Google Home review: A great smart speaker that's its own worst enemy

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The Good The Google Home accurately answers almost any question you can think to ask it. It's loaded with cool features that allow it to make calls, control your smart home, help out in the kitchen and more. It even sounds pretty good when playing music and can control your TV.

The Bad Google's marquee smart speaker still can't do a couple of basic tasks such as take notes. Its sound quality won't be good enough if you're an audiophile. The Google Home has caught up, but still doesn't work with as many smart home gadgets as the Amazon Echo.

The Bottom Line The Google Home is a great smart speaker with a ton of capabilities, but you have so many smart speaker options at this point that I'm less inclined to recommend this well balanced middle child.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Sound quality 8
Control your home temperature, lights and power outlets with your voice. See all the products that work with the Google Home.

Editors' note: This review was originally published in November 2016 and updated on Nov. 2, 2018, to account for new Google Assistant features. 

When discussing the Google Home, I still feel compelled to start with the Amazon Echo.

The Google Home was good from the start, but it was clearly playing catchup to the surprisingly awesome, voice-controlled Amazon Echo. As of November 2018, the Google Home smart speaker is as good as it's ever been -- and significantly better than it was in November 2016 when it debuted. It's now on par with the Echo and yet, I'd currently recommend it to fewer people than ever before. 

The problem is no longer keeping up with the Echo. The problem is justifying its own existence as the middle child with a cheaper alternative in the Google Home Mini ($35 at Best Buy) and a more expensive model, the Google Home Max ($299 at Walmart), for music lovers. Smart speakers aren't new anymore. You have a plethora of options from Amazon, Google, Apple and from third parties like Sonos that work with either Amazon's digital assistant, Alexa, or Google's version of Alexa, called Google Assistant, or even both.

If you need help deciding between Alexa and Google Assistant, check out our quiz and our comparison. If you want Google Assistant, I'd recommend the $50 Google Home Mini if you don't care about sound quality. I'd recommend either the $400 Google Home Max or the $250 JBL Link 300 if you do. Also keep an eye on the Sonos One speaker, which is supposed to get Google Assistant support on top of its current Alexa compatibility in 2019.

The Google Home still has its place. It's best suited for you if care somewhat about sound quality, but not enough to spend big bucks on it. At that point, go for the Google Home. It sounds great for casual listening, it's reasonably priced at $130 and it's smarter than ever with features such as voice recognition and recipe assistance. Plus, it's available in lots of countries at this point, including the UK for £130 and Australia for AU$199. 

Getting to know your new assistant

Now on sale in several countries across the world, you can buy the Home on Google's site as well as major electronics retailers like Best Buy. Again, it's $130 in the US, £130 in the UK and AU$199 in Australia. Here's our Google Home review from our Australia team if you want to see how it's fitting in down under. The Home is multilingual as well, and the search giant keeps adding languages to its smart speaker while bringing it to new international markets.

Read more: Which Google Home speaker should you buy? 

Recently, the Home even became bilingual. In the settings, you can equip two languages such as English and Spanish at the same time and it'll recognize commands in both interchangeably. 

Without a doubt, the Home's design is excellent. Yes, it bears some resemblance to a canister of Glade air freshener (or Renuzit, if you really want to dial in to its doppelganger), but I like the slick, clean look. The customizable bases snap on and off easily, letting you add a splash of color. The top responds well to touch. You can move your finger clockwise or counterclockwise to change the volume, tap to start or stop the music you're playing, or long-press to give the Home a command without saying the wake words, "OK, Google," or "Hey, Google."


Hard to miss the similarities.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Here's a sampling of things you can ask the Home to do:

  • Add items to a shopping list
  • Check your calendar
  • Set an alarm
  • Snooze that alarm
  • Set a timer
  • Tell you about the weather
  • Check traffic for your commute to work
  • Play the news
  • Answer a question involving a quick Google search
  • Perform a calculation
  • Call an Uber
  • Play a customized daily briefing including traffic, weather and a news briefing you curate with the app

That list doesn't touch on what the Home can do as an entertainment device or a smart home controller -- more on both in just a bit.

