We’ll admit it. Initially we kept calling our Google Home “Alexa” (followed by an expletive when the nearby Echo Dot perked up, ready to help). But can you blame us? There’s a lot of overlap between Google’s voice-controlled speaker and Amazon’s range of devices with Alexa. Both smart assistants can tell you the latest news and weather, keep track of appointments, control your smart home, and — of course — play music.
Despite the similarities, the two aren’t exactly equal. The Home is shaped differently and costs more than Amazon’s Echo (by $29). But the differences are more than skin deep. A lot has changed since the Google Home debuted, and we’ve updated our review to reflect that.
Design and features
The Home reminds us a little of a nesting doll that’s had its top shorn off at an angle. It’s white and comes with a gray base, but for another $20 you can get orange, purple, or teal fabric, and $40 will get you a metal version in black, white, or copper. They actually have fancier names, but we’re not going to call something mango and expect you to know what we’re talking about.
The angled top is touch-sensitive and illuminates with multi-colored dots when you summon the device with an “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google,” the phrases that signal it should start listening. You can use the surface to change the volume, start a request, play or pause music, or turn off an alarm or timer. There’s a microphone button in the back, so you can ensure the device isn’t listening.
Inside are two far-field microphones, five fewer than the Echo’s seven. We were fine calling out commands in an 850-square-foot condo, but that’s because the Home was centrally located. If you have more than one, only the nearest one should respond, so you don’t have a chorus of Homes answering your requests.
Getting Google Home up and running takes just minutes. We downloaded the iOS Google Home app (obviously also available for Android), added the device, and were walked through a few basics on our phone. Then it was ready to start doing our bidding.
Tell me all your thoughts
It’s only natural to compare the Home and the Dot, which sits right next to it in our one of our test living rooms. The first thing we noticed is that saying “Hey, Google” feels less personal than asking Alexa for information or assistance. That being said, the Home knows its name. One DT staffer tried to rouse it by calling it “Noodle” and got no answer. It also doesn’t listen when we call it Goober. We wish it did, though. We’d feel like it’s a little less formal.
You can ask the Home if you need a coat instead of asking for the weather, and it will respond appropriately.
The Home is quite good at figuring out exactly what you’re asking, even if you don’t phrase it a super-logical way. We did a head-to-head comparison between it and Alexa, and while the Amazon speaker added a jacket to our shopping list when we asked if we needed a coat, the Home gave us a weather report. Google pulls from its knowledge graph to answer questions, and it often results in more detailed answers than Alexa gives. That said, sometimes the top answer is a bit out of date or incomplete. When we asked for the seven wonders of the world, for example, Google Home listed a couple and then said “and others.” That’s not all that helpful.
Google Home is also programmed to be personable, and the company hired writers from Pixar and The Onion to help. For example, if you want to know where in the world is Carmen Sandiego, the Home may reply, “I hear she sneaks around the world. Try Kiev or Carolina.” But when we said, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya,” Google Home asked, “You’d like me to call you Inigo Montoya. Is that right?” Not quite the response we were looking for, but we’ll take it.
The Google Home initially called us “Caleb” when we said good morning, because at the time you could only have one account linked at a time. When we were first testing it out, we had to do a factory reset on it (by holding down the microphone button for 15 seconds) to delete our Senior Editor’s account, because he’d gotten his mitts on it first. Now, up to six people can have their own accounts, and the speaker uses Voice Match to tell who’s who. That means we get our responses linked to our accounts, like music, flight information, and shopping lists. While Amazon Alexa now has this feature, Google Home was the first to implement it.
Google Assistant now has six different voices to choose from, including a male voice, which is something that Alexa doesn’t yet have. Soon, Google will be adding the voice of John Legend as a choice as well. In addition, a just-announced “continued conversation” feature allows you to ask a follow-up question while having a conversation with Google Assistant without having to repeat “Ok Google” or “Hey Google”. Alexa has a similar ability, called “follow-up mode,” but you have enable it in the Alexa app.
We’re not quite sure what the use (or potential creep factor) of this is yet, but when we asked for the Home’s favorite animal (puppies), it asked for ours in return. Later, when asked it if it knew our favorite animal, it replied, “You told me that you like kitties.” We’d like to report that our favorite animal has switched to otters since the original review.
Alexa launched with limited ability to control smart-home devices, and Google Home started with a similar small number: Philips Hue bulbs, SmartThings devices, Nest, and If This Then That recipes. Now Google says Home works with more than 5,000 devices. That list includes the August smart locks, Neato Botvac robot vacuum, and a GE washing machine. Google also has a Routines feature, which allows you to ask Google Assistant to perform multiple actions with a single command.
