Google Home Mini review: Google’s new smart speaker is great, but the Echo Dot is better

As sun surely follows moon, the appearance of the Google Home Mini was inevitable, ever since the search giant launched its first smart speaker this time last year. Now, at last, Google has a range of smart speakers to rival Amazon’s with a smaller, cheaper unit to go alongside the larger Google Home.

It was about time, too. Up until now, if you wanted to dip your toe in the water of smart speakers – but weren’t sure if it was for you – the only way to try it out for less than £100 was the £49 Echo Dot, a temptingly priced gateway drug into the Alexa universe.

READ NEXT: Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod

Google Home Mini: What you need to know

That’s basically what the Google Home Mini is: a cheap way to introduce yourself into the world of Google Assistant-powered smart speakers. Plus, if you already own a Google Home and love it, it’s also a more cost-effective way of spreading the net of assistants around your home. It’s a way of adding extra rooms to your Google speaker network for less.

Despite its smaller size, though, it does pretty much everything its larger sibling can, hooking into your home network and drawing on Google’s server-based AI smarts to answer questions, play music for you and control other third-party devices.

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Google Home Mini review: Price and competition

The new Google Home Mini costs £49 in the UK and $49 in the US and is a competitor for the Amazon Echo Dot, which retails for exactly the same price. Also worth noting is that it’s free with all Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL purchases from the Play Store and Carphone Warehouse until 31 December 2017, or while stocks last. It’s £80 cheaper than the regular Google Home and is available to buy right now in the UK and six other countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the US and Japan.

That’s about it when it comes to direct rivals, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the third-party smart speaker market over the next few months. A number of manufacturers have committed to producing speakers powered by Amazon Alexa in the run-up to Christmas 2017. There are plenty of manufacturers, including Sony and Sonos releasing products this year.

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Google Home Mini review: Design and key features

If there’s one thing in the pebble-shaped Google Home Mini’s favour it’s the design. It’s available in three colours – chalk, charcoal and coral (I was sent the charcoal for this piece) – and the roughly textured fabric that wraps around the top of the speaker looks great. It’s a lot Ikea-home friendly than the rather utilitarian Echo Dot.

Now, you can’t swap colours or buy different base textures like you can with the regular Home, but it makes up for this slight disappointment with touch controls to the right and left, which allow you to control volume, and four pinprick LEDs that light up in the centre to indicate the volume and activity. (This used to be a touchpad, but Google had to get rid of that feature because of a bug that would leave the device constantly eavesdropping on you.)

Around the base, you’ll find a single Micro-USB port for powering the Home Mini and a switch to mute the microphone. That’s it for external features; on the inside, there’s a 360-degree speaker and a pair of far-field microphones to help it pick up voices not only nearby but across the room, just like the Amazon Echo and Echo dot.

And, just like the larger Home, the Mini has dual-band WiFi with MIMO and Bluetooth so you can connect your phone to it directly. What it lacks compared with the Echo Dot is a 3.5mm output jack, so you can’t hook it up to your Hi-Fi and use it as a voice-powered streamer. However, once again, there is some form of compensation in the form of Google Cast compatibility, which you can use to send audio both to the speaker itself and from the speaker to any Cast-compatible audio equipment.

Google Home Mini review: Performance

That’s a pity because compared with the full Home and Echo speakers, sound quality isn’t great. It’s fine for listening to talk radio shows, podcasts and the like, but music sounds thin and brittle and lacking in body. It’s hardly surprising that there’s no bass. It’s only wee, after all, but I’d like a bit more richness in the mids.

The sensitivity of the microphones, too, is a little on the disappointing side, certainly compared with the Echo Dot. I found I was repeating myself more frequently than with Amazon’s efforts; and don’t get me started on Google’s key phrase. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate saying “OK Google” all the time, and while “Hey Google” rolls off the tongue a little easier, it’s still a bit of a tongue-twister compared with “Alexa” or  “Siri”.

Which is a shame, because the Home Mini is a perfectly capable digital assistant. Indeed, if you own and run any other Google hardware, and you’ve ever used the speech recognition on your Android smartphone, you’ll know exactly how impressive Google’s technology is. And the fact that it works beautifully with other Google products gives it an edge over Amazon’s Alexa alternatives.

I particularly like the way it’s possible to play movies and control playback to my Chromecast Ultra by voice, to find directions and have them squirted directly to Google Maps on my phone and to even locate my phone when I’ve mislaid it. Better still, the hands-free calling feature that was only available in the US and Canada until recently is coming to the UK, too, as is the broadcast feature, which allows you to use multiple Google Home speakers as an intercom system.

That’s only a small sample of the Google Home Mini’s capabilities and these, like Alexa’s Skills, continue to expand as time wears on. You can, of course, access services such as Google Play Music, control your Chromecast and Chromecast audio, but there’s also support for Spotify and a bunch of smart home gear, including British Gas’ Hive smart thermostat, Nest, Philips Hue and Samsung Smart Things among others.  

Google Home Mini review: Verdict

I do like the Google Home Mini, despite my issues with the key phrase and the slightly weak microphone and speaker quality. It otherwise works really well, replicating the features of the larger Google Home beautifully, and offers an affordable introduction to the world of digital assistants.

If you already own a Google Home, it’s a no-brainer, and if you rely on Chromecast or Chromecast Audio to deliver your media you’ll find the Home Mini a fantastic addition to your home.

On its own, though, is it better than Echo Dot? The answer to that question is ultimately a no and that’s purely down to the ecosystem. Alexa as a system is not only more mature with more capabilities, but it also has wider support amongst third-party speaker manufacturers. That may change over time but, for now, my vote goes to the Echo.

