I’d be lying if I said unplugging my Amazon Echo didn’t feel a bit like a breakup. “Alexa,” I whispered while pulling the plug, “it’s just for now.” But it wasn’t Alexa, it was me. More specifically, it was someone else. I needed the space for Google Home.
The $129 Home smart speaker plays a vital role in Google’s futuristic vision of “a Google for everyone,” powered by its omnipresent Assistant. Virtually nothing about it is new; it’s like some Googler bought an Echo and wondered if, uh, maybe Google should make one, too. (I mean, the product development timeline does allow for this.) It’s not a knock-off, though. Google aspires to another level of power, personalization, and accuracy—not to mention a cuter package than the goth tennis ball can Amazon designed.
I like Home. It provides much of what Echo offers, while signaling far more product and platform ambition than Amazon. Great potential is worth only so much, though, and Amazon seems to understand better than anyone what’s possible with these devices right now. Sometimes Home feels like sci-fi magic. Sometimes it reaches beyond its grasp and falls flat. The Echo is less impressive, but more reliable.
The good news is, you can’t go wrong here. You’ll like them both, though neither is perfect. The question is how much you’re willing to bet on what these devices could be, and which company you think can deliver on that promise.
Speaker of the House
Any gadget sitting front-and-center in your home had better look nice. Home does. It sits 6 inches tall, with a bulbous bottom and a sharply sloped top which makes it easy to see the four lights that indicate Home is listening or working. It looks like something you might plant a succulent in, or a modernist orange juice carafe. Or an air freshener.
Home looks like a gadget you’d actually want in your home. Assistant does all the basic things really well, plus a few remarkably cool things too. It’s an impressively good speaker, for such a tiny package.
Not much of the Google-infused personalization or intelligence seems to be here yet. Google doesn’t have many third-party partners yet, so you’re stuck in Google Land.
The speaker is a subtle, matte white, and you can choose from a dozen bottom caps to complete the look. The back features a Google icon and a mute button for when you don’t want any eavesdropping. Home’s single cable nestles flat against the bottom. As long as you don’t have a complicated Wi-Fi setup, getting up and running with the Home app takes about two minutes. The whole thing is minimalist, thoughtful, and warm. It’ll look just right nestled between your fern and that Klabb table lamp you got at Ikea.
Home is an excellent speaker, by the way—richer, brighter and more dynamic than the Echo, and loud enough to fill a room. It’s much more than I expected. The downside is Home doesn’t work as a standard Bluetooth speaker, which is weird and annoying. Then again, it’s $50 cheaper than the Echo. Gotta save somewhere.
Really, though, Home isn’t about the device. Neither is the Echo. It’s about what’s inside. The thing you talk to, the thing that talks back, the thing that knows I have a meeting and traffic sucks and I’m gonna be late if I don’t leave right now. What really matters is the cheerful and chipper chatter coming from the speaker. Without Google Assistant, there’s not much at all to talk about.
Talk Is Cheap
The Assistant in Home isn’t the same as the one in the Pixel, or the one in the Allo messaging app. OK, strictly speaking, it is the same. But you won’t use them the same way, and they don’t work the same way. You won’t use Home to buy movie tickets or search for pictures. Home is all about quick instructions: “Play that new Bruno Mars song,” or “Set a timer for 20 minutes,” or “Is it going to rain in San Jose tomorrow?” Its far-field voice recognition seems to be just as good as Amazon’s, so I can shout from across my apartment and still be heard over the TV.
This is a Google product, so you’d expect Home to excel at search. It does. Home recited the answer to “What’s the difference between acetaminophen and ibuprofen,” quickly informed me that giving my dog squash is totally fine as long as it’s cooked, and told me the Cubs won game six. Google has spent the last few years refining the “answer boxes” that appear atop your search results and provide context. That work goes to good use here.
In fairness, Home is shockingly stupid sometimes. When I asked when the next Baywatch movie comes out, Home told me 1989, not May 19, 2017. Still, it hits more often than it misses.
Its general Googliness is the best thing about Home. Or at least, it will be, someday. Maybe. Ads paint Home as fun for the whole family, recognizing your voice and tuning calendars, traffic, and news to your specific interests. Everyone can share a Home, with their own personal Assistant waiting inside. Except none of that works yet, which means anyone within earshot can find out my schedule just by asking. I’m going to propose to my girlfriend soon (she’ll never read this and find out, so I feel safe telling you), but you’d better believe I won’t be putting that on my calendar, just in case. Even the search, good as it is, shows no evidence that it’s learning from my history or interests yet.
Unlike using Assistant on a Pixel smartphone, Home suffers from not having a screen, making some information impossible to convey. When Assistant fails on other devices, it serves up a web result and hopes for the best. Home makes a sad sound and admits defeat. You say, “Text Anna I’m heading home,” and Home apologizes for not being able to send messages. But that isn’t true—or at least it shouldn’t be, according to that Home ad. Every time I say “OK Google,” my phone wakes up and Assistant appears, but a message indicates it is “answering on another device.” My phone knows Home is there! Why can’t they work together?
The potential here is enormous, perhaps bigger than what Amazon could ever offer with Alexa. Right now, you can say “OK Google, play Last Week Tonight on my living room TV,” and Home connects to Chromecast to make it happen. You can network a bunch of Homes together and pump music through your house. You can keep a shopping list in Google Keep, and check your Google Calendar. Echo, of course, can do most of this as well; to truly differentiate, Google needs to integrate more of its services more deeply. Why can’t I email from Home? Or make phone calls through Voice or Hangouts? Or search for photos and see them on my phone? Home also needs more third-party partners, because surprise, not everyone uses all Google everything.
Someday, assuming Google keeps caring about Home, I suspect the device will be more like the ad. It’ll be smart and integrated enough to know that your flight is delayed and change your dinner reservation, to turn on all the lights in your house, to tell you how to get to work, to teach your kids about the world, and all the rest. Right now, it’s simpler than that. Like, a lot simpler.
A Familiar Sound
Don’t get me wrong. As much as I wish Google Home lived up to its future promises, it’s a fantastic addition to my living room right now. It’s hard to describe how nice it is to play music just by asking for it, or turn on NPR without lifting a finger. You never realize how many times you pull out your phone for one tiny, insignificant thing, until you finally have a better way to do it.
Of course, all that is true of the Echo, too. Home might be better two years from now, but right now they’re more or less the same device. So here’s where I landed, after 18 months with the Echo and a week or so with Home: They’re both great.
Helpful, right? If you don’t own either, I’d say buy a Google Home. It’s cheaper, it’s just as good in almost every important way, and Google’s ambition for both this product and Assistant in general is so high that Home should get really good, really fast.
But then again, Amazon does have Sonos integration coming, which is awesome. And it’s away ahead with third-party partnerships. And I’m leery of giving Google yet more data it can sell to advertisers. OK, never mind, buy an Echo. Oh, and isn’t it overdue for a hardware refresh?
You know what? This is impossible. Both devices are excellent, both have bright futures, both are increasingly essential parts of your household. I bought a Home because I like the design, and I like the sound quality. If you buy an Echo because you love your Sonos and don’t trust Google with your data, you’ll be perfectly happy as well.
There’s only one mistake you can make, really: not letting a smart speaker into your home at all. These things are great, and they’re only getting better.