1 September 2017

REVIEW: Google Home

Okay, Google...

If that is a phrase you're used to saying only to your phone (you know, while you're alone, to save yourself some embarrassment), prepare to utter it while completely hands-free, sitting in your pants at home. That is because Google have finally sorted out their consumer supplies of their new home assistant smart speaker, and we've been living with it for the past fortnight thanks to Currys. Behold our review of Google Home.

To the unaware, the Google Home is a speaker with a microphone that is constantly connected to the internet via your home WiFi. In essence, it is the Google search bar you have on your internet browser, but controlled by your voice. Say 'Okay, Google...' and the speaker will start listening, ready to take a command. That might be 'how big is Jupiter' or 'what is the real name of the sexy Swedish vampire from True Blood', to which the speaker will respond with an answer, in a pleasant female voice.

The unit itself is pleasing on the eye, with a smooth, button-less white top, and fabric covered lower section under which lay the omni-directional speakers. The cover can actually be swapped out for a different colour or material, meaning you could personalise it quite a bit. Still, the default colours are muted and neutral, meaning the Google Home looks more like an air freshener than a smart speaker - quite a contrast to the metallic tech look of Amazon's rival device, the Echo.

The smooth top has LED lights embedded just below the surface, which spring to life when you say the magic words, 'Okay, Google'. Those same lights are also the volume controls, which is a touch interface, helping to keep the thing free of messy looking buttons. In fact, the only button on the Google Home is a mute button on the back; something you can also activate by saying 'Okay, Google: stop'.

Powered by the included (and subtle) power cable, set up took just a few minutes after downloading the Home app to a phone. Once connected to your WiFi and your Google account, the Home can start getting to work, and do things other than just search the web for you. For example, if you have a Spotify account - even the limited free version - you can get the speaker to both find and play music for you. This is where that smart speaker actually shows itself as a decent speaker in its own right, and for single-room entertainment, the Google Home performed well.

If you're a radio fan, you can get it to search digital radio stations and connect to them, letting you enjoy your regular programmes without touching a single switch or screen. If you have a Chromecast, you can get the Home to search YouTube and instantly cast the chosen video or show directly on your TV. Saying something as simple as 'Okay, Google: cast the latest episode of the Slow Mo Guys to the TV', and having the video start to play just a few seconds later, was completely awesome. It's one of those 'I'M LIVING IN STAR TREK!' moments.

We have Hive smart central heating, so we were also able to integrate that into the Home's operations. Asking it to whack the heating up to 22 degrees, and then hearing the radiators creak to life immediately, was great, and Google have also recently announced that Netatmo and Tado heating systems will also be compatible with it soon. Philip's Hue lighting system will also work with it, as will other smart home systems, meaning that you can get it to play you a video on your telly, as you ask it to dim the lights. Shit, that's great.

But... the only real downside we encountered with Google Home, other than the lack of connected systems and products compared to Amazon's more established Echo, was the occasional 'miss-hears'. By that we mean the speaker sometimes just couldn't understand us, either because we worded something a certain way, spoke too quickly, or paused while asking a question. We know the software isn't perfect, and it does an incredible job to recognise any human speech at all, but one of our kids can't use the speaker at all, because of the way she pronounces 'Google'. Watching a six year old girl stubbornly repeat 'Okay, Guggle...' over and over without a response was pretty heartbreaking. Bless her socks. But it highlighted that there are still improvements to be made. That said, Google have already announced an update for the Home, so we'll wait to see how that improves the speech recognition.

Apart from those two small issues, we really can't fault it. The Echo might seem like the better choice of smart speaker at the moment, but the smaller size, better looks, and integration with Google's own services, makes the Google Home a serious contender in our book.


Available from www.currys.co.uk

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