Google Home Mini review—A gateway drug for the Google Assistant

How much can you slice away from a Google Home and have it still be good? That was the question asked of Google’s hardware team when it created the Google Home Mini, a device that slashes the $129 Google Home down to a mere $50. The result is a smaller, cheaper, simpler device that still has all the Google Assistant smarts of its bigger brother without a speaker system capable of pumping out decent-sounding music. If you’ve ever wondered if this voice command stuff would work in your house and need a test device, Google is hoping you’ll take a gamble on this cheap little device.

Most of the features we covered in the original Google Home review still apply. The Home Mini still has an incredible mesh hotword system, seamlessly creating a Star Trek-like voice command network with other Google Homes and Android devices. A shout of “OK Google” and the Google Home hivemind will instantly identify the closest device to you and singularly answer you on that device. You still manage it through the Google Home app. It still has a bunch of voice commands. In this review, we’re mainly looking at the hardware, so let’s dive in!

The hardware

The design of the Google Home Mini is kind of cute. It’s a small circle that’s 3.86-inches (98mm) in diameter and 1.65-inches (42mm) tall. The top is covered in a woven cloth material, while the bottom half is plastic with a big rubber foot. It looks like someone stuck a donut inside a sock. Since the Google Home Mini looks like a piece of laundry or a couch cushion, it blends in to a home environment much easier than the white plastic obelisk that is the original Google Home.

Under the stock fabric is a set of four lights, which work just like the ones on the big Google Home. This is a step down from the Google Home’s 11 lights, but hey, we’re trying to cut costs here. The lights will turn on when the Google Home is talking or listening to you, and they also indicate the volume level (1 to 4) when you adjust the volume. The lights are RGB LEDs, but mostly they’re content to stay their default hue of white.

Google Home Mini touch points.
Enlarge / Google Home Mini touch points.

Google

The top surface is touch sensitive. Tapping on the left and right (the “front” is opposite the power cord) changes the volume. Tapping the center will pause or play the currently loaded music, and long-pressing the center will start the listening mode as an alternative to saying “OK Google.” Currently, this is disabled because at least one Google Home Mini shipped with a defective touch surface, which caused it to accidentally record a lot more than it should.

On the back of the device you’ll find the power cord, along with a physical “mute microphone” switch that you can move left and right. Sliding the mute switch to the right will turn off the mini’s microphone, exposing a bright orange layer under the switch and turning the four lights orange. A physical switch is an odd choice, since you can also mute Google Home by voice. This means you can cause the switch to be out of sync with the actual mute state.

Google’s hardware division is all over the place when it comes to the power plugs for its devices. The Google Wi-Fi, released last year, was a welcome surprise with a USB-C port just for power. Given Google’s pioneering work with USB-C in products like the Chromebook Pixel 2 and Nexus/Pixel Phone line, Google seemed like it was going to push this reversible plug standard to everything. The original Google Home was an outlier, with a coaxial DC power jack, but since it was developed around the same time as the Google WiFi, you could assume that maybe the USB-C revolution just didn’t make it in time. A year later, the new Google Home Mini is at a weird halfway point, using an old-school micro USB port for power. What the plug is doesn’t really matter, given that you probably won’t ever lose the Mini’s power cord and need to replace it. But it’s an example of Google Hardware lacking uniformity.

On the bottom of the Mini, you’ll find a bright orange rubber foot with a “G” logo stamped into it. The foot serves to firmly anchor the Mini to whatever you stick it on, but it also has a hidden little button on the bottom. If you hold it down, you’ll factory-reset the Mini.

Google Home, now without its best feature

The other big thing to go on the Mini is the sound. When Google introduced Google Home last year, the company definitely seemed to take a “minimum viable product” approach to launching the device. Google Home generally felt unfinished and couldn’t do many of the things that we had come to expect from Google’s voice command system, but the one thing it could do well was music. Multiple Google Homes could be placed around your house and connected together, and they would accomplish the surprisingly difficult task of playing seamless music throughout your house.

It seemed like “good music playback” was the minimum viable product for Google Home at launch, and now, a year later, Google is launching a Google Home device that isn’t meant for music playback. The Mini can play back music—it just really shouldn’t. The Google Home Mini only has a single 40mm driver, and while it gets fairly loud, the bass is non-existent, the highs are clipped, and it’s just overall an unpleasant speaker for music.

Google also describes the Mini as a “360-degree speaker,” but what Google actually means is that the speaker points straight up. The point is, the Mini isn’t any good at playing music. It seems tuned for voice and voice only, which is fine for hearing command affirmations and the weather report.

What do you do with a Google Home that shouldn’t play music, though? Should you add the Mini to the Google Home speaker group and have a low-quality speaker blaring away when you’re playing music? After a few test runs, I chose to remove it from the music speaker group, because it just sounds bad. As someone who’s a fan of the whole-home music idea, this makes finding a place for the Google Home Mini in my house difficult. I ask myself the question, “Where do I want voice commands, but not music?” and I can’t come up with a spot that fits that description. I feel like the Home Mini is nice if you’re experimenting or on a budget, but if you care about music, there’s little reason to get a mini if you can afford a full-sized Google Home.

If you want to buy a $35 Chromecast Audio along with your $50 Google Home Mini, you can use the Mini as a “smart bridge” for a real speaker system. This seems like the use case in which the Mini shines brightest. You get to keep the music playback while not using the Mini’s crappy speaker. The Amazon Echo Dot has the same idea, but since it uses a good, old-fashioned 3.5mm jack, you can hook up a speaker without the need for an expensive dongle and yet another power plug. It’s a shame the Mini can’t do the same.

