Google Home Matrix Promo
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 and a more expensive model, the Google Home Max , 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."
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.
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.
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.
The art of conversation
The Home's far-field microphone is about as effective as the Echo's -- just be sure to speak clearly to either device if you have a complex command. Most of the time, I talked to the Home without hassle from across the large great room in the CNET Smart Home, a distance of roughly 40 feet (12 meters). The Home heard me from adjacent rooms as well, given clear line of sight, and it even heard me through one wall -- although I do have a booming voice.
For those with more of an indoor voice, or a place larger than a one-bedroom apartment, you might want multiple Homes so you always have one within shouting distance. If you give a command with multiple Homes in hearing range, every device that catches the wake words will light up, but only the one that hears you best will respond. There's a similar Alexa feature on Echo devices that also works well.
On occasion, the Home won't respond to commands I know it understands. I have to repeat myself and punch up my pronunciation of the consonants. For the most part, the Home performs admirably, even when it's listening for you over music or background noise, again keeping up with -- but not surpassing -- the Echo.
Google Home as smart home controller
"Hey, Google, turn on the lights."
When I gave that command, the multicolored display on the Home spun for a moment. Then, four different lamps clicked on -- two with Philips Hue bulbs, one Cree Connected LED and one lamp plugged into a GE Z-Wave smart plug.
The Home's four smart home launch partners (Nest, Philips Hue, IFTTT and SmartThings) represented a fraction of what works with Alexa, but Google's steadily been adding partners since the Home launched. Recently, Google announced its assistant works with 10,000 smart home devices, including every major smart home brand and all of our favorites, including the August Smart Lock, Belkin and Lutron light switches and Lifx bulbs.
Like the Echo before it, Google's speaker is a worthwhile means of bringing order to a home filled with connected devices and multiple occupants. Instead of wrestling with a mishmash of apps and sharing access to those apps with different people, anyone in range can control your smart devices with a simple voice command. Plus, Assistant is more forgiving than Alexa if you flub the exact name of a device.
The elegant way Alexa solved the multiuser smart home headache led us to make the Amazon Echo a key part of the CNET Smart Home. Given the Home's greater flexibility, it could eventually supplant the Echo as our controller of choice, but it still needs to catch up on the compatibility front -- an Amazon representative estimated that Alexa works with 20,000 smart home devices.
In addition to continually adding new smart home partners, the Google Home now works with more types of devices and you can control them with grouped commands called routines. Say, "Hey, Google, good morning" and you can trigger your thermostat, your lights, your locks and any other compatible smart home gadget. Routines are fully customizable. You can schedule them, and you can add other elements like news and traffic updates and Google can start playing your favorite podcast as part of a routine too. As you might expect, Alexa has a similar feature as well.
A recent update to the Google Home app has made it easier to organize your smart home. Previously, the app was only useful for setting up your smart speaker and syncing your compatible devices. Now, the main page of the app shows shortcuts for common tasks like broadcasting a message or turning off your lights. Scroll down for a room by room view of all of your connected gadgets.
Flip to the accounts page to invite others to your smart home, and they'll be able to access the same devices from their phone. You can even organize devices into multiple homes if you have connected gadgets set up in your office and your apartment. The much improved Google Home app makes centering your smart home around Google Assistant even easier than before.
Music and (yes) video with Google Home
"Hey, Google, cast CNET videos to my living room TV."
With a command to the Home, you can play a song on any speaker that's got a Chromecast audio streamer plugged into it, connect your Home to another speaker via Bluetooth, or send a video to your TV through the Chromecast video streamer. You can even create a group with multiple speakers and play music across your house simultaneously.
You can also play music on the Home itself. It pulls from Google Play Music, but you can also sync up your YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn accounts among others like SoundCloud and Deezer. Playing music on multiple speakers at once worked well and the songs synced up perfectly in our tests.
In terms of sound quality, the Home is quite similar to the Amazon Echo. The Echo can go much louder and it's less prone to distortion -- despite the fact that the Home goes up to 11. (Literally, its max volume is 11.) The Home, however, has a natural sound at moderate volume and a little more bass than the Echo. Rock fan? Get the Echo. Folk or jazz fan? Get the Home. Read our in-depth sound quality comparison of the Echo and Home here.
If I were shopping exclusively for a "music" speaker, however, I wouldn't choose either of these -- they sound like TV speakers on a good day. For a little more money, the $199 Sonos Play:1 offers superior bass and audiophile-worthy sound quality.
As for video, I'm still not a big fan of using the Home to browse YouTube. You have to search for the specific name of a video, or a list of videos like "popular." I never remember YouTube video names, and you can't scroll through options with the Home. The integration with Netflix is much better. You still can't browse videos with a voice command, but I usually know what I want to watch on Netflix. Saying, "Hey, Google, play How I Met Your Mother on the the living room TV" works reliably.
The Home will even turn on your TV, turn it off, control the volume and switch to the right input if your TV supports the CEC standard.
Again, you need either a Chromecast streamer or a TV with Chromecast built-in to make any of this work. If you have that, the Home actually makes voice-controlled TV doable. Better yet, you can see search results on your TV as well. Plus, Google's expanding beyond Chromecast as you can control your TV to an extent through Roku and Logitech Harmony. Alexa's getting better and better at controlling your TV as well.
Stuck in the middle
For $130, the Home more than earns its keep -- and it keeps getting better. It's well worth your consideration, especially if you're invested in Android, Chromecast or any of the Home's compatible smart home platforms. You also don't have to worry about it getting outdated, as all of the many features Google's added to the Home since its launch have been pushed to its existing devices.
The main issue with the Google Home has little to do with the Home itself. It's the competition. The smart speaker field is now loaded with great options, and all of the good things I've said about the Home in this review also apply to the affordable $50 Google Home Mini and the booming $400 Google Home Max.
Plus, you have a number of third-party options equipped with Google Assistant, such as the great JBL Link 300. So even if you want a Google Assistant speaker, you have plenty to choose from, and that doesn't even count the many great Amazon Echo speakers or the robust Apple HomePod. Plus, smart displays -- smart speakers with a touchscreen for watching videos or browsing pics -- are gaining popularity as well. Google has a couple of options in that category as well.
With all of that in mind, the right speaker for you could be any one of the bunch depending on whether you're looking for affordability, sound quality or something else. If you know you want a Google Assistant smart speaker, the original Google Home balances price and sound quality well -- and has proven its worth by standing toe-to-toe with Alexa and the Amazon Echo in terms of capabilities.
CNET editor Ty Pendlebury contributed to this review.