UE’s Blast and Megablast join the Alexa smart speaker family

Both the Blast and Megablast are slightly larger than the Boom 2 and Megaboom versions, most notably in height and weight. With Alexa onboard, you may end up using them as home-based units more than on-the-go sound though. The Power Up is a wireless charging dock, so it’s incredibly easy to move them from room to room or grab for the road — switching over to Bluetooth, of course.

These new models are about half an inch taller than their counterparts, and the Megablast jumps up considerably in weight, gaining nearly a pound. That weight accommodates added microphones and a reworked driver/passive radiator setup, helping to pump out its stated volume boost.

The maximum battery life on both has dropped a bit compared to the Bluetooth-only Boom series, with up to 12 hours on the Blast and 16 for the Megablast, but I’m guessing these devices will mostly live in the home. Plus, depending on how loud you play music, those ratings are actually pretty accurate. Playing at full volume though always knocks the numbers down to a few hours in my experience — with the larger of the two showing significantly more stamina than you’d think.

On the Alexa interface side, people in the US, UK, Germany and Austria get hands-free access to music services including Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, with Pandora and Deezer lined up for future inclusion. You also get access to other Alexa services such as news reports, weather, audiobooks, voice control of compatible IoT devices, general inquiries and more than 25,000 skills.

The speaker setup is controlled through a new UE app tailored specifically for the Blast and Megablast, helping to get you onto your WiFi network and link your Amazon account for those Alexa services.

Ultimate Ears’ Blast and Megablast are also on a fast track to getting smarter over time with regular feature updates. Since they’re WiFi-capable, this can happen automatically when on your network. Another benefit of combining Alexa with an Ultimate Ears product is that you get those services on a high-quality audio device in a portable package, which can be moved wirelessly throughout the home and double as your Bluetooth boombox when on the road.

Pre-orders start today at the Ultimate Ears website and participating retailers for the Blast ($230), Megablast ($300) and Power Up ($40) with items shipping soon and hitting the shelves by the end of October. Bundles including a Power Up will be available from T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon for the Blast ($260) and Megablast ($330). For US customers, the speakers are available in Graphite (Black), Blizzard (White), Merlot (Red) and Blue Steel (Blue). Customers buying before January 13th, 2018, will also get a free three-month subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited.

Motorola is making a $150 Alexa speaker Moto Mod

Motorola just announced a new Moto Mod for its Moto Z phones: a $150 speaker attachment with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

Officially called the Moto Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa, the new modular attachment is more or less what you’d get if you took the existing Soundboost 2 speaker mod and built in Alexa. There’s even a giant, glowing blue LED ring on the back, just like you’d get on an actual Echo device.


Now, turning a phone into a mini Echo isn’t really a bad thing, per se, but it is kind of a weird product, seeing as any phone that you’d attach the Mod to would already have Google Assistant available for free. If you simply must have an Amazon Echo, the $149.99 that Moto is charging for the Alexa Smart Speaker Mod could get you both a $99 Amazon Echo and an Echo Dot (or an Echo Plus or an Echo Spot) for the same price.

The only real market I can imagine for this is someone who is so deeply committed to the Alexa ecosystem that they want to have an Echo assistant with cellular data that they can take anywhere, who also has a Moto Z smartphone that they wouldn’t mind some better speakers on.

And hey, if you fit into that (possibly imaginary) demographic? You’ll be able to pick one up sometime in November from the usual batch of major electronic retailers (including Best Buy, Amazon, and of course, Motorola).

Alternatively, Motorola also announced that the Moto X4 — which has Alexa directly integrated into the device — will be available for preorder in the US on October 19th; the phone is set to go on sale on the 26th for $399.99. Motorola will also be selling the X4 in a cheaper “Prime Exclusive” variant, which will include lock screen adds for $70 less.

The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

For the longest time, the only affordable way to get into the smart home game was to lean onto Alexa and buy an Echo Dot. The little device turned out to be Amazon’s trojan horse into the smart home game, leading smart speaker sales in the process.

But now there’s another horse in this race. Google has the Home Mini, an adorable, pebble-shaped miniature of it’s bigger Home smart speaker, which is already a formidable foe for the larger Amazon Echo.

Verdict: Amazon Echo Dot review | Google Home Mini review

Neither are going to suit everyone’s needs, but they both can give you the information you need, contact friends and family and be a handy assistant in the kitchen. So which one should you plop down that money for? Let’s find out.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Design

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

The Echo Dot is utilitarian in design. It’s a small puck with easy-to-access buttons on the top that can mute the device, raise and lower the volume and activate Alexa’s recognition abilities. It’s also got a now-iconic bluish-green hue that lights up in a ring around the device.

It comes in white and black and is totally meant to slot onto or into your rooms and be totally forgotten about. Amazon wants this to simply blend into your life like other appliances. It’s like your Blu-Ray player, cable box or Roku.

Read this: The best integrated devices for Google Home

The Home Mini, on the other hand, looks a lot more… homely. Google’s super into fabric right now, and the top half of this device is covered in it. The bottom half is plastic, but the entire thing looks like a big ol’ pebble. It’s a little adorable and comes in three colors: black, gray and the more eye-catching coral, which is basically pinkish.

Unlike the Echo Dot, the Home Mini’s lights, which let you know your smart assistant is working, are up at the top. Like the larger Home, they are basically four dots that flash. Unlike the larger Home, they’re not placed on a slanted top, they’re directly on top of the Home Mini. This makes it a little harder to see whether Google Assistant is activated or not, but maybe you prefer it that way.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

The Home Mini is also meant to blend into your existing decor, but it also looks good enough that it doesn’t have to. Most of that is down to the Home Mini hiding all of its buttons and features under that fabric, which makes it look like a decoration and not a tech product. This, unfortunately, has some down sides. It’s not as simple to use as the Echo Dot, which you can look at and see buttons on. In fact, the touch pad on the top of the Home Mini no longer works because of a glitch that activated some units to constantly listen.