So what’s left other than music?

Any time I talk to someone considering a Google Home, I ask them “What do you think you’ll use it for?” If you can’t immediately come up with a specific answer to that question, you’re probably not going to find a ton of use once you set it up. Right now, I would rank Google Home’s best use cases thusly:

  1. Music—Great sound. An awesome, easy way to get perfectly synced music in every room, which is a nightmare with regular audio equipment. This is not really an option for the Home Mini.
  2. Smart Home control—Great for turning lights on and off, controlling dimmers, and adjusting HVAC. You’ll need lots of expensive smart home equipment to make this work. The coming “routine” features will make this even better.
  3. Reminders—You can now finally tell Google Home to remind you of something, and it will do it.
  4. Phone Calls—It works as a speaker phone now. You can dial contacts or businesses.
  5. Finding your stuff—Google Home can now ring your smartphone when you need it. The Bluetooth beacon company Tile also has Google Assistant integration, so you can find stuff besides your phone (like your car keys), too.
  6. Asking questions—The answers to random trivia, unit conversions, and the weather report are just a question away.

That’s about it for now. Does that sound like enough functionality to bring yet another device into your home? Is it enough to make you want to put a Mini in every room, the way the small price point and mesh hotword capabilities suggest? The Google Home always felt like a cool speaker system with some extra smarts thrown in. With the main speaker functionality gone in the Mini, you’re left with the “extra smarts,” and I’m not sure those features are enough to feel like a fully formed product.

The good news is that the Google Home is a whole lot better this year than it was last year. Google doesn’t always support its products after launch, but with Google Home, the company seems committed to building a serious voice command ecosystem. While it still feels like an early adopter project, Home has been steadily improving all year.

In a later article, we plan on digging through all the additions made to Google Home over the year for a full re-review. But, for now, we can offer a quick rundown. This year Google Home added the ability to distinguish users by voice using its “Voice Match” technology. It added calendar-event creation, reminders, and reminder-notification support. You can make phone calls and even spoof caller ID with a Project Fi number. Home can read out cooking recipes. It can ring your phone. There’s also a growing world of third-party apps that can start your robotic vacuum cleaner, write up an IFTTT recipe, or call an Uber.

There are still a million-and-one edge cases where the Google Home frustrates. Google ruined the shopping list functionality by killing the excellent Google Keep integration and turning the shopping list into a big Google Express ad, and it is still awful. Podcast support is still a janky custom Google Home solution and not based on Google Music’s podcast subscriptions. Music and the hotword mesh across devices, but things like alarms and timers don’t, so an alarm triggered on one Google Home can’t be silenced on a different Google Home. The app has a feature called “Shortcuts,” which is supposed to let you assign a custom phrase to an action, but it flat-out doesn’t work.

Last month, Google sent an update to all Google Home users that required them to blow up their smart home settings and relink their devices to the Google Assistant. Google Home still feels like an early adopter product that isn’t finished.

At the launch of the Home Mini, Google announced a few features coming to Google Home in the future, too. “Routines” will allow you to program big macros into Google Home, so a single command like “Good night” could lock up the house, turn off the lights, lower the thermostat, read you tomorrow’s agenda, and (seriously) read you a bedtime story. “Broadcasts” will allow you to send a message to all the Google Homes in a household, sort of like an intercom system. Google is also working on a bigger hardware ecosystem, with its own $400 Google Home Max on the way and a slew of third-party devices coming next year.

A gateway drug to Google voice commands

Google

The Google Home Mini primarily serves as an easy entry point for a Google voice command system. It’s $50, and you can just plug it in, and it will work. You don’t have to buy a new $800 smartphone or a heavier $129 box. Google seems happy to give them away like candy, offering free Minis to anyone that buys a Pixel 2 or a $25 credit if you buy a Mini from Walmart using Google Express. I suspect Google will try to shovel these things at users as much as possible as a gateway drug into the Google Assistant ecosystem.

I have a hard time believing the Mini will ever stop feeling like a starter product, though. The device, which grew out of the Chromecast team, has such deep roots in media that it feels like sacrilege to have one without a decent speaker. I feel like the Mini is a good “test” device for those looking to dip their toes in the world of Google voice command products, but if you decide you like it, eventually the Mini will be relegated to a dusty closet and replaced with a bigger Google Home. Unless, of course, you also plan to buy a Chromecast Audio and will use an existing speaker system. Then a Mini or two for your existing setups seems like a great option.

A cheap gateway product into Google’s voice ecosystem is important to have, and the Mini serves that purpose perfectly. I’m not sure I would ever fill a house with Minis, though. It’s called a “Mini” for a reason—this is the small one you’re not meant to use for the full Google Home experience.

The Good

  • It’s cheap! For $50, newbies can easily experiment with Google’s voice command system.
  • The mostly cloth design merges easily into a home decor.
  • It’s small. You can put it anywhere, and it won’t be in the way.
  • Tethering to a Chromecast Audio is nice for those with bigger speakers, but a wired option would be nice, too.
  • Plenty of upgrades to the software were made in the past year.

The Bad

  • Google Home still feels like an early adopter product.
  • Music was the Google Home’s best feature, and this doesn’t really work with music.

The Ugly

  • The sound the speaker pumps out.

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