“Okay, Google, can you beat Amazon?”
That’s the biggest question on many peoples’ minds with the debut of Google’s (GOOG) (GOOGL) new Home smart home hub. Available for pre-order starting Tuesday for $129, Home is a direct shot at competing with Amazon’s Echo smart home hub.
Home, which was first unveiled at Google’s I/O conference in June, is a digital assistant designed to help you navigate your daily life, control your smart home devices, monitor your schedule and, of course, search the web via Google.
I spent a bit of hands-on time with Home following Google’s announcement and it looks as though it could easily give Amazon’s (AMZN) Echo a run for its money.
Home has a sleek, elegant design that’s meant to blend into your average home’s decor. The New York Times says it resembles an air freshener, and it does in the sense that it doesn’t demand your attention. It’s best described as inoffensive.
Home has a tapered cylindrical styling that’s divided into a sterile white top portion and a swappable bottom speaker grill that can be switched out for a colored metal or fabric replacement if you want to add a bit of life to the pod.
Between Home and Amazon’s full-size Echo, Home is easily more attractive thanks to a look that’s more streamlined and simple than the Echo.
The reason Home exists — besides to compete with Echo — is to serve as a hub for Google’s new voice-activated AI platform, Google Assistant. Already available through Google’s Allo messaging app, Google Assistant is designed to let you have a direct conversation with Google via voice or text. Basically, Assistant pulls all of Google’s disparate services including Gmail, Google Photos, search, voice recognition and others together in one place.
With Assistant you can control smart home devices such as your Phillips smart lights or Nest thermostat or Samsung SmartThings products. So you can tell your lights to change from white to blue and turn down the temperature to 50 degrees and pretend your house is located in the Arctic Circle if it you want. Whatever, I’m not judging.
Of course, you can also use Home and Google Assistant to control your Chromecast by telling the hub to do things like play the trailer for “Luke Cage” on YouTube. Or you can tell it to play your favorite music playlist with the device’s voice casting. Google says six services support voice casting including Spotify, Pandora and Google Music, though Google says it’s working with partners to bring more onboard. Naturally, you can use the Google Home app to cast music from apps that don’t currently support voice casting.
It’s the sensitive type
Google Assistant is context sensitive, which means it’s able to follow human speech patterns without your having to talk to it in stilted robotic phrases. Play a song, for example, ask “When was this released?” and Assistant will recognize that you’re talking about the song that’s currently playing and provide you with the answer. Ask “What key is this song in?” and Assistant will tell you that, too.
Want to know the weather in New York? Assistant will tell you. Want to know what it’s going to be like in Austin? Ask, “What about in Austin?” and Assistant will tell you the weather in Austin without your having to ask that specific question. It’s this kind of speech capability that Google wants Assistant to have regardless of what questions you ask.
A team player
If you’re really crazy about Home, you might decide to set up several in your home. After all, the one in your kitchen won’t be able to hear you in your bedroom. To that end, Google allows you to group your various Home devices. With such a setup you can play synchronized music throughout your house in every room with a Home. You can even group Chromecast Audio-connected speakers so that they play along with your Homes.
During one demo, I was able to tell one Home to play music, ask the other a question and play a YouTube video via Google’s new Chromecast Ultra. Home is expected to work across a host of smart home-connected devices and apps, but at the moment it only works with those made by a handful of companies including Philips, Samsung, Nest and IFTTT. Amazon’s Echo and Alexa voice assistant, which have been on the market much longer, already work across a wide array of smart home devices. If Google is going to catch up, it needs to get more manufacturers on board fast.
Answering life’s questions and more
Google Assistant doesn’t just make it easier to dim the lights and put on some soothing mood music. It can also answer questions like, “Why am I so lonely?”
Okay, it might not have the answer to that, but it can provide you with answers about a variety of topics ranging from sports scores and celebrity birthdays to how to deep-fry a turkey. The assistant can also provide you with your daily schedule, and it can let you add items to your shopping list that you can then pull up on your smartphone. It can also tell you when your next meeting is, what time you should leave and give you the fastest route to get there.
What’s especially impressive is how well Google Home understands you. The device’s built-in far-field microphone and neural beamforming allow Home to hear what you’re saying even while you’re blasting the crunchiest thrash metal. That’s because Google taught Home to understand the difference between a human voice and background noise. It’s actually pretty impressive to see in person. It’s also worth pointing out that Home’s speakers are top notch. I was listening to Adele in a crowded hall and it still sounded wonderful.
Google Home doesn’t just work via voice, though. There’s the aforementioned smartphone app, as well as a touch-sensitive top panel. If you want to mute your music and can’t tell Home to do it with your voice, for example, you can simply tap the device. Want to raise or lower the volume manually? You can swirl your finger around Home’s top panel and a series of indicator lights will come to life telling you how loud Home’s volume is.
A Home in every home?
Home has a lot of ground to make up if it’s going to take on Amazon’s Echo. Not only is Google late to the game, but we also still don’t have a full list of products the device works with. It’s clear that Google is just getting into the swing of things with Google Assistant and home automation.
Google does, however, have the benefit of its Home costing just $130, while the full-size Amazon Echo costs $180. There’s also the smaller Amazon Echo Dot for $50, but its speaker isn’t nearly as loud as the full-size Echo (though it can connect to larger speakers).
For now, it’s too early to say whether Home will be a success, but I’ll have more insight when I get my hands on it some more in the coming weeks.
More from Google’s keynote: