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Smart Home

Google Home Mini sounds great but lacks vision

The Google Home Mini sounds better and looks better than the Echo Dot -- but Google needs to innovate if it wants to catch Alexa.

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The Good: The Google Home Mini is a stylish-looking speaker with surprisingly strong sound quality for its size. The Google Assistant is a capable Alexa competitor, especially thanks to its ability to search out detailed answers to a wide variety of questions.

The Bad: There isn't much the Home Mini does that Alexa can't do, too. It also lacks a line-out jack, and requires Chromecast Audio in order to connect with at external speaker setup.

The Bottom Line: The Google Home Mini is a great device, and a no-brainer for existing Google Home users -- but it isn't the Echo Dot-killer Google probably needs it to be.

Now Playing: Watch this: The Google Home Mini is great, but is it too late?
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If you want something from the internet, you Google it. We've been doing it for decades — more than a trillion searches per year by Google's own estimates. Google is so good at it that it gets to be its own verb.

But then came Alexa, the virtual, voice-activated assistant in the Amazon Echo smart speaker. People started getting what they wanted from the internet just by asking for it. Soon, Amazon doubled down with the Echo Dot, a much smaller smart speaker with an irresistibly low $50 price tag. After yielding Amazon a two-year head start, Google finally released the Google Home to compete with the Echo, but Amazon had already captured a commanding share of the market. Even more problematic — the Echo Dot had quickly become an even bigger hit than the Echo had been.

All of which brings us to October of 2017, and the arrival of the Google Home Mini. It's the product of a company that's still in catch-up mode, a verb that's trying to remain present tense in a category that's evolving rapidly. And, like the Echo Dot, it's a very good product.

And that's the problem. Almost everything that's good about the Google Home Mini is only good because it's like the Echo Dot. It's a puck-sized, voice-activated smart speaker (like the Dot) that costs $50 (like the Dot) and lets you stream music, ask for information, control smart home gadgets, call people and hear bad jokes on demand (like the Dot). It's great (like the Dot) and worth buying (like the Dot) — but unlike the Dot, you can't connect it to your existing speakers unless you spend $35 on another gadget, the Chromecast Audio dongle. 

So, why not just buy the Dot?

That's the question Google needed to do a better job of answering here. Yes, the Google Home Mini looks nicer than the Dot. Yes, it sounds a bit better. But while the Google Assistant is smarter and more capable than Alexa in some ways, it isn't demonstrably better than Alexa, at least not in ways that are easy for casual shoppers to understand. That leaves the Google Home Mini as an excellent, worthwhile device that will do little to move the needle by virtue of its own Dot-like merits. A few key software updates or notable third-party integrations could change that, but right now, the Dot is still the better buy.

Mini minimalism

Google kept things simple with the Mini's design. It's an oblong orb of plastic and fabric with no visible buttons save for a slider to mute the microphone that's hidden in the back. It comes in your choice of three colors -- chalk (light gray), charcoal (dark gray), or coral (pinkish orange).

To wake it up, you say "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google," and then you give it a question or command. You can ask it to play music, turn your smart home gadgets on and off, look up a fact for you, control Netflix and YouTube on your Chromecast-enabled TV plus a whole host of other tricks. It puts the power of the internet just an utterance away, with the Google Assistant as your concierge.

The Google Assistant is a good assistant. It's pleasant and helpful, and generally good at finding answers to whatever questions you can think to throw at it. By default, the Assistant's digital voice is female, but if you'd rather converse with a "he," that's an option now, too — just toggle the setting in the Home mobile app's preferences section. Regardless of which voice you choose, I still wish Google would give its Assistant a better name. 

Despite the lack of physical buttons, the Home Mini still has touch controls you can use. You can tap the top to pause or resume music playback, and you can tap and hold to activate the Assistant. To adjust the volume, you tap the sides of the device. I wasn't a huge fan of those volume controls — they aren't quite responsive enough when you want to use them, and yet it's hard not to activate them by mistake whenever you pick the thing up. That said, you'll probably prefer to turn things up and down using voice commands.

Overall, it's a design that's capable of blending in with your home's decor while still looking good if you happen to fix your gaze on it. I share the concern of some of my colleagues who worried about getting that fabric cover dirty. My anxiety would only rise if I wanted to use it in the kitchen.

