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Smart Home

Everything you need to know about Google Home

Here's your guide on where to buy, how to get started and how to get the most out of your Google smart speaker.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Welcome to CNET's guide to the Google Home smart speaker. Perhaps you're wondering if this relatively new category of tech is for you, or maybe you just bought one of Google's smart speakers and you want to know what you should do with it. Maybe you saw all of the news from the Google I/O Developer Conference and want to know what it all means. 

We can help. Below, we'll get you familiar with the basics of the Google Home, then dive into all you can do once you're up and running. We'll also look at the flaws of the system and what's next for Google smart speakers to complete the overview. 

If you're not sure whether you want a Google Home, an Amazon Echo or perhaps an Apple HomePod, we can help with that, too. Here's a guide to buying the right smart speaker for you and here's a breakdown of the three main digital assistants built in to smart speakers -- Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri. If you just want to get caught up on the latest, here are the Google Assistant highlights from I/O.

Editors' note: Originally published April 26, 2018, this article will be updated as new features are announced, such as those out of Google I/O Developer Conference.

What is a Google Home?

A smart speaker from the eponymous search giant designed to compete with the popular Amazon Echo, the Google Home can play music, but it's primarily designed as a vehicle for Google Assistant -- Google's voice-activated virtual helper that's connected to the internet. The Google Assistant you access via the Home is the same as the one on recent Android phones such as the Google Pixel.

The Google Home is always listening to its environment, but it won't actually record what you're saying or respond to your commands until you say one of its preprogrammed wake words -- either "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google." Here's a list of commands you can give your Google Home.

Now Playing: Watch this: 5 most useful Google Home commands
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Google actually has three smart speakers at this point. Google Assistant debuted in the original $130 Google Home. The $50 Google Home Mini squeezes all of the smarts of the original into a smaller, more affordable package. The $400 Google Home Max puts Google's smarts into a speaker designed to deliver premium sound. 

All three speakers give you access to the same Google Assistant service. The only significant differences between the three are their size, their sound quality and their price. You use the same Google Home app to set up all three, and they all respond to the same wake words and the same commands.

JBL Link 300

The JBL Link 300 offers a lot of sound quality for the price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also use the same Google Assistant via a variety of third-party smart speakers such as the portable TicHome Mini and the JBL Link series. The Sonos One will work with Google Assistant later this year as well. Unless it's specifically stated otherwise, all of the Google Home features I discuss below work with any Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker. Pick your speaker, then check out our tips for getting started. Here are a few tricks specific to the original Google Home and a few tricks specific to the Google Home Max

In addition to the voice commands, each Google Home speaker has a limited set of physical controls. You can change the volume, mute the microphone and play or pause your music via a physical interface on the speaker. Check out the video below for details on these physical controls.

Where to buy your smart speaker

You can buy the original $130 Google Home, the $400 Google Home Max and the $50 Google Home Mini online via the Google Store. You'll also find Google's speakers at a number of electronics stores, including Best Buy and even hardware stores like Lowes. Third-party speakers like the $250 JBL Link 300 are also widely available at electronics stores. 

Making music

Once you get your Google Home set up, you might want to use your smart speaker to listen to some music. You can use a Google Home as an ordinary Bluetooth speaker and pull up the song you want to listen to on your phone. Better yet, use your voice to tell Google what song you want. You can even search by lyrics if you don't remember the name, or tell it to start a playlist of a certain genre.

Google can pull songs from a variety of streaming services including Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. In the Google Home app, you can pick one of those services as your default and Google will search that service first when you ask for a song or a playlist. You can still access music on any of the other services by asking for it by name.

Here are nine tips for getting the most out of your Google Home as a music streamer. The article also discusses how to group multiple speakers so you can play a single song synced throughout your house. If you don't like the sound quality of your Google Home or Google Home Mini (both are serviceable but not outstanding) you can send music to your speaker of choice through either a Chromecast streamer or via a Bluetooth connection.

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Google Assistant can even play music on your TV if it's Chromecast-enabled, and you can ask it to play your favorite TV show through a variety of streaming services such as Netflix and HBO Now. At I/O, LG announced several TVs with Google Assistant built in. You have to push a button on a remote to give a voice command, so the TV isn't always listening. Sony was the first to offer TVs with similar voice control functionality

Ready to assist

Since it launched in November 2016, the Google Home has gotten a lot better as a personal assistant. Here's a look back at the smart speaker's eventful 2017 and the many new features it gained throughout the year. Here are the main updates coming later this year that were announced at Google's 2018 I/O developer conference. 

You could always ask your Google Home to perform basic tasks like searching the web and checking your calendar. Now, the Assistant in your smart speaker can do so much more. You can train Google Assistant to recognize up to six distinct voices, which will enable it to customize its responses based on who's talking. Google can then offer personalized answers if you ask about your commute to work or your schedule for the day.

You can add different profiles for each member of your family, and soon, Google can enforce some manners when your kid wants to give a command. Announced at I/O 2018, a feature called "Pretty Please," works through voice control and will prompt your child to say "the magic word." You can enable the feature for yourself as well.

A few other I/O updates will also make Google Home a better personal assistant. If you want Google to respond to you in a different voice, you'll soon have several more options, including John Legend. Better yet, different family members can pick different voices, and Google will switch which one responds based on who's talking. 

With the Continued Conversation feature, you won't have to say the wake words every time you want to ask a question. Google Home's microphone will stay hot for up to eight seconds so you can ask a follow-up question without saying "Hey, Google" again. It'll shut off early if you say "thank you," and if you don't want Google's mic to stay listening for longer than normal, you don't have to enable the feature. It'll roll out as an optional setting in the Google Home app this summer. 

