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

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.

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 ($249 at Amazon) 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 ($52 at Amazon).

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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