Is the Google Home growing up fast enough?

As we head toward CES, we check on the progress of Google's Echo competitor. Does it have any chance of catching up to Amazon's Alexa?

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A little over a month ago, I reviewed the Google Home and concluded that while it had a ton of potential, it wasn't yet as versatile or useful as Amazon's Echo -- "though we expect it to improve in the days and months ahead."

Perhaps I'm impatient, but after more than a month, I'm unimpressed by the improvements Google Home has made so far. Now, it's still early in Google Home's life. A month in, the Amazon Echo had nowhere near the robust library of capabilities and partners it has today. But since the Echo was first, it could afford to take its time. Google doesn't have that luxury with the Home.

If Google Home wants to beat the Amazon Echo, it has a lot of work to do. So with 2016 near its end and CES just around the corner, here's what Google has done to improve the Home so far, and here are the improvements I'm hoping to see at CES and beyond.

The battle so far

Both the Google Home and the Amazon Echo are always-listening speakers. Say the wake words -- "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google" for the Google Home and "Alexa" for the Amazon Echo -- and you can give a verbal command to the device without needing to hit any buttons. Both function as personal assistants, smart home controllers and entertainers complete with party games and jokes.

The Echo launched in 2014 and became a surprise hit -- it's now sold more than 5 million units. Amazon also has a couple of other Echo products -- such as the Echo Dot -- that make use of its digital assistant Alexa. Google Home just launched in October, and it uses its own digital assistant, called Google Assistant, which is also built into the company's new Pixel phones.

Google Home was obviously designed to compete directly with the Echo, but at launch, its only advantage is that it lets you control your home entertainment setup with your voice. The Echo is much better as a smart home controller and a personal assistant.

Home updates: A quiet month for Google's speaker

In the past month, I was hoping to see signs of Google aggressively pursuing its competitor with lots of new integrations and support for third-party developers. That hasn't really happened yet.

Google has made some improvements. You can now use the Home to control Belkin WeMo products -- and WeMo Insight switches are some of our favorites for a simple smart home setup. That's the only major new smart-home integration since the Home's launch. Alexa works with Belkin too, as well as with the rest of the Home's smart home partners -- Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue and IFTTT. Plus, Alexa works with many, many more.

Amazon has collected so many capabilities for Alexa because it lets developers do the work for it via the Alexa API. Google's made motions to the same effect since the Home's launch. Early in December, Google launched Actions, allowing developers to create commands for Home. In a blog post last week, Google announced it was expanding the capabilities of its smart-home language -- called Weave -- allowing Weave (and hopefully Google Home by extension) to talk to more types of smart-home devices.

Along with the launch of Actions, Google announced more than 30 integrations similar to Alexa's skills. The announcement last week included several smart-home companies that would be adopting Weave: Belkin WeMo, LiFX, Honeywell, Wink, TP-Link and First Alert. Hopefully the rest will follow Belkin shortly.

Perhaps more importantly, Google also announced a developer kit called Android Things. Android Things gives device makers tools to make connected products that work with Weave.

The other big updates for the Home platform -- that you can control Netflix with your voice if you have a Chromecast streamer, and you can control Sony speakers and TVs with Google's smarts built in -- were expected gains. The Netflix integration is particularly important. It makes using a Home to control a Chromecast exceptionally useful. Still, that integration was announced when Home launched, so Google doesn't win many points for making that promise a reality.

Renovations ahead -- what we're looking for at CES

Close
Drag

We're hoping lots of new devices will jump on board with Google Home at CES. Weave will be expanding to other product categories beyond lightbulbs, smart plugs, switches and thermostats, and I'd certainly like to know which ones. Then, I'd hope for many corresponding announcements from smart-home companies saying that they'll now work with Google Home.

I'd like the Google Home to get better support for multiple users. Right now it can only answer questions about one person's calendar, for example.

I'd hope to be able to purchase things via Google Home, and use it to open and close smart locks. Those functions would necessitate an extra layer of security. Perhaps you could give it a passcode after certain commands? Right now, you can only turn personal info on or off in the app. The Home offers no additional means of protecting the info it has.

Finally, a lofty goal to be sure, but the Home could actually break past Alexa by allowing push notifications. Imagine a Home voice alert if your Nest Protect smelled smoke or a Nest Cam spotted movement. That would have to be implemented carefully; no one wants a virtual nag. Alexa doesn't offer any kind of alerts, so that could be a way for Home to start carving its own path instead of just chasing the Echo.

The nascent smart home field is inching toward mainstream awareness, and Google has a chance to chisel out a corner of the market for itself. It needs to expand the Home's capabilities, and quickly, if Google hopes to keep up with Amazon's Echo platform.

Editors' note, December 28, 2016: This article was updated with information about Google Actions.

CES 2017

Our editors bring you complete CES 2017 coverage and scour the showroom floor for the hottest new tech gadgets around.

All CES 2017 Stories