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Smart Home

Google updates Home Hub, Assistant to take on Alexa for the holidays

Assistant will help you save and find recipes, chat with friends and family, and entertain your kids with its recent smart speaker and smart display updates.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Google Home Hub will now help you decide what to cook. It can save your favorite recipes. You can respond to broadcast messages and tell your significant other to pick up a missing ingredient. You can speed up the playback of your favorite podcast so it finishes by the time you're done in the kitchen, and then Assistant can help entertain your kids with stories and Easter eggs when it's time for bed.

On Wednesday, Google announced several new features for Home Hub and Google Home, both of which have the Google Assistant baked in. I had a chance to see the new functionality in action at Google's smart home demo space set up in San Francisco. Google also showed off a few new features to power-up Assistant on your phone. The updates will roll out before the end of the year and all are aimed at helping you manage the hectic holiday season.

My Cookbook

Google Assistant has a knack for walking you through recipes with clear, step-by-step directions, a feature which works best on smart displays like the Home Hub. Search for something to eat, pick a recipe and you'll get an overview of all of the steps and ingredients. Start cooking and the screen will show you a list of steps while Assistant reads them off in order, but you can skip around if you need to.

You can also multitask. Watch videos, add something to your shopping list, turn off your lights, or ask Assistant to do any trick from its various feature options. When you're ready, you can just say "Resume recipe" and it'll hop right back to where you left off. The feature is wonderful, and it's part of the reason I recommend the Home Hub as well as third-party smart displays with Assistant such as the Lenovo Smart Display.

With the new "My Cookbook" feature you can save a recipe that looks appealing with a tap on your smart display. Then look over your saved recipes while you're searching for inspiration.

Click "Save to My Cookbook" to store a recipe for later.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google will even help on this front, and will show recommended recipes on the home screen of your display. The recipes will be based on the time of day -- so you'll see plenty of breakfast options in the morning. They'll also change based on your Google searches and if any holidays like Thanksgiving are approaching.

Both the recommendations and the Cookbook feature will roll out to all of Google's smart displays -- the Home Hub, the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View -- in the coming weeks.

Check out the recipe recommendations to find something to cook.

Angela Lang/CNET

Broadcast replies

Broadcasting currently works on all Google Assistant devices. Tell your phone that you're on the way home, and all of your connected smart speakers and smart displays will play that message in your house. It's a handy way to update your family and get your kids to come to dinner. Starting in a couple of weeks, your family can even reply to your message.

With phones and smart speakers like the Google Home, you can respond with a voice command. Smart displays will show a reply button. Ask if anyone needs anything when you're on your way home, and your significant other can send back a quick response telling you to pick up dessert.

You'll see the message transcribed and can play the audio from the notifications bar on your phone with Google Assistant. Smart speakers and smart displays will broadcast responses automatically.

We weren't able to see if multiple people can respond from multiple devices, and I wonder why you wouldn't just make a call if you want to have a back-and-forth broadcasting session. Still, I can also see how it would come in handy for quick messages when you have your hands too full for a text.

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That's entertainment

Leonardo, of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, provided the most amusing demo of the day. Google partnered with Nickelodeon on a few kid-friendly integrations for its smart speakers. You can set an alarm and have Leo or the other turtles like Michelangelo speak up when it goes off.

Google also expanded its read along program, which allows smart speakers like the Google Home Mini to add in sound effects on key words of compatible stories. And Google added 25 new stories that Assistant can read to your kids -- no book required.

For your own entertainment, your Google smart speakers and smart displays can speed up or slow down when playing your favorite podcast. Just ask it to go two times faster and you'll hear the voices start zipping through the episode so you can get to the good parts quicker.

Ready for the holiday war

Google wants to be front of mind as you decide which smart speaker to buy this holiday season. The Amazon Echo Dot has dominated sales for the last couple of years. None of these new features are significant enough to shift the battle between Amazon and Google, but they are all nice upgrades if you're already considering a Home Hub or a Home Mini.

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