The Home app is easy to use on both iOS and Android and integrates the Home with Google Assistant, Google's answer to Siri and Alexa. First showcased in the company's Pixel phones, Google Assistant makes use of Google's services to provide personalized results in response to voice commands. Google Assistant on the Home can't do everything it can do on your phone, however. Some of the things the Home can't do yet include:

  • Track packages
  • Take notes or voice memos
  • Create lists other than a shopping list
  • Interact with email

The Home also endeavors to have a personality. Alexa can be positively charming, and Google follows suit by offering Easter egg responses to statements such as, "I am your father." Google's responses, though, tend to either be bland or way over the top. Much like an assistant who's new on the job, the Home is friendly, but it's definitely trying too hard.

For more, check out our full breakdown of everything you need to know about the Google Home.

Learning on the job

The Google Home was already a competent aide when it launched in November 2016, and it has only improved since then. It will now customize its responses for all of your family members based on who's talking. Each of your family members needs to download the Home app to a phone, then they will be able to train the Home to recognize their voices by repeating the wake words a couple of times.

The Home supports up to six different accounts, and offers individualized responses to questions about calendars and traffic. The Home will also play personal playlists on request. The feature works well for the most part, as long as your family members don't sound similar. You can fool the Home's voice recognition fairly easily, so be careful enabling voice verification for purchases. For the sake of integrating multiple calendars, it works well enough.

Now playing: Watch this: How to add multiple users to Google Home

You can now also use your Home as a recipe source. Search for a recipe on your phone, and you can send any of 5 million different options to the Home. It'll walk you through the ingredients and step-by-step directions. As opposed to just rattling through the instructions like it did at launch, the Home can wait until you tell it that you're ready for the next ingredient or step, and skip forward and back in the directions.

Thankfully, you can also add events to your calendar with your voice now. The Google Home has a night mode so you can limit the volume of its responses and music playback after a certain hour. A Digital Wellbeing feature allows you to filter what music the Home will play. You can also set downtime hours when the Home won't respond to your commands. 

Plus, you can make calls using the Google Home as a speakerphone. The feature works well, and it'll show the recipient that it's you calling if you enable that function in the app. It also makes use of voice recognition for these calls, so you or your spouse can say "call Mom" and it'll look specifically in your contacts and call the right mom.

One of my favorite features allows you to yell at your kids with your Google Home. It's called broadcasting. Give a command such as, "Hey, Google, broadcast 'it's dinner time'" and Google Assistant will play that message on all smart speakers connected to your account. It can broadcast your voice saying any message. You can also give a message to Google Assistant on your phone and it'll play on your speakers, so you can announce when you're on the way home.

A new feature called "continued conversation" will keep the mic hot for follow up commands so you don't have to say the wake words every time. You can also issue two commands to Google at once, and it'll respond to both. 

Google's updating the abilities of the Google Home and Google Assistant all the time. "Pretty Please" will prompt your kids to use manners when commanding your smart speaker. Down the road, Google Assistant might even be able to make calls for you. Again, you can use it as a speakerphone now, but through an upcoming experimental feature called Duplex, your Google Home can actually call and do the talking. You'll be able to ask it to make appointments at a hair salon or reservations at a restaurant, and it'll be able to navigate the necessary give and take of a conversation with a human. 

Google's newest phones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, have started using the feature to help you screen calls. Give Duplex a listen -- yes, the feature is in the experimental stages, but Google Assistant could soon sound remarkably human. 

Now playing: Watch this: Google Assistant can force your kid to say please and...

Let's talk about privacy

As the Google Home deepens its integrations into more aspects of your life in the service of convenience, the inevitable questions torn from the pages of dystopian science fiction novels become more and more pressing. Is Google listening to me? How safe is my information? How do I weigh privacy against convenience?

These are worthwhile questions to ask, and the Home probably won't have the answers to assuage all of your worries. That said, Google's saying the right things on this front. The Home only records what you say after you activate it with a tap, or with the wake words. You'll see it light up in response so you'll know that it's listening. In the Home app, you can look over your search history and delete a specific query or clear the history entirely if you'd like. There's also a mute button that stops it from listening for its wake word at all. The Amazon Echo does all of those things as well, so the two are neck-and-neck here.