Google Home - Big Impact, Small Form
Reviewed on 12/17/2017
I'll begin my review by first off stating that my purchase of a Google Home isn't my first foray into the world of Intelligent Assistants. I've purchased the Amazon Echo 1st gen and the Amazon Echo Dot ("Alexa, what's the weather?"), as well as the Google Home Mini and finally the Google Home. I've spent a large amount of time with the Amazon Assistant known as Alexa, so I've figured out its limits and the places where it excels. This is my review, after spending time with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri, of the Google Home.
Let's start with form factor. The Google Home, out of the box, runs the size of about a stainless steel coffee thermos. The Amazon Echo, their version of the Google Home, runs taller (a little shorter than a 2 liter soda bottle), but slightly slimmer (think iPhone 7 compared with 7 Plus). The Google Home features only one button (a hardware-based mute switch for those times you'd rather the Google Assistant NOT be listening), and the top of the device is a touch-based control panel. You can brush your finger in a clockwise manner to increase the Google Home's volume, counter-clockwise to decrease it, tap once to pause/play whatever media you're currently listening to, and tap and hold to trigger the Google Assistant. The surface underneath houses the multitude of small LED lights that show what the Home is currently doing. Upon adjusting the volume, for example, a white circle will appear showing the current volume and will change as you change said volume. Four colored lights, meanwhile, will show when the Google Assistant is listening to you, thinking about what you said, or responding to your query. When the mic is muted, four red dots will glow and the Assistant will say "The mic is now muted. To unmute, press the button on the back of Google Home". The Amazon Echo, meanwhile, has an LED ring at the top that will glow blue in the direction of your voice when speaking to it, and pulse blue when answering. It will glow a soft purple when "Do Not Disturb" is currently active, and pulse yellow when an Amazon order on the account linked to it has a shipping update. The Amazon Echo also features a hardware mute switch, pressing said which will turn the ring a bright red and the Echo will make an odd "thunk" sound. Neither device will respond if they're muted via the hardware switch.
Functionality: Both devices feature the same core things. Requesting music, listening to news, asking random questions. The Amazon Echo uses the Amazon Cloud to process requests while the Google Home (powered by the Google Assistant) uses Google's network to process requests. I created a list of questions and requests and asked both assistants them in turn. The Google Assistant was able to answer a greater number of questions, and provide helpful responses and actions to many more than the Amazon Alexa. The Google Home also provides access to many more music and streaming services than the Amazon Echo, which locks you to just 4.
Compatibility: Many of today's homes have something smart in them. A smart TV, smart game console, or a smart car. Maybe a smart thermostat, or smart lights, or other home monitoring devices. After setup, my Google Home automatically detected and set up my Phillips Hue lights (One Hue Bridge, One Hue Bloom, two Hue Ambiance bulbs in my bedroom ceiling, and two Hue Ambiance bulbs in my office ceiling). It also discovered my 3rd generation Nest Learning Thermostat downstairs in my entryway, and my Nest Protect posted above my bedroom door. Right off the bat, I was able to interact with every device with questions and requests alike. "Hey Google, what's the thermostat set to?" Returned a nearly instant answer of 69 degrees. Asking Google Home to dim my lights ended up with a voice response, and my lights being dimmed accordingly. Asking which devices were turned on gave me a status for all my lights - two bedroom lights and one office light. Amazon Echo, on the other hand, required a lot more tinkering before it wanted to see my lights. I first off had to enable a "Hue" skill in the Alexa app so it would work with my lights, then a "Nest" skill so I could interact with my thermostat and smoke detectors. Each skill required that I log in to an account on each specific service (myHue and Nest.com) and provide consent for the app to access each account, an annoying and redundant process. I then had to say "Alexa, discover devices" to which after a minute, she responded saying she'd found 51 smart devices. This was incorrect, as the Amazon Echo was counting each light scene I'd created in the Hue app as a completely different device. At this point, I gave up trying to configure light control and instead went to work with my thermostat. That too was a pain. Asking Alexa to change the temperature ended in her asking which device, trying to change the heating to Air Conditioning, or saying she didn't know what to do. I'd also like to remark that even after setting both up correctly, I'd frequently say "Alexa" and be given an error tone with a message saying "Alexa is currently unavailable - please try again later!". A poor end user experience.
Sound Quality/Service: No smart speaker is a speaker unless it can do music, and both the Google Home and Amazon Echo have that covered. Both devices feature 360 degree sound, and far field microphone technology (far field meaning it can hear you no matter where in the room you are, or on what side of it, that sort of thing). The Amazon Echo has honestly good quality. No distortion, solid highs and mids. The Google Home however, takes the cake. The volume is louder, the bass is extremely punchy, and if you own multiple Home devices you're able to link them together for a unified listening experience.
Overall, my vote here goes to the Google Home series. The Google Assistant is intelligent as ever, and it gets smarter every day. Amazon may have been the pioneer of smart home assistants, but they've got to step up their game if they want to be able to hold their own against Google.