Home goes beyond just bulbs and thermostats, though, working with your Chromecast to stream content to your TV. That means you can toss videos or photos up on your TV, a way to get around the device’s lack of a screen. You can also play Google Play movies with your Home device.
Recently, Google started allowing users to turn the speaker into a hands-free phone. It can call any number in the U.S., except 911. It’s handy but can get a little frustrating when your sister changes her name and shows up as two different contacts and Google keeps asking which one you wanted to call. Finally, just shouting, “The first one!” works.
Crank it up
Google Home supports Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora. You can select a default player to handle all your music-related requests, so that you don’t have to specify an app each time. We linked a Spotify account and asked Google Home to play our “‘Ello, Charlie” playlist, which is the one we made for our sister when she was giving birth. We specifically chose it because Alexa has trouble playing that one (we suspect the apostrophe is the culprit), but the Home had no trouble firing it up.
When it comes to podcasts, you can’t request that the Home play a specific episode, but you can say, “Play My Favorite Murder podcast,” then ask it to play the previous episode.
To evaluate sound quality, DT’s Senior Editor Caleb Denison gave it a listen. It sounds closer to the Amazon Echo Tap than the full-size Echo speaker. While Amazon’s full-size Echo has decent sound with full bass that doesn’t go overboard, Google’s Home over-juices the bass, and ends up sounding like it’s trying too hard. The Echo and Echo Tap can each get a bit louder before moving into distortion territory than the Home can, too – we found the Google Home would start sounding compressed and a little dirty when we pushed the volume too hard.
As a speaker, the Home may not be able to top the Echo or Echo Tap, but considering its intended use, we think most folks will find it sounds just fine. Don’t get too excited about the notion of 360-degree audio, though. While the Home does use passive drivers to emit sound in multiple directions, it has hot and cold spots. Still, especially if placed near a corner, the Home can deliver a room-filling punch.
What can’t it do?
Right now, the Home’s biggest limitation is its “skills.” Alexa seems to gain skills at the rate of one per second, and it has more than 500,000 now. Some of these skills are pretty gimmicky, and you do have to enable them to use them. The Home just adds them as it gets them, which means you probably don’t even know what you have access to. If you go into the home app, hit menu, and press the Explore button, you’ll see all sorts of skills. Food Network can give you recipes, Domino’s can order you a pizza, and you can get nutrition facts. There are non-food-related capabilities, too, like reminders, sports scores, and dad jokes. Google also features a bunch of kids’ content, like stories and games, including Disney-related tales.
The skills can actually make the Google Home a little more cumbersome. For something that prides itself on responding to conversational language, saying, “Talk to Free Book of the Day” to launch these skills is awkward and might not be something you recall off the top of your head.
Google Home finally got the ability to link multiple accounts, and it distinguishes between users’ voices.
Google Home isn’t always on the nose when it comes to answering questions. We asked, “How many VMAs does Beyoncé have?” and it told me she won for Video of the Year in 2016 for “Formation” then listed several more without giving an actual number. For the record, she has 24. And while the Home thought she had 20 Grammy Awards, Grammy.com says the singer has 22. (In case you’re wondering, Alexa said 20 Grammys and said she couldn’t help with the VMAs question.)
We also had a few problems with some of the assistant-y stuff. When we asked what we should have for lunch, the speaker offered several restaurants based on our location. It doesn’t have our address exactly right, but close enough. One restaurant it suggested didn’t open until 5 p.m. When we asked for its hours, Home confirmed that it wasn’t open yet. If it were a little smarter, it wouldn’t have suggested that particular restaurant in the first place. Also, what were were really hoping for was a recipe suggestion.Our Take
Overall, it’s come a long way since its debut. It quickly caught up to where the Echo was after a year in terms of smart-home control, and it keeps adding features that go way beyond skills. The Voice Match and calling are both great additions, and now there are a couple new additions to the Home lineup.
Is there a better alternative?
In case you can’t tell, the $129 Google Home’s biggest competition is the range of Alexa products from Amazon, including the new $100 Echo and the $50 Dot. If you’re looking for a screen, the $230 Echo Show is the only way to go right now, although several third parties, including Lenovo, are launching displays with Google Assistant built in later this year. But it also has some competition from its own backyard, with the Home Mini and Home Max.
The DT Accessory Pack
How long will it last?
In the immediate future, Google Home should only get better with new software updates and more third-party integration. But we can’t promise the company won’t eventually roll out a newer version with a screen.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you have a Chromecast, the Google Home is the clear choice over an Alexa device. Amazon is rolling out some new competition, but we think Google Home has Alexa beat when it comes to what’s on the inside, namely, Google Assistant.
Updated May 2018 to reflect updates in Google Assistant capabilities as well as information on the six new voices available.