So while the Google Home Mini is the better looking device of the two, and is the one of them that you wouldn’t be even slightly embarrassed about in your home, its design feels more like form over function. On the flip side, Amazon has gone for function over form. One looks better, one works better.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Interactions and sound performance

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

Amazon and Google’s smart speakers are always getting better at recognizing our voices. We’ve nary had a problem with the Echo Dot recognizing our voices, even when we’re speaking during a song. Same goes with Google Home Mini, but in both cases, the further away you get the less accurate they’re going to be.

Google has always made a big deal of its Assistant’s ability to understand context. You can ask it a question, then follow-up with another question on that same topic without repeating what you’re talking about. This mostly works well, though there are sometimes instances where it just flat-out fails.

Alexa can do some contextual actions, but it’s not quite up to the level of Google Assistant yet. Though it’s likely both of these things will get better and better as time goes on. Alexa is also a little more rigid than Assistant because of the lack of context. There are still moments when some skills require language to be a little too exact to do anything, which can be frustrating.

Read this: Google and Amazon’s war for the future of smart home

Also frustrating? Google Home Mini doesn’t have a headphone jack, which means to connect it to external speakers you’ll need to pony up for a Chromecast so you can cast your audio to it.

Now, Home Mini does fare better than the Echo Dot. In a side-by-side comparison between the two, we found the Echo Dot was much tinnier and distorted at higher volumes. So while the Home Mini does pack quite a punch for its size, it’s a little more difficult to upgrade the sound because you need to also have a Chromecast, whereas the Echo Dot can just plug into a better audio system if needed. It’s also not going to replace your home audio system any time soon, nor rival the full-sized Google Home.

On the whole, Google’s contextual advantage and better base sound make it a winner over the Echo Dot. However, if you’re looking to upgrade to better sound because you’ve invested in some good sound equipment already and want something that works with a 3.5mm jack, the Echo Dot may line up better for your needs.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Features

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

When smart speaker work, we love them, but what’s weird is that they don’t do an awful lot yet. They can give you some information, control some smart home tech and, yes, play music – but that’s about it.

On the music front, the Home Mini wins. As stated earlier, it just sounds better than the Echo Dot. On the other two fronts, things are much closer though. Like in smart home control.

Currently, Alexa can control a lot more stuff in your home than Google Assistant can. A lot of this is down to Alexa being around longer and being more popular, which means developers are sure to make sure their smart home products work with it.

Support for Google Assistant is growing, and many of the big players are already there, like Philips Hue, Nest and more. Plus, Home Mini has the benefit of Google’s ecosystem. You can take advantage of Chromecast to put your content up on TVs and enhancing your sound with speakers. You can’t do that with the Echo Dot.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

The other advantage for Assistant is that it feels more personal. You don’t have to turn to that aforementioned rigidity, instead saying things like “good night” to initiate an end-of-night sequence for all your smart home products. That’s cool, and it feels more magical than Alexa’s version, which is a more robotic “Turn off all the lights.”

To be fair, that’ll soon be fixed as Amazon is rolling out a feature called Alexa Routines that’ll allow just that. You’ll get more contextual smart home voice options, so you can say “good morning” to get things going or “the lights are too bright” to dim them a bit. That API is rolling out to developers now, but it shouldn’t take too long for that to filter out to users. Also, thanks to a recent update, the Echo Dot can now make calls to landlines and mobiles with your own phone number – just like you can with the Home Mini.

The Echo Dot, from a feature perspective, is more well rounded than what Google is offering. Sure, Google Assistant is still better at contextual commands and can take advantage of Google’s services, like Calendar and Chromecast, but Echo Dot works with more smart home products and is achieving parity on some of the cool things Home Mini can do.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Price

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: The affordable smart speaker brouhaha

At first blush, both the Echo Dot and Home Mini are $49.99. However, both Amazon and Google have begun launching a bunch of different promotions to get you to buy in to either the Home Mini or the Echo Dot over the other.

Read this: The best skills for Amazon Alexa

For instance, in celebration of the Sonos skill for Alexa, Sonos customers will get $25 off an Echo Dot, which is a whopping 50% discount. But if you buy one of Google’s new Pixel 2 smartphone, you’ll get a free Home Mini with your purchase. Amazon also discounts the Echo Dot every once in a while for Prime members, and even offers multi-packs once in a couple of months.

It’s not difficult to buy into either of these ecosystems, but right now Amazon has more deals, making the Echo Dot a little more enticing for those on a budget.

Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Final verdict

The smart speaker battle is constantly evolving, as each company announces new features there’s a volley from the competition. There feels like there’s a back-and-forth between Amazon and Google that’s making a choice harder for consumers while also bringing better and better experiences.

Google’s contextual powers make Assistant a little more smart than Alexa, especially if you’re entrenched in the Google ecosystem. These devices, ultimately, are a way for you to buy into these ecosystems. This is Google’s most affordable option, as Amazon has the likes of Sonos and other Alexa-enabled devices to get you in. And of course, Apple has its HomePod on the way – though both of those options aren’t as affordable.

Functionally, we think the Echo Dot might still be a better purchase for a lot of people right now thanks to its wider support for smart home products and near parity in terms of feature sets.


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Which Cheap Smart Speaker Wins?

With the launch of the Google Home Mini, there are now two sub-$50 smart speakers competing for dominance in your living room, bedroom and elsewhere around your house. But how does the Mini compare to the Amazon Echo? We put them through a seven-round matchup to find out which is the best budget speaker.

Design

With its hockey-puck-like shape, the Echo Dot is a chief example of function over form. Nothing stands out about its design, but this speaker is a cinch to use. Four buttons on top let you control the volume, turn the mic on and off, and activate Alexa. A ring of LEDs around the top edge makes it easy to see when Amazon’s voice assistant is listening.

