Google Home has finally landed in the UK. Does this smart speaker live up to the hype, and more importantly can it compete with Alexa?
As most of you will be aware, Google Home is a small speaker with built-in microphones that can detect audio cue to activate Google Assistant. This is a direct competitor to the Amazon Echo which uses Alexa. Priced at £129.99 it is £20 cheaper than its rival which is quite an important selling point considering Alexa/Echo has been out for a couple of years and has an established user base.
The design of Google Home is quite attractive, it has a short stout frame, with a sloping top. This makes it around 10cm shorter than the Amazon Echo, and but 1cm thicker. For me, the design is far nicer than the Echo, it happily blends in sat on a table in our living room, whereas the Echo is clearly just a black speaker. You can even change the colours of the Home to suit your tastes, the mesh grill on the bottom can be swapped out for other colours.
If you already have an Android device then set up should be a breeze. I just plugged it in, downloaded the app and let it do its thing. It will connect directly to Home and pass your WiFi credentials to it automatically. From there you can set up your services and connected devices.
I currently use/own Spotify, Google Play, Philips Hue, and TPlink Kasa. All of which are very easy to set up. If you have a very large Hue/Kasa system it can be quite time-consuming as you need to assign each device to a room. It would be good if Home could pull in the room data directly from Philips but I suspect this is an issue on the Philips end rather than Google.
Other services Home is compatible with include Nest, WeMo, Samsung SmartThings, and any device that has Chromecast built in. It also works with various content providers, but more importantly, it works with IFTTT which theoretically expands its functionality exponentially as IFTTT also integration between hundreds of devices and services.
Home works really well with both Hue and Kasa, I can tell it to switch lights on and it will do all the lights in the house or switch lights on in the living room and it does so for just the lights associated with the living room. I have the lights on a schedule and also use a Philips dimmer, so after a few days, I relocated the speaker into my office. At the end of the day, I tell it to switch off office and it turns off my smart plugs and lights. So, all my monitors, USB devices, printers etc. are fully powered down. If I walk into the office in the morning I tell it to turn my office on and it does just that. My PC is set to boot up following the loss of power so by the time I come to sit down my PC has already booted up to the login screen. Yes, this is the height of laziness, and I guess it is frivolous to spend hundreds on something that saves 5-10 seconds a day, but it is a feature I love.
Apart from integration with services and devices, Google Home uses Google Assistant carry out all sorts of searches or answer questions. It also integrates with Google Calendar.
One of the core questions is “OK Google, Tell me about my day?” Google Assistant will tell me the time, weather, commute to work, and days tasks, followed by the news. You can customise exactly what she tells you from the app, so, for example, you can switch off the news.
It also integrates with Spotify really well. I can ask Google to play music and it will select music that I have previously listened to, or I can tell it to play a specific band. Alternatively, you can ask it to play music for the Gym and it will select a Gym playlist.
Other questions allow you to interface with Google Search and other Google services, so, for example, you can ask for flight times or prices, or ask questions regarding the price and availability of products.
During my testing of this, it works and it is great, but it can be glitchy. When I asked for the price of a PlayStation 4 Pro, it referenced a CNET article and gave me the price of a PS4 Slim.
When I asked for flight times between Blackpool and New York it gave me the flight time from Liverpool to New York which is 12 hours. What it should have done is use Manchester which would be 7.5 hours. What it seems to have done here is just select the closest Airport based on Google Maps, with Liverpool being 61.6 miles and Manchester being 62.5 miles. In this case, it probably isn’t a flaw with Google Home, but just that Google Search isn’t quite smart enough for certain complex questions.
These issues are not exclusive to Google. Alexa suffers from the same glitches and as both platforms evolve I would expect them to occur less and less.
In terms of audio quality, it is good for its size and price but it doesn’t come close to the likes of the Sonos 1. The speaker just doesn’t have enough power to produce amazing audio quality. It isn’t really a like for like comparison though, as the Sonos 1 costs £190 and is considerably larger. I also wouldn’t describe the Sonos 1 as amazing quality, but it is great for its size and price. The Echo has exactly the same issue, and both devices are perfectly adequate for casual listening such as kitchen speakers or the like.
While the speaker on Google Home and Alexa can be a little lacklustre one of the biggest advantages Google has is that Google Home can work with any device that has Chromecast. If you have bought a smart device in the past few years there is a Good chance it will have this. Alternatively, you can pick up Chromecast and plug it into any TV for just £25 or the Audio version for speakers at the same price.
So, even though I have not actively been seeking out Chromecast devices, I can currently stream to my NVIDIA Shield, my Sony STR-DN1060 amp, and the Bose SoundTouch 300. This allows me to have all the smart benefits of Google Assistant while still having amazing audio.
Google does have some ground to make up on compared to Alexa. With the system being so new it just doesn’t have as many integrations as Alexa. From a quick look, around a few notable ones included Logitech Harmony, Hive and Tado Smart Heating. All of these work with IFTTT so technically you can get them to work, but it would be great to see a full integration. When I bought my Kasa plugs at Christmas, they didn’t work with Alexa or Home, and not they do, and I think any company developing a smart device is going to be eager to integrate with both Google Home and Alexa. So I don’t think early adopters will have to wait too long for any missing integrations.
Overall, Google Home is off to a great start, it’s only been out for a few months in America, and a few weeks in the UK, but it feels like a complete solution than when Alexa first launched. In a few months, I suspect they will be toe to toe. If you are invested in the Google ecosystem I personally think Google Home makes the more logical choice of the two devices. Long term I think Google has the ability to become the better product too, they have millions of devices capable of using Google Assistant in the form of Android smartphones, and Chromecast has already been a big success for them and you also have the new Shield which has Google Assistant built in.