Google Home Mini review: A great alternative to the Amazon Echo Dot

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The Good The Google Home Mini puts all of the smarts of Google Assistant into a small and affordable package. The Mini sounds surprisingly good for its size and features a colorful design that can blend into your home's decor.

The Bad The Mini's touch controls aren't intuitive, it doesn't have a line-out jack like the Amazon Echo Dot, and the built-in Google Assistant still doesn't have quite as many features as the Dot's built-in assistant, Alexa.

The Bottom Line The Google Home Mini stands tall as one of the best affordable smart speakers out there, along with the Amazon Echo Dot, but it doesn't do enough to supplant the Dot at the top of the list.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Sound quality 8

If it wasn't for the Amazon Echo Dot ($17 at Amazon), I'd recommend the Google Home Mini to everyone. Google successfully fit all of the smarts of the original Google Home into a fun-size package. You can give it voice commands, just like you can with the Google Home or any of Amazon's Echo line of products. Like Google Home, the Mini has Google's version of Alexa (called Google Assistant) built in, and Google Assistant is a great and well-rounded digital assistant.

Google Assistant has been chasing Alexa since Google debuted it in 2016. Google Home Mini joined the race late last year to chase the popular, affordable Echo Dot. At this point, Google Assistant is just as capable as Alexa, so the Mini is a great alternative to the Dot, especially since both speakers cost just $50.

Read more: Which Google Home speaker should you buy?

If you're not already invested in either Google or Amazon's ecosystems, check out our quiz to see which voice assistant is better for you and use that to help you make your final call. Both assistants -- and thus both speakers -- are very capable at this point and will adequately respond to most questions and commands you can think to throw at them. If you already own a Dot or an Echo, the Mini doesn't offer you anything compelling enough to warrant throwing away your current investment. If you're a Google fan, the Mini is the obvious choice.

Mini minimalism

You can buy the Google Home Mini now for $50 (though it's often on sale for even less) via the Google store and through a number of electronics outlets such as Best Buy. It's available overseas as well. The UK price is £50, and you can buy it in Australia for AU$80.

Google kept things simple with the Mini's design. It's an oblong orb of plastic and fabric with no visible buttons, save for a slider to mute the microphone that's hidden in the back. It comes in your choice of three colors -- chalk (light gray), charcoal (dark gray), or coral (pinkish orange).

To wake it up, you say "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google," and then you give it a question or command. You can ask it to play music, turn your smart home gadgets on and off, look up a fact for you, control Netflix and YouTube on your Chromecast-enabled TV plus a whole host of other tricks. It puts the power of the internet just an utterance away, with the Google Assistant as your concierge.

The Google Assistant is a good assistant. It's pleasant and helpful, and generally good at finding answers to whatever questions you can think to throw at it. By default, the Assistant's digital voice is female, but if you'd rather converse with a "he," that's an option now, too — just toggle the setting in the Home mobile app's preferences section. Recently, Google added a bunch of extra voice options for the Assistant, including that of singer John Legend. Regardless of which voice you choose, I still wish Google would give its Assistant a better name. 

Despite the lack of physical buttons, the Home Mini still has touch controls you can use. To adjust the volume, you tap the sides of the device, or you can long press the sides to play and pause music. I wasn't a huge fan of the touch controls — they aren't quite responsive enough when you want to use them, and yet it's hard not to activate them by mistake whenever you pick the thing up. 

The Mini used to have touch functionality on the top of the device too, but that was taken away and replaced with the long press on the sides after a "phantom touch" issue caused the speaker to record constantly instead of just after it hears the wake words. Google addressed the issue quickly, and you'll likely command the device with your voice much more often than you'll use the touch controls anyway. 

Overall, it's a design that's capable of blending in with your home's decor while still looking good if you happen to fix your gaze on it. I share the concern of some of my colleagues who worried about getting that fabric cover dirty, though. My anxiety would only rise if I wanted to use it in the kitchen.

One other small concern -- from a distance, it isn't always easy to see the indicator lights on the top of the device that tell you it's ready for a command. This seems especially true with the chalk-colored speaker. My advice if you're thinking of buying? Go with charcoal.

Listen to this

Small speakers like the Mini aren't going to replace your full-scale home audio setup anytime soon. Still, Google made a point of saying that people would be surprised by how much sound the Mini can put out. Sure enough, it sounded stronger than I expected -- and noticeably stronger than the Echo Dot -- as I began testing it out.

The difference is clear when you listen to the two assistants speak. With the Echo Dot, Alexa's voice is a little tinny-sounding, and music playback not much better than what you'd get from your phone. By comparison, the Home Mini makes the Google Assistant sound warmer and more natural. Music playback was more passable with the Home Mini, too -- though, like the Dot, you really shouldn't plan on using it for anything more than close-range, casual listening.

My colleagues in New York from CNET's audio team put the Mini through some more rigorous tests, and also came away impressed. Here's what senior associate editor Ty Pendlebury had to say:

Let's say you were vacillating between the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot and wanted to choose whichever has the best sound quality. We tested the two devices against each other and threw in the $35 Cambridge Soundworks' Oontz Angle 3 Plus as a comparable Bluetooth speaker. We threw each speaker some rock tracks and some folk and found that the Home Mini is the undeniable victor of the two smart speakers. The Echo Dot can be used to listen to music but we wouldn't advise it. Vocals are edgy, bass is non-existent and it doesn't go very loud. The Mini is louder, sounds smoother with music and has decent bottom end for a device the size of a hockey puck. Of course, we wouldn't use either of these if we had a choice -- the Oontz is the better of all three and makes music sound like music, plus it's portable and will accept a line-in. 

You can use the Mini to cast audio to any speaker with a Chromecast Audio dongle attached. The Mini can also send sound to other speakers through Bluetooth, but it strangely lacks a 3.5mm auxillary cable output, which is one of our favorite features of the Dot. 

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