The cloth-covered, pebble-like Home Mini is aesthetically more pleasing, but not as intuitive to use. Instead of physical volume buttons, for instance, you merely have to tap either side of the device. That’s cool, but it’s not obvious unless you read the manual. Four LEDs on the top of the Home Mini indicate its status and when the assistant is listening, but you can’t see these lights from across the room. Originally, you could tap the top of the Home Mini to activate the Assistant, but Google has disabled that functionality due to malfunctioning units.

Winner: Echo Dot. While it doesn’t look as nice as the Home Mini, it’s easier to use.

Audio Quality

Both the Echo Dot and the Home Mini have a single speaker, but Google put much more thought into its speaker’s audio capabilities than did Amazon. When I listened to the same tracks on both devices, the Dot produced thin, reedy vocals with almost no bass.

By comparison, the Home Mini turned out louder, richer and fuller sound. While this device won’t replace a larger speaker, it would be just fine if you wanted some background music in your bedroom when you’re going to sleep or waking up.

Winner: Home Mini. Its speaker sounds miles better than the Dot’s.

Smart Home Features

Google and Amazon are positioning their devices to act as a means to control smart home gadgets, from lights to locks to thermostats. However, Amazon is much further along in this regard; Amazon’s smart home page lists nearly 600 devices that will work with Alexa.

By comparison, while Google Home is compatible with an equally wide range of product types, they represent far fewer companies, at about 50.

Winner: Echo Dot. While it’s no fault of the Home Mini’s hardware, Amazon’s service works with far more smart home devices.

Voice Assistant

We’ve done a few head-to-head competitions between Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (check out our 300-question showdown), so we’ll just hit the highlights here.

Both Alexa and Google Assistant let you call any number in the U.S. and Canada, a very helpful feature.

The two devices can both recognize individual voices, and provide information tailored to that person, such as their schedule or the time it’ll take to commute to work. However, Google Assistant can translate speech into different languages.

MORE: Amazon Alexa Guide: Tips, Tricks, and How-Tos

However, after that, Alexa is capable of far more, as a result of Amazon opening up its API so that third parties can create Alexa skills to augment the assistant’s abilities. There are now more than 24,000 skills, spanning the gamut from humor to productivity to games to fitness. To help you sort through them all, we’ve cultivated a list of our 50 favorite Alexa skills.

While both can deliver briefings of the day’s news, weather and sports scores, only Alexa lets you specify favorite teams and order things off of Amazon (natch).

Winner: Echo Dot.Alexa can do far more than Google Assistant.

Music and Movie Playback

Both Google and Amazon support Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Amazon has Amazon Music, while Google has Google Play Music and YouTube Music. However, only Amazon lists support for Sirius XM.

The Echo Dot’s speaker may be horrible, but Amazon has attempted to ameliorate the situation by letting you pair the Dot via Bluetooth with a second speaker, or by using its 3.5mm audio jack.

The Home Mini has neither of these capabilities, so you can’t pair it with other speakers. However, it can be used to stream both music and video to Chromecast-enabled devices, as well as TVs running the Android TV platform. So, you could say, “OK, Google, play YouTube,” and that service will pop up on your TV.

Winner: Home Mini. Although it lacks the ability to pair or connect to a Bluetooth speaker, the Mini’s integration with Chromecast and Android TV devices gives it the edge.

Microphone

To test the microphones on the Home Mini and the Echo Dot, I placed them about 15 feet away from me. With no music playing from either device, I could talk in a library-quiet voice, and both devices were able to hear and understand me.

I then played music through each speaker one at a time, and again tested their sensitivity. This time, I had to raise my voice to slightly more than a normal speaking volume in order to be heard.

Winner: Draw. Both performed well, and while I had to raise my voice while music was playing from each speaker, it wasn’t unreasonable.

Price and Value

The list price for both the Echo Dot and the Home Mini is $49. However, Amazon is currently discounting the Echo Dot for $45 and often offers other deals for its mini speaker, such as bundling it with other smart home devices.

Winner: Echo Dot. It’s $5 less than the Home Mini, and Amazon offers more deals.

Bottom Line

Amazon Echo Dot

Google Home Mini

Design

X

Audio Quality

X

Smart Home Features

X

Voice Assistant

X

Microphone

X

X

Music and Movie Playback

X

Price and Value

X

Total

5

3

Amazon’s Echo Dot may not look like much, but it’s got it where it counts. While its speaker is weak, you can pair it easily with better speakers. Most importantly, Alexa can do far more than Google Assistant can, and the Dot is Amazon’s least expensive method for getting Alexa into your home.

Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom’s Guide, Amazon

Neglected Pure Connect speaker app silenced in iOS 11’s war on 32-bit • The Register

Wireless speaker maker Pure appears to be more the first casualties in Apple’s war on 32-bit iOS apps.

Pure’s 32-bit Connect software for iThings won’t work on Apple’s new 64-bit-only iOS 11, meaning folks using Cupertino’s latest firmware and handsets can’t control their space-age hi-fis. The audio remote-control app joins various games, utilities and other 32-bit-only programs that are not allowed to run on iOS 11 and later.

Punters are urged to install the latest version of Apple’s operating system because it contains security bug patches. By upgrading or buying a new iPhone, folks have to ditch any old apps that haven’t been rebuilt as 64-bit ARMv8 executables, which includes Pure’s.

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Now Pure hardware owners who have moved to iOS 11 are complaining that their gizmos are “useless” without the Connect app to control them. Pure did not respond to El Reg‘s request for comment, and has not said when it expects a 64-bit app will be released. Android versions of Pure Connect are not affected, of course.

According to Pure’s website, a fix is in the works and an FAQ of workarounds via Wi-Fi can be found here. It may take some time for a rebuilt application to emerge as the people who wrote the code for the manufacturer are no longer in business, apparently.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control, including the closure of our third-party app developer, and the subsequent release of Apple’s iOS11, a few of you may be experiencing issues accessing the Pure Connect app,” Pure told customers.