You can even make purchases via the Google Home verified only by your voice. Be careful enabling this functionality, though, as we were able to fool its voice recognition fairly easily.

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Thanks to frequent feature updates, you can now do quite a few things with your Google Home. Here's how to find the full list of its capabilities, including third-party skills.

Other highlights on the Google Home's resume include…

  • Broadcasting: Make an announcement to one Google Home and it will play on all connected smart speakers throughout your home.
  • Recipe assistance: Your Google Home can help you cook with step-by-step instructions, skipping forward and back as needed.
  • Calling: You can use your Google Home speaker to make a phone call. (Note: You can't use Google Assistant to make calls on third-party speakers for now.)
  • Multiple commands: You can now issue two commands to your Google Home in sequence.
  • Night mode: Your Google Home can automatically lower the volume of its vocal responses and music streaming at certain times of the day.
  • Routines: Give a command such as "Good Morning" or "I'm leaving" and you can customize your Google Home to respond in a variety of ways, including telling you about your commute, playing the news and controlling your compatible smart home devices.

Google Home in the smart home

Routines make it easy to control multiple smart home devices with a single command. Plus, they're getting better. At first, you had to pick from six pre-packaged options. Now you can customize the command that activates the routine and add any element you want to any routine -- including podcasts, smart home controls, music playlists, calendar updates and more. 

Later this year, routines will be integrated seamlessly into apps like Google Clock, so your alarm can trigger your morning routine. Third parties will also be able to build specific functionality to routines, such as meditation music on your Google Home. 

With customizable routines and now more than 5,000 compatible devices, Google Home's gotten quite comfortable in the smart home. You can now sync a wide variety of devices with your Google-equipped smart speaker. Here's a guide to getting started with a Google-centric smart home.

Here's Google's list of compatible devices. It includes thermostats, smart lights, smart switches, smart locks, sprinklers, security systems, large appliances and even some cars. Google also expanded its list of compatible devices at I/O and made it easier to control them with more natural commands. Here's CNET's guide to Google's compatible smart home devices.

You'll need to use the Google Home app to sync your Google account with your account for any smart device you control -- such as your Philips Hue account for your smart light bulbs. Then, you can control your smart devices with a voice command to your Google Home. You can add them to rooms and control multiple devices at once by giving a command such as "turn off all lights in the living room." You can also add them to routines.

Flies in the ointment

Though Google's done an admirable job of adding features to its lineup of smart speakers, the company's had its share of issues with the Google Home as well. Perhaps most importantly, Google's struggled to catch up to its main competitor -- the Amazon Echo and the smaller Amazon Echo Dot -- in sales.

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The Echo Dot (right) headlines Amazon's formidable lineup of smart speakers.

Ian Knighton/CNET

The growing competition between Google and Amazon in the smart speaker space has mostly been good for customers as the companies try to outdo each other with newer, better features. However, it's recently resulted in a feud over YouTube. Amazon stopped selling some Google products on its website. Google retaliated by pulling YouTube rights from Amazon's smart speaker with a display, called the Amazon Echo Show. Here are the rest of the details on the dispute.

Google's launch of the Google Home Mini also ran into some trouble, as a user discovered a bug that caused the Mini to record constantly, instead of just after you said the wake words. Google patched the issue quickly, but it still raised the issues of privacy and trust around Google's new, always-listening assistant.

Finally, here's a list of surprising things Google Home can't do yet.

More to come

Now that you're caught up on the current state of the Google Home, here's a quick glimpse at what happens next. At CES in January, Google debuted a new category of smart speaker products along the same lines as the Amazon Echo Show. Google partnered with Lenovo, JBL, LG and Sony for these products, dubbed smart displays, which combine the always-listening functionality of a smart speaker with a screen to help illustrate answers to your questions as necessary.

Now Playing: Watch this: Lenovo Smart Display combines Google Home with a touchscreen
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For instance, you can see a video if you need help with cooking instructions or look at a map when you need directions. The smart displays are due out this July and Google showed off a few new features for them at I/O including compatibility with YouTube TV. An exec recently hinted that Google might be working on a smart display of its own.

At CES, we also saw a rise in third-party devices with Google Assistant built in, such as alarm clocks and smoke detectors. We could see even more third-party Google Assistant devices soon, as Google opened Assistant to third-party developers in 2017 and recently made it possible to create custom commands. In fact, you can even build your own Google-equipped smart speaker with the company's speaker kit.

The coolest thing to come out of I/O is pretty experimental, but shows Google's goal of creating a more human AI. Google Duplex can actually call restaurants and make reservations for you. I don't just mean it can dial for you, the Assistant will do the talking and it pauses and stutters just like a human. Check it out here. It's stunning. If Duplex can truly come to fruition, your Google Home will be much closer to an actual human assistant. We'll be keeping our eyes on it as it progresses toward its initial limited release this summer.

google-home-max-7059

From left to right, the Google Home, Home Mini and Home Max all offer lots of features and are only getting smarter.

James Martin/CNET

For over a year now, the smart speaker landscape has been changing quickly. We'll keep this piece updated as it continues to shift. Fortunately, you can feel pretty safe investing in a smart speaker now. Google, Amazon, and Apple are all battling for supremacy of the market and rapidly rolling out new features, but the features get sent out as updates to existing devices, so at least for now, you don't have to worry about your new assistant getting left behind.