OK, Google, game on.
At today's event in San Francisco, Google showed off the retail ready version of the company's smart speaker -- Google Home. With a conversational voice assistant built-in, Google Home acts as a secretary, a music hub, and a smart home controller. Once you plug it in, it's always listening, so you simply have to be within shouting distance and say, "OK, Google," and your wish becomes its command.
You'll be able to buy Google Home for $130 starting November 4. The purchase will include six free months of YouTube Red, the site's ad-free service, which costs $10 per month normally. Home's price converts to around £100 and AU$170, but no word on if it'll be available yet beyond the US.
If the Home's many features sound familiar, it's because Google Home is functionally quite similar to a popular product we already know and love -- the Amazon Echo. Launched as "a Star Trek computer for your home" the Echo surprised us with just how useful it was. Say the word and the Echo could call a cab, tell a joke, or turn on the lights in the kitchen.
Given the Echo's success, Google's launch of a device designed to compete with the Echo is less surprising. Apple's supposedly doing the same in the near future. But after the impressive demo today, Google Home looks primed to stand toe to toe with Amazon's awesome assistant. Here's everything it can do and why, as an Android owner and smart home advocate, I'm eagerly awaiting entrance into Google's Home.
Holding a conversation
When it was first demoed at Google's annual I/O developer conference in May, Google Home showed the promise of conversational capabilities. The family in the video talked to the speaker, and Home used context from previous questions to inform subsequent answers. It was awesome, but it was just a demo.
Today, we saw it in more detail (it's surprisingly small -- you can hold it in one hand!) and it certainly looks like Google Home can respond to you in a much more active way than Alexa. Using the new Google Assistant, the Home can manage your shopping list and send it to your Pixel phone. It can use Google's search to tell you Adele's real name. Then, if you ask, "How many Grammys has she won?" It'll know who "she" is and respond accordingly.
As we discovered in a hands-on demo, you'll often still need to memorize the "right" words to get it to do what you want, but Google's AI is definitely getting smarter at recognizing a variety of inputs.
The Home even uses Google Maps to give you traffic info about your route to work. And with a command, Google Home will give you a tailored morning briefing with your schedule, the traffic, and whatever news is important to you. With the full power of Google's search engine behind it, today's demo showed in detail how flexible Google Home could be.
Adding to that flexibility, once you get over having a conversation with the cylinder on your counter, you'll be able to control the Home with a capacitive touch panel. Tap to stop or start the music, or drag to raise and lower the volume. (A series of LEDs that shine through the surface show you the current volume level.) You'll be able to change the volume with voice commands as well.
You can ask Home to play music for you, and it'll stream songs from Google Play, obviously, as well as popular third-party apps like Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and others. Google's promised awesome sound quality from the Home itself.
It sounded great playing Shakira's "Try Anything" or Adele's Hello during our brief demo -- surprisingly good considering many dedicated speakers cost more than $129, to say nothing of ones that can control your home. Once we get our hands on it, we'll put it side by side with the Echo to see which sounds better in a real-world environment.
Impressively, you don't even have to know the exact name of the song you want to play with Google Home. Saying, "Play the song from 'Zootopia' by Shakira" is enough, and Google will search to help you out and play what you want. You may need to tell it which service to play music from, though.
Plus, the Home itself might not need to sound better than the Echo to be a better music hub. You can use it to command the Chromecast Audio streamer you have plugged into your speaker, the Chromecast video streamer plugged into your TV or any Google Cast-enabled speaker. You can send YouTube videos or your pictures to your TV -- as long as you specify which TV to play them on. (You need to say the name of your Chromecast aloud.) You'll soon be able to launch Netflix and control it with Home.
Or say the word, and your favorite song will pour out of your own audio setup, and even better, you can sync the Home and any of those Chromecast devices for whole home audio.
If you have multiple Google Homes, only the one that hears you best will respond to your voice commands to prevent overlap. That's another advantage Home has over the Amazon Echo, but that advantage might not last long, as Amazon's working on a similar upgrade. (You can also swap out the Home's interchangeable grey base for a snazzier color, though additional bases cost $20 each.)
You can use Amazon's platform to plug into your favorite speakers with the Dot, but Amazon doesn't have any way to sync multiple devices. Multidevice audio could be a big win for the Google Home, then, if it works as promised. And that's a pretty safe bet, since Chromecast audio can already stream to multiple speakers at once.
Connecting your home
Most exciting for me, though, is Google Home's potential as a smart-home control point. At launch, the Home will work with Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue and IFTTT. You'll be able to set the thermostat, turn on the lights and control your SmartThings switches. Hopefully, you'll be able to create customized commands through IFTTT, as that'll open up all sorts of possibilities. When Alexa first launched an IFTTT channel, it only had prepackaged options, but custom commands are available now.
A single point of control that anyone in the family can command makes whole home smarts much more feasible than traditional smartphone controls. With a smartphone, you often have to wrangle multiple apps to control multiple devices, and giving access to your family is a whole other headache. When you have to jump through a bunch of hoops just so your significant other can turn off a light, the smart home doesn't feel so smart.
Google Home, then, might help usher this field of technology ripe with potential into the mainstream. The Echo laid out a handy road map for mastering this function. Amazon sought out a few big name integrations such as Philips, Lifx, IFTTT, Belkin, Ecobee -- even SmartThings and Nest. Then, the company opened up the API and invited developers to craft skills for the Echo on their own.
As a result, Alexa's smart-home capabilities are robust. The Echo makes it easy for anyone in the family to control whatever device they'd like. Alexa's smart-home prowess is a big part of the reason we've liked the Echo and the Dot so much and why we've made them an integral part of the CNET Smart Home.
Google Home will have some catching up to do on this front, and that'll be a tall task, since Amazon adds more and more capabilities to the Echo seemingly every day. The Home will get one advantage right away from Philips Hue -- you'll be able to change the colors of Philips bulbs with a voice command. You can't do that with Alexa right now -- you can only turn bulbs on or off or dim them up or down.
No doubt Google can use the reputation of its brand to entice developers to expand its smart home capabilities further. And for those of us waiting for the smart home to come closer to fruition, a heated competition between Google and Amazon can only be a good thing.
The Home's $130 price significantly undercuts the $180 Echo, but Amazon just released a $50 version of its trimmed-down smart speaker -- the Amazon Echo Dot. The Dot has all the smarts of the Echo, and plugs into your own sound system. The Home itself won't be able to do that. You'll have to buy a separate $30 Chromecast Audio streamer, bringing the $160 total to over three times the price of the Echo Dot.
The Home, then, has its work cut out for it to oust Alexa from her place as the best smart-home assistant, especially given Alexa's robust catalog of capabilities. With the Home's ability to hold a conversation, sync to multiple devices, and leverage Google's brand and Works with Nest to build a smart-home platform, we could be in for a spectacular battle for smart speaker supremacy.
Check out all of today's Google news.
Update, 11:52 a.m. PT: Added hands-on video and impressions from CNET's Sean Hollister.