“Unfortunately, Apple’s decision to remove support for apps created prior to 2015, which don’t natively run in 64-bit mode, will undoubtedly affect many apps, including our own.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is Pure’s inability to maintain and update its own apps, and it is most likely not alone in this respect: companies that have outsourced their mobile app programming are finding themselves locked out of iOS 11 because they can’t get the code or the tools or the people to rebuild their contract-developed software. The iOS App Store shows that the last update to Pure Connect was on June 25, 2015, more than two years ago, so Pure has been without a mobile developer for a while, it seems.

So on the one hand, it’s a shame to see organizations that were relying on outside developers now being caught out by the iOS crackdown. On the other hand, it’s not an overnight change.

You can’t fault Apple for springing this one on companies and programmers. The Cupertino giant has been warning of the 64-bit changeover for years, and since early 2015 all new apps and updates have been required to be submitted to the online store in 64-bit mode. In March, the iOS 10.3 update also alerted world-plus-dog that all future versions of the firmware would not support apps compiled in 32-bit mode.

Apple’s last 32-bit-processor iPhone was the iPhone 5C, released in 2013 and discontinued in 2015.

“‘Due to circumstances beyond our control’ – yeah, and you’ve only had two years to update your app,” one Reg reader scoffed at Pure in an email to us earlier today. “That’s my Jongo speakers rendered useless after only a year.” ®

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Forget the Google Home Max, this smart speaker has a built-in subwoofer

The smart speaker market is getting more competitive with new products making an appearance almost every week. Case in point, a few days ago Google introduced the Home Max, a product which brings premium audio, alongside the affordable Home Mini.

The Google Home Max is yet to go on sale, but in the meanwhile, customers who care about audio can check out an alternative. Meet the Aivia speaker – a gadget created by Canadian startup SproutBox Design – which is also powered by the AI wits of the Google Assistant.

The Aivia takes inspiration from the Amazon Echo Show and incorporates an 8-inch HD tablet into its body to allow easy access its Android-based interface and apps (like YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Firefox or Spotify). Like in the case of other speakers, you can stream digital content over to Aivia via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. But in order to set itself apart from the crowd, the Aivia includes a few unique features, as well.

First, it boasts a 15-watt subwoofer on the side for improved sonic output. Secondly, it includes a wireless device charging surface on the top, so you’ll be able to charge your phone by letting it rest on Aivia.

The speaker is quite portable as well. The built-in 10,000 mAh battery ensures users can get up to 5 hours of cordless playback on a single charge.

The two large full range speakers located on the left and right work in concert with the subwoofer – all powered by Bang & Olufson engineering – to produce the highest quality audio output. Last but not least, there’s also an 8-megapixel front facing the camera for video calling.

SproutBox Design has been developing the speaker for two years now and even showcased it at CES 2017 earlier this year. Now they’ve launched it on Kickstarter to gather funds and the good news is that the funding goal has already been exceeded.

If you like the Aivia then you can head on Kickstarter and make a pledge. Super Early Bird packages are still available for $249 a pop which will get you an Aivia speaker. Note, the device is expected to retail for $399 a pop just like the Google Home Max.  If everything goes well Aivia starts shipping in July 2019.

Google Home Mini review: The right smart speaker at the wrong time

screen-shot-2017-10-06-at-10-59-59-am

The Good: The Google Home Mini is a stylish-looking speaker with surprisingly strong sound quality for its size. The Google Assistant is a capable Alexa competitor, especially thanks to its ability to search out detailed answers to a wide variety of questions.

The Bad: There isn’t much the Home Mini does that Alexa can’t do, too. It also lacks a line-out jack, and requires Chromecast Audio in order to connect with at external speaker setup.

The Bottom Line: The Google Home Mini is a great device, and a no-brainer for existing Google Home users — but it isn’t the Echo Dot-killer Google probably needs it to be.


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The Google Home Mini is great, but is it too late?


2:46

If you want something from the internet, you Google it. We’ve been doing it for decades — more than a trillion searches per year by Google’s own estimates. Google is so good at it that it gets to be its own verb.

But then came Alexa, the virtual, voice-activated assistant in the Amazon Echo smart speaker. People started getting what they wanted from the internet just by asking for it. Soon, Amazon doubled down with the Echo Dot, a much smaller smart speaker with an irresistibly low $50 price tag. After yielding Amazon a two-year head start, Google finally released the Google Home to compete with the Echo, but Amazon had already captured a commanding share of the market. Even more problematic — the Echo Dot had quickly become an even bigger hit than the Echo had been.

All of which brings us to October of 2017, and the arrival of the Google Home Mini. It’s the product of a company that’s still in catch-up mode, a verb that’s trying to remain present tense in a category that’s evolving rapidly. And, like the Echo Dot, it’s a very good product.

And that’s the problem. Almost everything that’s good about the Google Home Mini is only good because it’s like the Echo Dot. It’s a puck-sized, voice-activated smart speaker (like the Dot) that costs $50 (like the Dot) and lets you stream music, ask for information, control smart home gadgets, call people and hear bad jokes on demand (like the Dot). It’s great (like the Dot) and worth buying (like the Dot) — but unlike the Dot, you can’t connect it to your existing speakers unless you spend $35 on another gadget, the Chromecast Audio dongle. 

So, why not just buy the Dot?

That’s the question Google needed to do a better job of answering here. Yes, the Google Home Mini looks nicer than the Dot. Yes, it sounds a bit better. But while the Google Assistant is smarter and more capable than Alexa in some ways, it isn’t demonstrably better than Alexa, at least not in ways that are easy for casual shoppers to understand. That leaves the Google Home Mini as an excellent, worthwhile device that will do little to move the needle by virtue of its own Dot-like merits. A few key software updates or notable third-party integrations could change that, but right now, the Dot is still the better buy.

