If you need a smart assistant in your life, get a Google Home

Home is where the IoT device is.
Home is where the IoT device is.
Image: Google
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If Google could control every aspect of your life, would you let it? What if it did a really good job at it?

Two years ago, Amazon released the Echo, a voice-controlled speaker that can play music, read you the news, control your internet-of-things devices with ease, and help you buy things from Amazon. Since then, it’s become a sort of sleeper hit in the US, with estimates suggesting Amazon has sold over 4 million units since its launch. It pretty much stood alone for a while as the only simple, useful device of its kind. But this past summer, Google announced that it would be unveiling a device called Home, which did pretty much everything the Echo could do, but in a smaller, cheaper package, and with the might of Google’s internet-trawling knowledge behind it.

The Home went on sale online and in-store at big-box retailers over the weekend. Should Amazon be worried about the Home? Probably. Does anyone need a device like this? Maybe. Quartz spent the week with a Home in their living room, testing to see if it can stand up to the Echo, and figuring out whether it might be worth replacing an Echo, or if it’s useful enough to bring the Home into your home.

What’s good

It works well. The Home can pull in music from YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, and Tunein, so pretty much whatever major music service you use, you can listen to it at your command. If you ask it a question, it will almost certainly be able give you an acceptable answer.

It sounds good. I never found the sound quality on the Echo to be particularly terrible, but with its four speakers (compared to the Echo’s two), the sound on the Home is a little richer, and a little less tinny. Turn it up to full volume, and it definitely has the power to blow out a small apartment in Queens.

It’s easy to control. Just say “OK Google,” and Home will be ready to respond. You can also turn the device’s volume up and down by asking it to “turn it up/down” or by using the touch interface on the slanted face of the device.

It’s easy to set up. Google makes it very simple to set up the Home. You plug the device in, download the Home app (which is the same app that you use to control a Chromecast), connect to the device’s wireless network, and then connect it to your wireless network. In all, setup took me about three minutes.

It can control your home. If you have smart devices in your home, Home can be the hub that controls them all for you. It can tie into devices made by Google (Nest and Chromecast), Philips, and Samsung SmartThings. You can also create rules on IFTTT, allowing Home to do multiple things at once. For example, you can set it up so that when you say it’s “party time,” your Philips Hue lightbulbs will change colors. But you shouldn’t do any of this, because smart homes are a bad idea.

Home is also supposed to be able to control Chromecasts as well, meaning if you have one of Google’s streaming devices plugged into a TV and on the same wifi network, you should be able to ask Home to play a YouTube clip on your TV. I had a first-generation Chromecast set up on the same network as the Home, and the app told me that the Chromecast wasn’t supported by Home for this function, but then a few hours later I tried anyway, and it worked perfectly.

You can have a conversation with it. Unlike many other voice assistants, Google’s Assistant can actually remember context, meaning if you ask for the weather today, and then follow up just saying, “What about tomorrow?” it will be able to infer from your previous question that you mean the weather in your area for tomorrow, rather than having to restate what you’re asking about. It works on a range of questions, too. You can ask it, “What’s the best Chinese restaurant in the area?” follow up with, “How about Mexican restaurants?” and then “Which one is the cheapest?” and it won’t lose its train of thought.

It seems to know everything. You can ask Home random questions about nearly any person, place, or idea, and it generally seems to be able to find an answer. This is almost certainly because Home has Google’s vast catacombs of knowledge behind it, so anything you could put into a Google search bar should work with Home. This becomes pretty apparent for more esoteric questions, where Home seems to just read directly from Google Knowledge Graph answers in certain cases (more on that below). The Echo, on the other hand, often fails to understand questions about people or places. 

It listens on multiple devices. This is very smart: If you have multiple devices, like a Pixel and a Home, with Google Assistant within earshot, they will all start listening when you say “OK Google,” but only one device will respond. It’s not entirely clear how the devices decide who is going to answer, but I’m guessing the phones defer to Homes because they’re louder.

The price. The Home costs $130, whereas an Echo costs $180 full-price. Amazon recently knocked the price down to $140, ostensibly because it’s “Alexa’s second birthday,” but presumably also because it’s feeling the pressure from Google’s device that does as much, if not more than its own, for less money.

It’s customizable. Although neither the Echo or the Home are particularly good-looking devices—the Echo looks like the GM Tower in Detroit and the Home kind of looks like an essential oil diffuser—but at least the Home can be updated to match your, erm, home, a little better than the Echo. The Home’s fabric bottom cover comes in seven colors, which you’ll be able to purchase from Google soon.

