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

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.

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The Google Home lights up when it hears you.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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 MusicSpotify, 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 Google Home also works with lots of other streaming services. Here's the company's full list, which includes YouTube TV and HBO Now.

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.

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