Mini minimalism

Google kept things simple with the Mini’s design. It’s an oblong orb of plastic and fabric with no visible buttons save for a slider to mute the microphone that’s hidden in the back. It comes in your choice of three colors — chalk (light gray), charcoal (dark gray), or coral (pinkish orange).

To wake it up, you say “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google,” and then you give it a question or command. You can ask it to play music, turn your smart home gadgets on and off, look up a fact for you, control Netflix and YouTube on your Chromecast-enabled TV plus a whole host of other tricks. It puts the power of the internet just an utterance away, with the Google Assistant as your concierge.

The Google Assistant is a good assistant. It’s pleasant and helpful, and generally good at finding answers to whatever questions you can think to throw at it. By default, the Assistant’s digital voice is female, but if you’d rather converse with a “he,” that’s an option now, too — just toggle the setting in the Home mobile app’s preferences section. Regardless of which voice you choose, I still wish Google would give its Assistant a better name. 

Despite the lack of physical buttons, the Home Mini still has touch controls you can use. You can tap the top to pause or resume music playback, and you can tap and hold to activate the Assistant. To adjust the volume, you tap the sides of the device. I wasn’t a huge fan of those volume controls — they aren’t quite responsive enough when you want to use them, and yet it’s hard not to activate them by mistake whenever you pick the thing up. That said, you’ll probably prefer to turn things up and down using voice commands.

Overall, it’s a design that’s capable of blending in with your home’s decor while still looking good if you happen to fix your gaze on it. I share the concern of some of my colleagues who worried about getting that fabric cover dirty. My anxiety would only rise if I wanted to use it in the kitchen.

One other small concern — from a distance, it isn’t always easy to see the indicator lights on the top of the device that tell you it’s ready for a command. This seems especially true with the chalk-colored speaker. My advice if you’re thinking of buying? Go with charcoal.

Listen to this

Small speakers like the Mini aren’t going to replace your full-scale home audio setup anytime soon. Still, Google made a point of saying that people would be surprised by how much sound the Mini can put out. Sure enough, it sounded stronger than I expected — and noticeably stronger than the Echo Dot — as I began testing it out.

The difference is clear when you listen to the two assistants speak. With the Echo Dot, Alexa’s voice is a little tinny-sounding, and music playback not much better than what you’d get from your phone. By comparison, the Home Mini makes the Google Assistant sound warmer and more natural. Music playback was more passable with the Home Mini, too — though, like the Dot, you really shouldn’t plan on using it for anything more than close-range, casual listening.

My colleagues in New York from CNET’s audio team put the Mini through some more rigorous tests, and also came away impressed. Here’s what senior associate editor Ty Pendlebury had to say:

Let’s say you were vacillating between the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot and wanted to choose whichever has the best sound quality. We tested the two devices against each other and threw in the $35 Cambridge Soundworks’ Oontz Angle 3 Plus as a comparable Bluetooth speaker. We threw each speaker some rock tracks and some folk and found that the Home Mini is the undeniable victor of the two smart speakers. The Echo Dot can be used to listen to music but we wouldn’t advise it. Vocals are edgy, bass is non-existent and it doesn’t go very loud. The Mini is louder, sounds smoother with music and has decent bottom end for a device the size of a hockey puck. Of course, we wouldn’t use either of these if we had a choice — the Oontz is the better of all three and makes music sound like music, plus it’s portable and will accept a line-in. 

Google will point out that you can use the Mini to cast audio to any speaker with a Chromecast Audio dongle attached, but that feels a bit stingy to me given that the Dot can connect directly with speakers using a simple 3.5mm auxiliary cable or using Bluetooth. The Mini has no line out jack at all, and its Bluetooth radio only accepts incoming signals. Advantage: Dot.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google eventually changes things via software update to allow for Bluetooth connections, especially if the Mini struggles to keep up with the Dot during the holiday buying season. Of course, not allowing direct connections with external speakers is the exact sort of thing that could stunt the Mini’s sales in the first place.

One other point worth mentioning is the Google Home Mini’s array of far-field microphones. In almost all of my tests, they were able to hear me about as well as the ones in the Echo Dot. Both did a great job in a quiet setting, but required the occasional raised voice during music playback.

The one exception was my “limbo” test, where I try to wake each speaker from roughly twenty feet across the room using an increasingly quiet voice. The Echo Dot was able to go noticeably lower than the Mini. It’s a small thing, but it might make the Echo Dot the better pick for quiet talkers.

The smarter speaker

The best thing about the Google Assistant is that there are lots of different ways for you to put it to use. It can wake you up, then tell you the morning’s weather, headlines, and traffic conditions. It can entertain your children with jokes, Easter eggs and trivia. It can set quick, hands-free cooking timers in the kitchen. While you’re there, it can talk you through a recipe. When you’re done, it can turn out the lights, or control any of the other smart home gadgets that work with it.

The Google Assistant uses the power of Google’s search engine to handle tough, specific questions better than Alexa does.


Chris Monroe/CNET

And, if you’re the kind of person who’s always absentmindedly leaving your phone around the house, the Home Mini might be a godsend. Just say “find my phone,” and your Android handset will start ringing even if you left it set to silent or Do Not Disturb mode, and even if you don’t have a cellular connection (it works over Wi-Fi, too). The conversation with Google Home might sound a bit weird, though: when Google asked one of my CNET colleagues if it could ring his “Sum-g 9-3-oh-t” it took him a moment to realize it was talking about his Galaxy S7 ($338.16 at Amazon.com) SM-G930T phone.

It’s also a bit tougher with an iPhone — if it’s silenced or in a dead zone, you’re out of luck — but you can still add your phone to your Google account or manually speak its phone number. Speaking of which: if you’re willing to say your entire phone number out loud and keep your phone off silent mode, you can find it just as easily with an Amazon Echo.

