Google Home review: The Assistant steps into your living room

It’s great that Home can access info in your Google account, but there are a few catches. Even though anyone can shout “OK Google” and start talking to Home, the device can link with only one Google account at a time. So a spouse or roommate is out of luck in terms of getting any personalized information about their day. This presumably will extend to being able to send text messages from Home, a feature that Google has shown off but hasn’t released yet. Also, some things that you’d expect to work right out of the box, like adding appointments to your calendar, surprisingly don’t.

Since you can use only one Google account at a time, you’ll potentially need to choose between your home and work accounts. Most of my schedule is contained in my work account, but I use my home account for just about everything else. This means it’s basically impossible to get Home to tell me my next appointment. Hopefully, in the future, Home will let you include multiple Google accounts — either for a single person or so that multiple people in the house can make the most of the device.

It’s worth noting, though, that regardless of the use case, Google Home’s voice recognition is excellent. Rarely did it misinterpret what I was asking (though it confused “play U2” with “play YouTube”), and ambient background noise didn’t throw it off. Home reliably woke from sleep and responded to whatever I was saying. I’m not surprised, given how good Google’s voice recognition is on the company’s other products, but it’s particularly important here.

Music and entertainment

Just like on the Echo, Google Home’s speaker is good for more than just talking — it’s also a handy way to play music and podcasts. For now, Home works with Spotify, YouTube Music, Pandora and Google Play Music. That isn’t a ton of options, but given that Spotify is the market leader (and Apple Music isn’t likely to work with Google Home any time soon), I can’t really complain. You can even use Home with multiple services, but one will have to be set as the default.

Once you’re set up, Home recognizes a wide variety of music commands. You can ask it to play specific songs, artists or albums. With both Spotify and Google Play Music, I was able to name playlists in my library and have it play them back; GPM’s stations work just as well. You can simply tell the device to “play some new music” and it’ll select an appropriate playlist, tell you its name and start it up. Genres and even more vague descriptors work — I asked Home to “play me some music good for focusing” and it started up the “Electronic Focus” station from GPM (my default service).

Once playback has started, you can ask Home to tell you more info about the song — but, sadly, you can’t ask it to add songs to a playlist or give them a thumbs-up. That’s one missing feature I hope Google can fix, because otherwise new songs I hear and enjoy are just going to float past me into the ether, never to be heard again.

The only potential catch here is Home’s speaker quality. It’s loud enough to fill an average-sized living room with sound, but it’s certainly not going to power a party. The speaker isn’t stereo and lacks much of a low end, despite the two passive “radiators” meant to increase bass performance. It mainly seems suited to solo listening, or to have light background music on while entertaining. Initially, I was impressed with the sound quality for such a small device — but that was before I compared it with my Sonos Play:1, which was superior in every way. However, for most people, Home is just as good as an average Bluetooth speaker, which means it’s still useful.

While Home may lack the sound quality I crave, it makes up for it with convenience. After a few days of asking Home to play me various albums and playlists, going back to managing my music with the clunky Sonos app felt like a chore. I was almost infuriated I couldn’t ask the speaker to pause for a moment or turn its volume down. And the good news is that Home plays with Google’s ecosystem of Chromecast devices, so if you have a pair of good speakers, you can just add the $35 Chromecast Audio and start telling Home to play music through that rather than its own internal speaker. I’m already dreaming of setting up a few pairs of nice speakers with Chromecast Audio and having a multi-room, voice-connected music system.

If you have audio apps on your phone or tablet that work with Google’s Casting technology, you can use Home as a destination speaker and start playing audio there as well. And Home can control video Chromecast devices too, although support for that feature is rather limited as of launch. You can ask Home to start playing cute puppy videos, for example, and it’ll open up YouTube and start a relevant video. But asking it to play TV shows from Netflix, Hulu or even Google Play videos doesn’t work yet. Google says support for third-party Cast apps is coming at some point, but for now it’s far more limited than I had hoped.

Smart home / third-party integration

The last piece of the puzzle is what Google Home can do beyond just accessing Google information. Out of the box, Home can control smart home devices from Nest, Philips Hue and SmartThings, and you can use IFTTT “recipes” to expand Home’s capabilities as well. I unfortunately have a pretty dumb home, though, so I wasn’t able to give this a shot.

While Home works with some of the biggest smarthome options out there, it lags behind Echo. The Echo has a distinct advantage in that regard — it’s been on the market for much longer, which means Amazon has had more time to strike deals with more manufacturers. Echo works with WeMo, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon and Ecobee, in addition to Nest and Hue. If you’re looking to have a centralized voice assistant to run your home, Amazon’s option is the better choice right now.

It’s a similar story with third-party services (or “skills,” as Amazon calls them). Over the past few years, the developer community has embraced the Echo to a surprising degree, and there are now tons of third-party commands that work on Amazon’s speaker, with more coming every week. It’s something Google can’t match just yet. The company definitely has ambitions to open up the Assistant and let you do things like book restaurant reservations through OpenTable or buy movie tickets on Fandango, but those features aren’t live yet. You can book a car through Uber once you link your account, but that’s about it right now (outside of the aforementioned integration with streaming services like Spotify and TuneIn).

The competition

If you’ve made it this far, it should be obvious who Google Home’s main competition is. Amazon’s Echo devices are time-tested and have a vast amount of third-party support at this point. Google Home undercuts the full-size Echo ($129 vs. $180), but the tiny and excellent Echo Dot only costs $50.

It comes down to how invested you are in Google’s ecosystem and how patient you can be. I have no doubt that Home will see expanded third-party support down the line, but right now the selection is limited. Still, Home knows way more about your world than the Echo, thanks to Google’s massive knowledge graph. And on the other hand, if managing a smart home is more interesting to you, Amazon’s Echo has the advantage.

Wrap-up

Google CEO Sundar Pichai wants to “build a personal Google for each and every user,” and the Google Assistant (and therefore Home) are key to that mission. But it’s not there yet. Yes, Google Home knows some basic info about me, but it doesn’t know quite enough to make me feel like it’s my own personal Google. Nor does it have the third-party services that’ll really let me customize the device to fit my home and my needs. If I had some compatible smart-home products and a handful of Chromecast devices, Google Home would be much more appealing.

Right now, however, it’s little more than a toy. It’s fun and occasionally very convenient to ask it questions and have it perform simple tasks, but it’s hardly an essential part of my life. But Google Home is worth keeping an eye on — it will almost certainly be more capable in three months (or even three weeks) than it is now. If you’re someone who loves tapping into Google’s mighty store of knowledge, don’t sleep on Google Home. Just as the Echo got smarter and more valuable over time, I expect the same will happen here. And if you’ve already bought into Google’s ecosystem, this might indeed be the home assistant for you.

Chris Velazco contributed to this review

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