2017 was the first big tech showcase at which
had actual competition in the smart speaker space -- search giant
had released its
a couple of months before. Given Google's pedigree, I came into the show expecting fierce competition between Google's new challenger and Amazon's stalwart speaker champion, the
That competition never really came to fruition. We even kept score. Companies were eager to include Amazon's assistant Alexa into everything from
to cars to showers. Amazon and Alexa came away with more than 30 related
announcements. Google Home and its assistant (just called Google Assistant) had fewer than 10. Assistant came into the show trailing Alexa in capabilities and came out much further behind.
Ever since, though, Google has made significant strides to catch up with the Amazon Echo and even position the Google Home as a more competent alternative. In a year, the Google Home has grown from a competent smart speaker full of potential to a fully realized product you can make the center of your smart home. We still don't know if having equivalent abilities will help the Google Home catch up to the Echo in public perception or sales, but with the holidays and CES 2018 approaching quickly, we're about to find out.
A growing smart home
When it first launched in November 2016, Google Home accurately responded to your voice commands, like the Amazon Echo. The built-in Google Assistant was competent, and the microphones were sensitive and accurate so you could say the wake words and give a command from the next room and Google would hear you and respond accordingly.
Even better, you could stream Netflix on your TV with a voice command if you had a
streamer. Alexa didn't have anything to match Google's TV streaming, but Alexa had more than 10,000 abilities thanks to third-party developers and a wealth of smart home integrations that dwarfed Google's four original partners.
Watch this: How to center your smart home around your Google Home
Google's done a lot of work in 2017 to make its Assistant better at controlling your smart home, but it also polished a couple of rough edges and debuted some cool new features. When the Google Home first launched, it surprisingly couldn't do a few basics like set reminders or add entries to your calendar. You can now do both.
Beyond the basics, the Google Home and Assistant added a ton of useful extras, some of which followed Alexa's lead, some of which forced her to play catch-up. Here are the highlights:
Voice recognition (Google was first, Alexa has it now): You and your family can each train Google Assistant to recognize your respective voices. Google will then customize responses based on who's talking when you ask about your calendar, your route to work or when playing your favorite music.
Purchases (Alexa had this first): Using Google's shopping service, Google Express, you can place orders from certain retailers. You can also verify your purchase if Google recognizes your voice.
Voice calling (each rolled out different aspects first): You can actually use the Home as a speakerphone. Ask it to make a call, and it'll find the number from your contacts and dial. It'll even show that it's you calling on the receiving end.
Broadcasting (Alexa had a version of this first): Using any device with Assistant (which is also built into a number of Android
, and even available as an app on the
) you can speak a message and have it play on your smart speakers. When it's dinner time, tell the Google Home in your kitchen and it'll broadcast your voice to the speakers in your kid's room and den.
Multiple commands (Alexa doesn't have anything matching yet): A recent update lets you give two commands to your smart speaker at once. Tell Google to turn off the lights and play your music, and it can handle both.
Speaker EQ settings (Alexa doesn't have anything matching yet): With the Google Home app, you can adjust the bass or treble on any Google Home speaker, so you can customize the way your music sounds.
Bluetooth streaming (Alexa had this first): You can even set the smarts aside and use Google Home as a simple Bluetooth streamer.
Recipe assistance (Alexa has a less robust version): Google Home will walk you through more than 5 million recipes. It'll give you directions step by step and you can go back if you need to. We found Google's cooking help quite useful when we tested it out.
Other niceties, such as being able to turn on your TV with your voice, help round out Google's year of adding features, and it's been a busy one. Google announced most of these features either at its developer conference in May or at its Pixel event in October.
A couple of other announced features are still on the way, such as proactive assistance (it'll let you know when you need to leave for an appointment based on traffic conditions), shortcuts (smart home scenes that let you control multiple devices with a single command) and enhanced TV integration (your TV will actually show you search results and the like if you ask for it on your Google Home).
Moving to other Homes
Even more so than the announced features, Google's October event was important for the Google Home because of two new products -- the
Google Home Mini
Google Home Max
. The $50 Mini was Google's answer to Amazon's most popular smart speaker -- the $50 Amazon Echo Dot.
The Max was Google's first foray into an area Amazon had yet to cover -- a high-end smart speaker aimed at audiophiles. The $400 Max costs even more than Apple's upcoming $350
-- also aimed at audiophiles -- and the Max delivers the goods in sound quality. It can act as either a mono or stereo speaker, it adjusts its sound based on its position in the room, it produces great sound from a variety of music genres and it outclassed our previous favorite smart speaker for sound quality -- the $200 Sonos One. The Max even keeps up with the $500 Sonos Play:5.
Trouble in the Home
We liked both new Google speakers in our reviews, and Google Home's list of 2017 features is impressive, but the year wasn't without hiccups for Google's smart speaker family. In October, a bug caused the Google Home Mini to accidentally record continuously, instead of just after you said the wake words.
The "phantom touch" issue marred the launch and nerfed the features of the Google Home Mini, but more importantly, it raised the issue of trust. Both Google Home and Amazon Echo have always-listening microphones that supposedly only wake up and record after you say their respective wake words. Google's phantom touch issue called that understanding into question, though Google handled it quickly.
Here's everything that works with Google Home and Home Mini
Google and Amazon's spat over YouTube was also a blight on 2017. For the most part, the competition between Google and Amazon in the smart speaker space has been great for consumers. The feature list above is a great example. Google and Amazon both rolled out lots of perks in an effort to keep up with the competition.
The YouTube fight is squarely anticonsumer. Google owns the popular streaming service, and pulled it from both the Amazon Echo Show (the first Echo device with a screen) and Amazon's streaming box, the Fire TV.
The move was a retaliation against Amazon. The online retailer no longer offered competing Google products such as the Google Home or Google's streamer Chromecast on its site. This issue is still running its course, but while it does, both sides are limiting your options for media playback.
So while the Google Home now stands as an equal to the Amazon Echo in terms of capabilities, Assistant still has a lot of catching up to do if Google wants to equal Alexa's hardware versatility. That said, the two new pieces Google announced this year were important ones, putting a Home smart speaker at all ends of the smart speaker price spectrum. Plus, Google's simple approach to hardware could work well if Amazon's wide array of options proves confusing to customers.
With the holiday season and CES 2018 upon us, we have the perfect proving ground for Google's year of work on the Home. If Google Assistant and the Google Home can be as prevalent as Alexa and the Amazon Echo at CES, that could show it's caught up in industry awareness. If it can make a dent in the Echo's sales lead this holiday, that'll show its investment in features and options made a difference for customers.
It was perhaps unfair of me to expect the Google Home to keep up with the Echo at last year's CES. Now, Google has its own low-cost entry point in the Home Mini. It has a premium speaker in the Home Max. It has gone toe-to-toe with Amazon in ramping up its smart speaker capabilities this year. The Google Home has grown up and is now a worthy competitor to the Echo. Now, Google needs to prove it can compete where it counts.