The Google Assistant can also do a couple of things that Alexa can’t. The most notable is that it can distinguish between different voices, which comes in handy when you’re asking about your calendar appointments, or asking it to call Mom (and not, say, your roommate’s mom).

The Assistant is also able to draw from Google’s library of online services — maps, calendars, etc. — in order to deliver information that’s more helpful and personal than what Alexa offers. The most important trump card here is search. The Assistant draws from it to handle questions that get really specific, citing its sources as it answers curveball questions that would otherwise fall outside of its scope. Here are just a few examples of questions it’s surprisingly good at answering:

  • Why won’t my car start?
  • Why does my dishwasher smell?
  • Why does my dog keep peeing in the house?
  • How do you fix a leaky sink?

For the most part, Alexa and the Assistant are more or less interchangeable. Much of that stems from the fact that the two are locked in a fencing match for features, thrusting with each new trick and parrying to match the tricks of the other. From voice calling to TV controls, new features are constantly coming to each platform.

That brings us to the Mini’s greatest weakness: its lack of a line-out jack or any way to connect directly with existing speaker setups. This is where the Echo Dot draws blood, notching an easily understandable selling point that Google can’t match. Kudos to Google for giving the Mini a surprisingly strong speaker of its own, but even casual listeners are still going to want to amplify the sound.

The other big, obvious Alexa advantage is its vast library of third-party skills, which number well above 20,000 at this point. All of them teach Alexa a new trick, none of them cost anything, and Google doesn’t currently offer anything that matches them. Couple that with the considerable list of third-party devices that work with Alexa, as well as the growing number of manufacturers choosing to add Alexa directly into their products, and Amazon’s lead looks all the more daunting.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Right speaker, wrong time?

Here’s the irony of the Google Home Mini: It could have been an Echo-killer 16 months ago, before the Dot first burst onto the scene. Instead, it’s a “me-too” gadget — a perfectly good one and maybe even a great one, but not one that brings much new to the table. Google still has work to do.

There are legitimate reasons why you might prefer the Google Assistant over Alexa, especially if you’re already deeply invested in Google’s online ecosystem of services. If you’ve been holding out on buying a smart speaker, then the $50 Google Home Mini is as good a place to start as any. It looks nice and it sounds nice for the smallish speaker that it is, and it will undoubtedly improve with time. If you’re already a Google Home user, then you’re going to love that you can expand the Google Assistant’s footprint in your home for such a low cost. 

But for all of its strengths, the Mini isn’t the silver bullet that Google needs to stop Alexa’s momentum. This was a chance for Google to reinforce its future-tense vision of the artificially intelligent living space. Instead, it almost feels like it’s reinforcing Amazon’s.

CNET Senior Editor Sean Hollister contributed to this review.

How to buy a smart speaker

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Jefferson Graham is in the hands-on room at the Made by Google event in San Francisco, showing off new phones, speakers, computer and a camera with a built-in “Google Assistant.” TalkingTech.
USA TODAY

All you’re hearing out of the voice activated “smart speaker” market is static. You wish you could ask Alexa or the Google Assistant to help you sort out this burgeoning business, a space in which the biggest names in tech are all crowding around to grab your attention.

You wonder how much to spend. Mini, Max, Plus or original? Whether to choose a speaker with a screen? And must you commit to one virtual assistant over another?

The latest noise came with Google’s unveiling Wednesday of new Google Home offerings built around the Google Assistant. Only a week earlier, Amazon announced the expansion of its own line of Echo speakers, featuring its voice-driven virtual assistant Alexa.

Meantime, Apple is readying its HomePod speaker activated with Siri, best known from the iPhone. Harman Kardon (owned by Samsung) is doing the same with the upcoming, yet-to-be priced, Invoke speaker that houses Microsoft’s Cortana assistant.

Alexa continues to branch out into other devices, too, including speakers made by the likes of Sonos and Lenovo.

More: Google launches $49 Google Home Mini, rival to Amazon Echo Dot, and $399 Home Max

More: Watch out, Apple: Amazon announces new $99, Alexa-powered Echo

More: Amazon Echo Show: Worth it once the kinks are worked out

More: Sonos speaker now works with Alexa and soon, Siri and Google Assistant

More: Follow USA TODAY Money and Tech on Facebook

The smart speaker market really got going in 2015, when Amazon introduced consumers to Alexa as part of the original Echo speaker. Amazon has remained the clear leader since, controlling about 70% of the market, eMarketer says, and now boasting north of 20,000 Alexa “skills.”

Here are the key questions to help you get smarter about smart speakers:

What makes a speaker smart?

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Need an assistant to help cook family dinner, or that dessert recipe you’ve been dying to try? Amazon’s Alexa is ready to help. Tech expert Kim Komando shows you how.

These aren’t the dumb speakers of yesteryear but rather connected speakers that leverage the Internet and artificial intelligence.

You engage them by calling upon one of the aforementioned cloud-connected virtual assistants by barking out a wake word—notably “Alexa” in the case of an Echo.

Amazon and Google have each lined up partners to work with the speakers, and the kinds of things you can accomplish with the devices continues to mushroom.

There are the basic, and yes useful, things you can do: asking for the weather, a wake-up alarm or kitchen timer, for example. Or getting the speakers to deliver news, podcasts or music on command—limited by the available services you subscribe to.

The speakers can respond to financial queries and answer queries related to trivia or your kids’ schoolwork. You can use them to make calls, too.

There’s also a growing emphasis on home automation: using your voice to control lights, thermostats, doorbells and other items around what tech companies are banking on will become your increasingly intelligent home.

What are the main buying decisions?

In simple terms: design, price, and any steadfast loyalty you might have for one ecosystem or digital assistant over another.