One other small concern -- from a distance, it isn't always easy to see the indicator lights on the top of the device that tell you it's ready for a command. This seems especially true with the chalk-colored speaker. My advice if you're thinking of buying? Go with charcoal.

Listen to this

Small speakers like the Mini aren't going to replace your full-scale home audio setup anytime soon. Still, Google made a point of saying that people would be surprised by how much sound the Mini can put out. Sure enough, it sounded stronger than I expected -- and noticeably stronger than the Echo Dot -- as I began testing it out.

The difference is clear when you listen to the two assistants speak. With the Echo Dot, Alexa's voice is a little tinny-sounding, and music playback not much better than what you'd get from your phone. By comparison, the Home Mini makes the Google Assistant sound warmer and more natural. Music playback was more passable with the Home Mini, too -- though, like the Dot, you really shouldn't plan on using it for anything more than close-range, casual listening.

My colleagues in New York from CNET's audio team put the Mini through some more rigorous tests, and also came away impressed. Here's what senior associate editor Ty Pendlebury had to say:

Let's say you were vacillating between the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot and wanted to choose whichever has the best sound quality. We tested the two devices against each other and threw in the $35 Cambridge Soundworks' Oontz Angle 3 Plus as a comparable Bluetooth speaker. We threw each speaker some rock tracks and some folk and found that the Home Mini is the undeniable victor of the two smart speakers. The Echo Dot can be used to listen to music but we wouldn't advise it. Vocals are edgy, bass is non-existent and it doesn't go very loud. The Mini is louder, sounds smoother with music and has decent bottom end for a device the size of a hockey puck. Of course, we wouldn't use either of these if we had a choice -- the Oontz is the better of all three and makes music sound like music, plus it's portable and will accept a line-in. 

Google will point out that you can use the Mini to cast audio to any speaker with a Chromecast Audio dongle attached, but that feels a bit stingy to me given that the Dot can connect directly with speakers using a simple 3.5mm auxiliary cable or using Bluetooth. The Mini has no line out jack at all, and its Bluetooth radio only accepts incoming signals. Advantage: Dot.

I wouldn't be surprised if Google eventually changes things via software update to allow for Bluetooth connections, especially if the Mini struggles to keep up with the Dot during the holiday buying season. Of course, not allowing direct connections with external speakers is the exact sort of thing that could stunt the Mini's sales in the first place.

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 twenty feet across the room using an increasingly quiet voice. The Echo Dot was able to go noticeably lower 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 (£35.00 at uSwitch) 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.

The Google Assistant can also do a couple of things that Alexa can't. The most notable is that it can distinguish between different voices, which comes in 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.

That brings us to the Mini's greatest weakness: its lack of a line-out jack or any way to connect directly with existing speaker setups. This is where the Echo Dot draws blood, notching an easily understandable selling point that Google can't match. Kudos to Google for giving the Mini a surprisingly strong speaker of its own, but even casual listeners are still going to want to amplify the sound.

The other big, obvious Alexa 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, none of them cost anything, and Google doesn't currently offer anything that matches them. Couple that with the considerable list of third-party devices that work with Alexa, as well as the growing number of manufacturers choosing to add Alexa directly into their products, and Amazon's lead looks all the more daunting.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Right speaker, wrong time?

Here's the irony of the Google Home Mini: It could have been an Echo-killer 16 months ago, before the Dot first burst onto the scene. Instead, it's a "me-too" gadget — a perfectly good one and maybe even a great one, but not one that brings much new to the table. Google still has work to do.

There are legitimate reasons why you might prefer the Google Assistant over Alexa, especially if you're already deeply invested in Google's online ecosystem of services. If you've been holding out on buying a smart speaker, then the $50 Google Home Mini is as good a place to start as any. It looks nice and it sounds nice for the smallish speaker that it is, and it will undoubtedly improve with time. If you're already a Google Home user, then you're going to love that you can expand the Google Assistant's footprint in your home for such a low cost. 

But for all of its strengths, the Mini isn't the silver bullet that Google needs to stop Alexa's momentum. This was a chance for Google to reinforce its future-tense vision of the artificially intelligent living space. Instead, it almost feels like it's reinforcing Amazon's.

CNET Senior Editor Sean Hollister contributed to this review.