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Here's Google Home, the $129 Echo competitor that puts the Google Assistant intelligence technology inside a small, but powerful, speaker and microphone unit.
Google Home does beat Alexa and the Echo in some ways, but it’s remarkably dumb in others. The Google Home looks a lot better than the Echo. While the Echo is a tall black metal cylinder, Google’s contender is a smaller, more stylish white plastic cylinder with an angled top and a mesh speaker base. You can get alternate bases in different colors. The top is touch-sensitive and has built-in lights that show when the Home is ready to accept a command. It snaps to attention when it hears the trigger phrases “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google.”
The setup is performed using an Android or iOS app called Google Home.
When I asked, “Who’s running for president?” Home listed the two main third-party candidates as well as the major-party nominees; the Echo left out Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
But when I asked Google Home, in four different ways, to give me the latest election polls, it answered, “Sorry, I can’t help with that yet, but my team’s helping me learn,” the device’s go-to excuse.
Google Home knew the address of my office. The Echo told the address of the nearest post office; when I asked using the words “work address,” it said it couldn’t help. But, while Google Home couldn’t give me any info about my calendar, the Echo knew all about it.
That’s because I have Google Calendar, but via a different account and Google Home currently only supports a single Google account.
Google Home couldn’t take a note or set a reminder, like the Echo can. Google says it’s working on adding that.
On the other hand, Google Home carried on a conversation with me about Abraham Lincoln, telling me first when he was born, then answering several other queries about him without requiring me to repeat his name. The Echo couldn’t do this.
For playing music, Google mostly did well. Home supports Spotify and Pandora, but I set it to rely on Google’s own Google Play and YouTube services. It handled even my hand-crafted playlists fine. But it occasionally stopped playing a song for a few seconds and then resumed.
While the sound from Home was quite good, the Echo’s speaker was crisper. Also, on at least one album, Home repeatedly declined to play more than one song, while the Echo played them all.
Home is much less versatile than Echo, because it lacks the thousands of third-party apps that the latter boasts. But it has its own special trick: It can, via a voice command, allow you to cast streaming videos or programs to your TV, provided you have one of Google’s Chromecast devices. For now, these videos have to come from Google’s own YouTube service, but the company says Netflix and others are coming.
If you do spring for multiple Google Home speakers, you can set them up, via the app, to play the same music in multiple rooms. Speaking of the app, it works on both Android and iPhone, and I tested both successfully.
A lot of people might be suspicious about placing a constantly-listening Google device in their homes, since the company is famous for collecting personal information. I asked Google about this, and a person who worked on Google Home swore that it only collects what you say after it hears the trigger phrases. Further, he said, the data goes into the same data store as other information Google collects about you. And, like that information, you can tweak or even delete it at myactivity.google.com.
To paraphrase Google’s own CEO, Sundar Pichai, artificial intelligence is still in its very early days. And, in my opinion, Google Home shows that. I have no doubt it will improve. But I was surprised that Google Home arrived so rough around the edges, especially when it had an existing competitive product to learn from and an unmatched wealth of data to draw upon.