What’s not so good

It’s a bit slow. The Home definitely seems to take a few more beats to answer questions and pull up songs than the Echo does, but in both cases, you’re asking a small cylinder to magically pull information for you from a distributed set of servers across the globe instantaneously, which they both do dutifully. So it’s not exactly a deal-breaker.

It’s wordy. Home tends to pretty much understand most things you ask of it, and will generally get you an answer, eventually. If you ask it for the weather where you are, it’ll tell you “Right now in Astoria, New York 11102, it’s currently 73 and mostly cloudy. It’ll be partly cloudy today with a forecasted high of 73 and a low of 52.” Alexa offers a similar response, but doesn’t feel the need to tell me my state or ZIP code.

In many other situations, Home will give me the answer I’m after, but cite the source before she starts rattling off its reply. It seems that Home will just recite, in a lot of cases, the answers that you’d get if you typed a question into a Google web search. For example, if you ask it how to get out a red wine stain, it’ll think for a second, and then say: “Okay, here’s some information I found on Real Simple,” and then recite the exact response found in Google’s Knowledge Graph. It’s not that this is necessarily wrong or bad, it’s just worth considering if the amount of information presented in a web-based answer should be the same amount offered by a spoken answer that you can’t pause or restart without asking the question again.

Home can’t really do more than one thing at once. If you’re playing music on Home, and ask it a question, and then tell it to stop (because the answer is too wordy, perhaps?), it’ll stop talking, and stop playing your music. If you ask it to start playing again, it’ll start at the beginning. Which is a bit annoying.

“OK Google” is a weird thing to say repeatedly. Not that there’s necessarily a phrase that can make it seem particularly normal to talk to a small cylinder in your living room, but “OK Google” sounds like something you’d say when you’re exasperated, or ready to start an argument. Amazon’s choice of the name Alexa as its wake-up word feels a bit more natural, even though its device can’t hold a conversation.

It’s also annoying to have to keep repeating “OK Google” to get follow-up answers to questions—which is the case with any digital assistant you’re trying to talk to—it’d be like having a conversation with someone and saying their name every time you answered them. In all of Google’s advertising for the Home, you only hear people ask Home a single question at a time, because after that, it just starts getting weird to keep repeating that phrase.

One account at a time. The vast majority of my calendar appointments are on my work email, and although the Google Home app showed both my work and personal accounts in the app, I couldn’t figure out to how get Home to tell me when my next work meeting was.

It can’t contact people for you. Google Assistant on the Pixel can email and text people in your contacts for you, but Home cannot. It’d be super useful to be able to fire off a message while your hands are tied up by dictating to Home, but at least if your Pixel is in earshot, it should be able to pick up the Home’s slack.

Sometimes you have to get creative with your questions. There are instances where you ask Home what seems like a basic question that it can’t find an answer to, but if you ask for the same information in a different way, it will come back with what you want. For example, asking, “Did the Jets win today?” gives you a confused response, whereas asking, “What is the score in the Jets game today?” will give you the answer you’re after. Then again, perhaps Home was just trying to shield me from reality.

Image for article titled If you need a smart assistant in your life, get a Google Home
Image: Google

Should you get one?

If you don’t have an Echo, and don’t mind Google’s tentacles digging deeper into your digital and physical lives, then the Home is a great purchase. It works well, sounds good, and can keep inquisitive minds sated. And when Home doesn’t know the answer to something, it reminds you that it’s “learning more every day.” That means that, theoretically, this could be the last smart-home hub you ever buy, as Google’s AI will improve over time, and be able to better understand and serve you with each software update. Already, the Home is more knowledgable, easier to use and sounds better than the Echo.

That being said, it’s worth considering what the purpose of these sorts of devices are. Smart-home technology is still a nascent field, where technological mishaps can cause you to lose power, have no working lights, or freeze to death because your IoT thermostat switched off. Multiple companies are developing their own standards, and devices like the Home have to act as a middleman between technologies. Beyond that, there are few times when proclaiming something across a room is quicker or less awkward than just pulling out your phone to Google the answer—assuming you don’t live alone. And whether you’re talking about the Echo or the Home, both of these devices are really just insipid ways for two massive tech companies to bleed more money out of loyal customers—the Echo as an easier way to buy more products from Amazon, and the Home as a way to sell YouTube Red subscriptions, songs and films from Google Play Music—and build up their data sets on their users.

But if you’re just after a voice-activated speaker that can also answer some questions for you, the Home is the way to go.