.
Still, after using Home for almost a week, it’s clear to me that it’s still very, very early days for AI at home.
If you already own an Echo, you probably don’t need a Home, unless you really care about having the Assistant read you search results. But if you don’t own an Echo and haven’t yet set up a smart home, Home is a great place to start (assuming you’re okay with giving Google a physical presence in your home).
Fits right at home
Say what you want about Home looking like a Glade air freshener, but compared to the Echo, it’s a downright looker.
Home blends better into my home decor on my kitchen counter or on a bookshelf than the black-Pringles-can look the Echo has going. Home looks less like a gadget and more like a piece of modern art; the only thing that gives it away is the flat cable snaking out the backside, but that can easily be tucked away.
Home is also customizable. The standard gray fabric base pops right off with a light tug and you can swap in a different color made of either fabric ($20) or metal ($40). Google sent over a “Mango”-colored fabric base and a black metal base to check out and I’ve taken a real liking to the orange.
On the back, there’s a single button to mute and un-mute the microphone. And that’s it for physical buttons, unless you count the touch-sensitive top; you can tap it to play and pause a song, use a clockwise gesture (with one finger) to increase volume and a counterclockwise gesture to decrease volume, and tap it to cancel a Google Assistant command.
The top lights up with four dots (blue, red, yellow and green) when you say “OK, Google,” and they spin when it’s searching for an answer.
Controlling your house
Functionally, Home is capable of doing everything the Echo does. Just like the Echo, it’s got a built-in speaker to play music from various music services like Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify (premium account) and Pandora. It also connects to smart-home devices from Philips, Nest, SmartThings and Chromecast devices (of course). It also works with the digital “recipe” service IFTTT.
If you’ve never used an Echo with Alexa to control your smart home, you’re going to be mighty impressed.
Using the Google Home app (formerly called Google Cast) for iOS and Android, I was able to easily connect my Philips Hue smart light bulbs and Nest Cam, and within minutes say “OK, Google, turn on living room lights.”
If you’ve never used an Echo with Alexa to control your smart home, you’re going to be mighty impressed. It’s going to feel like magic. But since I’ve been using an Echo and Alexa for over a year now, it just felt normal. The “OK, Google” command doesn’t feel quite as personal as “Alexa…” (or “Hey, Siri” for that matter), but it works.
Despite its small size, the Home is a decent speaker. Google says it included a “high-excursion speaker” for clear highs and rich bass. The speaker sounds good (comparable to most $50-75 Bluetooth speakers), but the Echo sounds better with deeper bass and clearer highs at the loudest volume. You’ll hear more distortion at louder volumes with Home.
Compared to the Echo, Home’s a little lacking when it comes to device support I can’t connect the Wink smart plug I have set up in my bedroom to Home like I can with the Echo but hopefully that’ll expand in the months following its release.
One thing Home has going for it: Chromecast support. If you’ve got a Chromecast plugged into your TV or a Chromecast Audio plugged into a speaker and they’re turned on, you can say something like “OK, Google, play Casey Neistat videos on TV,” and it’ll play his newest vlog video. Say “OK, Google, play the Weeknd on bedroom speaker,” and it’ll play music from whatever supported music service you have it set to.
It’s not quite full entertainment-center automation but really cool nonetheless. Besides, it’s just awesome being able to use voice controls to play YouTube videos.
Smarter than Alexa
“Credit to the team at Amazon for creating for creating a lot of excitement in [the home AI space],” Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, said during this year’s I/O keynote. “We’ve been thinking about our own unique approach.”
It’s rare for a company, let alone one as large as Google, to publicly tip its hat at a competitor. But by doing so, Google is admitting Home is playing catch-up to the Echo.
And when you’re behind, you need something that’s more than just a “me-too” product. You need something that matches the competition and has its own compelling twist.
Powered by over a decade of natural-language processing and Google Search, the Assistant is simply brainier than Alexa in almost every way. It knows 70 billion facts, according to Google, and is constantly adding more knowledge to its artificial gray matter. If it doesn’t know something, it’ll try to find an answer from the internet using Google Search.
Last month, while reviewing the Pixels, I pitted the Assistant against Siri and the Assistant emerged triumphant. I did the same with the Assistant and Alexa and no surprise the Assistant was able to answer more questions in more detail.
For starters, the Assistant is able to understand context better. For instance, you can ask it a question, then follow it with another and another. Alexa couldn’t even answer the first question below.
Q: When did Michael Jordan retire?
Home: Michael Jordan career ended in 1995 and 2003.
Q: And how tall is he?
Home: He’s 6’6″ tall.
Q: Does he have any kids?
Home: Marcus Jordan, Jeffrey Michael Jordan, and three others.
Q: Where does he live now?
Home: According to Reference.com, Jordan also owns a luxury condo in Charlotte, N.C. and a property in Salt Lake City. He has sold his Chicago mansion for $29 million.
