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

It no longer matters which one came first. The Google Home Mini is ready to take its place alongside the Dot as one of the best affordable smart speakers out there.

Ryan_Crist2.jpg
andrewgebhart.jpg
Ry Crist
Andrew Gebhart
Ryan_Crist2.jpg

Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

See full bio
andrewgebhart.jpg

Andrew Gebhart

Senior Producer

Andrew loves writing about cool, futuristic technology. He's reviewed everything from vacuum cleaners to beer brewing robots in pursuit of the perfect smart home. He wants the smart home to make him feel powerful, and it's getting there.

See full bio
9 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

If it wasn't for the Amazon Echo Dot, 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-home-mini-5
8.4

Google Home Mini

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.

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.

Google Home Mini in pictures: Smaller, cheaper, just as smart

See all photos

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. 

Google Assistant 101: Get to know Google's voice-activated helper

See all photos

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:

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. 

One other point worth mentioning is the Google Home Mini's array of far-field microphones. In almost all of my tests, they were able to hear me about as well as the ones in the Echo Dot. Both did a great job in a quiet setting, but required the occasional raised voice during music playback.

The one exception was my "limbo" test, where I try to wake each speaker from roughly 20 feet across the room using an increasingly quiet voice. The Echo Dot was able to respond to noticeably lower levels than the Mini. It's a small thing, but it might make the Echo Dot the better pick for quiet talkers.

Here's everything that works with Google Home and Home Mini

See all photos

The smarter speaker

The best thing about the Google Assistant is that there are lots of different ways for you to put it to use. It can wake you up, then tell you the morning's weather, headlines, and traffic conditions. It can entertain your children with jokes, Easter eggs and trivia. It can set quick, hands-free cooking timers in the kitchen. While you're there, it can talk you through a recipe. When you're done, it can turn out the lights, or control any of the other smart home gadgets that work with it.

google-home-mini-7
Enlarge Image
google-home-mini-7

The Google Assistant uses the power of Google's search engine to handle tough, specific questions better than Alexa does.

Chris Monroe/CNET

And, if you're the kind of person who's always absentmindedly leaving your phone around the house, the Home Mini might be a godsend. Just say "find my phone," and your Android handset will start ringing even if you left it set to silent or Do Not Disturb mode, and even if you don't have a cellular connection (it works over Wi-Fi, too). The conversation with Google Home might sound a bit weird, though: when Google asked one of my CNET colleagues if it could ring his "Sum-g 9-3-oh-t" it took him a moment to realize it was talking about his Galaxy S7 SM-G930T phone.

It's also a bit tougher with an iPhone -- if it's silenced or in a dead zone, you're out of luck -- but you can still add your phone to your Google account or manually speak its phone number. Speaking of which: if you're willing to say your entire phone number out loud and keep your phone off silent mode, you can find it just as easily with an Amazon Echo.

The Google Assistant can also distinguish between different voices (Google had this feature first, but Amazon has since caught up, and we've also discovered that both assistants can be tricked by talented imitators). Still, the feature is handy when you're asking about your calendar appointments, or asking it to call Mom (and not, say, your roommate's mom).

voices-reg0
Watch this: Tricking voice recognition on Amazon Echo and Google Home
Tricking voice recognition on Amazon Echo and Google Home
5:07

The Assistant is also able to draw from Google's library of online services -- maps, calendars, etc. -- in order to deliver information that's more helpful and personal than what Alexa offers. The most important trump card here is search. The Assistant draws from it to handle questions that get really specific, citing its sources as it answers curveball questions that would otherwise fall outside of its scope. Here are just a few examples of questions it's surprisingly good at answering:

  • Why won't my car start?

  • Why does my dishwasher smell?

  • Why does my dog keep peeing in the house?

  • How do you fix a leaky sink?

For the most part, though, Alexa and the Assistant are more or less interchangeable. Much of that stems from the fact that the two are locked in a fencing match for features, thrusting with each new trick and parrying to match the tricks of the other. From voice calling to TV controls, new features are constantly coming to each platform.

A few of my recent favorites for Google Assistant include fully customizable grouped commands called routines, a night mode to limit the volume of music and responses at certain hours, and the ability to broadcast a message such as "it's dinner time" to all of your connected smart speakers. Alexa and the Echo Dot, of course, have similar versions of each of these.

googleassistant-conversation
Watch this: Google Assistant can force your kid to say please and keeps the mic hot
Google Assistant can force your kid to say please and keeps the mic hot
3:04

On the horizon, Google Assistant will help enforce manners with a "pretty please" feature that will prompt you kids to use polite phrasing when talking to the smart speaker. It will also keep the mic hot with a "continued conversation" mode that lets you give multiple commands without needing to repeat the wake words. Alexa has versions of those features too, but the Google Home Mini can respond to two commands uttered in the same phrase. Alexa can't.

Google Assistant could also make its advantage in smarts more distinct if its Duplex feature comes to fruition. Duplex is an experiment rolling out this summer that will let Google Assistant make calls to complete simple tasks like booking a restaurant reservation. Duplex even sounds convincingly human in action. (Listen to it if you haven't.) It's equal parts exciting and creepy to behold, and keep in mind, it's a prerecorded demo. We haven't actually seen Duplex in action, but I'm still excited about what it could mean for the capabilities of Google's digital assistant.

googleduplex
Watch this: Robot or human? Google Assistant will leave you guessing
Robot or human? Google Assistant will leave you guessing
4:25

Alexa's biggest advantage is its vast library of third-party skills, which number well above 20,000 at this point. All of them teach Alexa a new trick and none of them cost anything. Google's Actions are similar, and Google's made a lot of progress in terms of the number of Google Assistant compatible devices. In the smart home, Google now works with more than 5,000 devices, supposedly from every major smart-home brand.

Nevertheless, Alexa works with more. Amazon estimated that Alexa has 12,000 compatible smart-home devices. Google's caught up, but Amazon's lead still looks daunting.

google-home-mini-12
Enlarge Image
google-home-mini-12
Chris Monroe/CNET

The verdict

Judged on its own merits, the Google Home Mini is a great smart speaker that's well worth the $50 price, especially if you are already invested in a Google-equipped smart home. Even in a now-crowded field of smart speakers, the Google Home Mini is one of the two best options, along with the Amazon Echo Dot, if you want a low-cost starting point and don't care about sound quality.

The Mini even sports a softer, less industrial look than the Dot if you want your smart home to blend into your decor, but regardless of how the software battle between Alexa and Google Assistant goes from here forward, the Dot has an important hardware feature that the Mini surprisingly lacks -- a line-out jack. You can plug the Dot into your own speakers to make up for its own lack of sound quality.

No update will help the Mini make up for that deficit if you prefer cabled connections, but you can now connect the Mini to your speakers with Chromecast or Bluetooth. That one feature aside, the two are now on a relatively even playing field. The Mini doesn't offer enough extras to warrant replacing your Dot, so bear that in mind if you're already an Amazon fan. It is worth considering as an equal at this point, and it's the better option if you're already invested in Google hardware.

  • CNET Senior Editor Sean Hollister contributed to this review.

google-home-mini-5
8.4

Google Home Mini

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8Sound quality 8