Alexa may help you shop (through Amazon of course). A Google advantage comes through search and the company’s vast reservoir of knowledge. If you’ve got an iPhone you’re probably most comfortable with Siri, though many pundits believe Apple’s assistant must play catch-up to the others.

Amazon and Microsoft announced recently that Alexa will talk to Cortana and vice versa, though it is unclear how smooth (or useful) such interactions will be. Meanwhile, don’t hold your breath waiting for the other virtual assistants to become chums anytime soon.

Why such a disparity in price—from around $49 to $399?

Google Home Mini. (Photo: Official Made By Google Twitter account)

In general terms, you’re paying for speaker quality, though there are other factors like whether the device has a screen or built-in smart home hub.

Let’s start at the low end. Amazon sells the $49 Echo Dot, a price matched by the just- announced Google Home Mini. The pint-sized Dot speakers are adequate for Alexa or the spoken voice generally but not for music mavens seeking richer, louder and purer sound. Though I haven’t tested one yet, the same can surely be said for the Google Home Mini.

You do have options if you want a better music experience, however. In the case of the Echo Dot, you can connect optional headphones or other speakers by running a 3.5mm stereo cable to the jack on the unit. Or you can connect Dot wirelessly to a range of Bluetooth speakers.

There’s no such 3.5mm jack on the Home Mini or Bluetooth support But in keeping things within the Google ecosystem, you can connect Google Home Mini wirelessly to Chromecast Audio-capable speakers.

At first blush, the new stone-shaped Home Mini is better looking than the Dot. It comes in three colors, is covered in fabric and is meant to blend in nicely with your home décor. But either the Dot or Home Mini can be helpful bedside or kitchen companions.

The benefits of stepping up? 

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spat between companies, Google recently removed YouTube videos from Echo Show.

Google hasn’t ruled out coming out with a Google Home unit with its own display, but for now, as Google exec Rishi Chandra told me, the company would rather “take advantage of screens you already have,” be it the phone in your pocket or the TV in the living room.

But Chandra says manufacturers are going to eventually build devices with every screen size imaginable to see which ones sticks and which ones don’t.

Which means there’s likely to be a lot more noise surrounding your decision to choose which speakers down the road to buy.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

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Google’s Taking Over Your Home With AI, With New Google Home Speaker, Pixel Book & Clips Camera

At its #MadebyGoogle conference in San Francisco, California, along with the new Pixel 2 smartphones, Google lifted the veil over its new line-up of AI driven products.

Let’s take a look:

Google Home Mini and Max

The Google Home Mini and Google Home Max are the newest additions to the Google Home lineup. These speakers come with Google Assistant built in, adding the AI magic to homes.

Both the Google Home Mini and Max adopt a similar design from the original Google Home. The Home Mini is as small as a Doughnut and comes covered in fabric on the top which adds to its aesthetic. The speaker gets four LED’s which tells the user about volume control and other notifications. The top portion is touch compatible, so users can tap to pause and use gestures to control the volume. The single speaker is designed to throw a 360-degree audio experience to fill an entire room.

Google Home Mini is priced at $49 (approximately Rs 3,000) and will be available in three colours starting October 19.

The Google Home Max, on the other hand, is a louder, punchier Google Home with a dual-speaker and sub-woofer setup to fill the room with an overwhelming thump. Home Max, according to Google is 20x powerful than the original Google Home. This speaker also gets a fabric outer layer, just like its siblings.

The speakers use machine learning, which Google calls ‘Smart Sound’. It adjusts its sound according to the room and the noises in it. It also alters sound signature according to the music type and genre.  This rectangular speaker can be kept in both vertical and horizontal alignment. The speaker also supports Chromecast, Bluetooth and Aux In. Moreover, you can pair multiple Google Home Speakers to play music across the entire home in harmony.

Google Home Max is priced at $399 (approximately Rs 26,000) and it also comes with 12 month of ad-free YouTube Music subscription.

Pixel Book and Pixel Book Pen

Google also unveiled a new Pixel Book which is its refreshed Chrome OS running convertible notebook. The laptop adopts a similar design cue from its Pixel smartphones, taking the metal and glass back. This 4-in-1 convertible is 10mm thin and hardly weighs a kilogram. The laptop gets a sharp 12.3-inch Quad HD display. The Pixel Book also gets a new stylus which Google calls- Pixel Book Pen, which can be used not only to scribble and jot down notes, but also for searching using Google Assistant.

For hardware, it is powered by the latest Core i5 and i7 Processors. You can avail up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD storage. The Pixel Book, according to Google’s claims can last 10 hours on a single charge. The new updated Chrome OS also comes with Google Assistant built in, and Google Play Store, thus adding support to all Android apps.

Google Pixel Book starts at $999, whereas the Pixel Book Pen is priced at $99, and starts shipping October 31.

Pixel Buds

Pixel Buds are the first wireless earbuds made by Google. These aren’t truly wireless earbuds and connect the two with a cable in between. However what’s interesting is that they pack a decent 620mAh batter which according to Google’s claims can easily last 24 hours of playback. What’s more interesting is that just like the AirPods, these come with a convenient pairing feature that Google calls ‘Fast Pair’, where you just need to open the case to pair the buds to the phone. The Pixel Buds are priced at $159 (approximately Rs 10,000).

Google Clips

Google Clips is a wireless camera that uses AI to capture rare candid memories that many people tend to miss while actually shooting with a regular camera. It has a 12-megapixel sensor along with a 130-wide angle-lens, which takes photos at 15 fps. It comes with 8GB of internal memory. Google Clips records and captures images of people in the room, and uses AI to pick the right moment. It’s perfect for parents and pet owners to not miss precious memories of their loved ones. The camera just records the video and not the audio. The LED light on the camera indicates whether its recording status.

Google Clips as of now is only compatible with Google Pixel smartphones, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S8. The Photos can be transferred using Wi-Fi. The Google Clips camera is priced at $249 (approximately Rs 16,000).

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