Missed the answer the first time? Just say “repeat that.” But don’t wait too long or else the Assistant will tell you “I forgot what I said.”
The stronger conversational queries are great, but they’re not perfect. Sometimes when you ask a completely unrelated follow-up question, it still thinks you’re talking about the same previous topic.
Assistant also knows traffic information data:
Q: How long does it take to bike to the World Trade Center?
Home: It takes 18 minutes to bike to One World Trade Center.
Echo: Your current location is 10.6 miles, 17.1 kilometers from World Trade Center. As I don’t know your speed, I can’t tell you how long it’ll take.
And the weather in more places:
Q: Whats the weather like in Lake Elkhorn?
Home: Right now in Lake Elkhorn, it’s 57 and cloudy. Today, it’ll be cloudy with a forecast high of 59 and a low of 58.
Echo: Sorry, I couldnt find info on location.
And translations (although not all of the languages from Google Translate), which is super convenient:
Q: Translate “This is the best day ever” into French.
Home: C’est le meilleur jour.
Echo: Sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question.
And recipes (swiped from the internet):
Q: How do I make meatloaf?
Home: According to McCormick: Preheat oven to 350F. Mix ground beef, bread crumbs, egg and seasonings in large bowl. Shape into a loaf on shallow baking pan. Pour ketchup over top. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until cooked through.
Echo: Hmm, I don’t know but you can take a look at the Bing search link I added in the Alexa app.
And nutritional info (to maybe help you stop eating so much junk):
Q: How much fiber is there in a pretzel?
Home: There are 0.9 grams of fiber in one salted pretzel.
Echo: Hmm, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.
And how to soothe a sore throat:
Q: What do I do about my sore throat?
Home: Here’s some information that’ll help soothe sore throats. According to Every Day Roots: Heat the water until it is very warm, but not so warm that you cant drink it. Mix in teaspoon of salt and teaspoon or a little less baking soda, stir, and test the temperature. Pour some of the liquid into your throat, let it sit for a moment, then gargle. Do this twice in a row 3 times daily.
Echo: Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.
The Assistant is also funny:
Q: Is Siri better than you?
Home: Siri is the best Siri. I try to be the best Google Assistant.I think Siri is great. I’m definitely more Google-y.
Echo: I’m not better. Just different.
And knows way more pickup lines than Alexa, which knows exactly two:
Q: Tell me a pickup line.
Did it hurt when you fell from heaven? If so, I can find you the nearest doctors office.
It’s a good thing I have my library card because I love books.
Do you wash your clothes with Windex? Because you shouldn’t, I can find tips for doing laundry.
If I could rearrange the alphabet I wouldn’t because that would be mayhem.
This place must have have good Wi-Fi because I’m definitely feeling a good connection.
You must be the square root of two because I get irrational around you.
Where Home and Echo both fall short is making shopping lists. You can add items to a shopping list (Home adds it to your Google Keep app) but you can’t remove any items using voice controls. I don’t need toilet paper on my list twice, guys!
Pichai touts Assistant as “your own personal Google.” Hands-down, Assistant is the smartest digital assistant on the block, but it’s still got lots to learn before it replaces any human assistant or butler.
My only real complaint with Home is that it has the same multi-room problem that hampered the Echo. That is, there’s no way to get a multi-room setup unless you buy multiple Home devices. Amazon’s solved this issue with the smaller, cheaper $50 Echo Dot, which comes in a six-pack for $250. It’ll be interesting to see if Google releases an Echo Dot counterpart or insists you just use the Assistant on your Pixel.
Will get better over time
I felt a sense of dj vu reviewing Google Home. It felt like the Echo all over again. In almost every sense, Home is like the Echo was over a year ago, but better out of the gate.
Home is instantly intuitive to use and intelligent enough to satisfy anyone who’s never used a voice-controlled digital assistant at home before.
Google nailed every trick the Echo could do at launch and packaged it all into a more attractive, customizable air freshener-like design. Extras like Chromecast support give the Home a slight edge when it comes to talking to your TV and speakers.
I’ve got my quibbles with the Assistant’s limitations just like I did with Alexa at first, but Google’s only scratching the surface of what it can do. Once Google opens the floodgates for Assistant to connect to more Google services (with your permission, of course) like Gmail, Google Maps, Google Photos, etc., then it’ll really be your own personal Google.
And at $130, you could buy a Home and a $50 Echo Dot for the price of one Echo, and live in both worlds.
Home is brimming with delight with what it can do today, but it’s what it’ll be able to do in the future that will make it a fixture in every home.
$50 cheaper than Echo Base is customizable Responsive voice controls Google Assistant is way smarter than Alexa
Only connects to three major smart home brands Doesn’t sound as good as an Echo
The Bottom Line
Google Home gives the Amazon Echo a solid run for its money.