Google Home first impressions
This holiday season, Google put a full-court press on Amazon to bring attention to its Google Home devices. Google and Walmart sold the devices at loss leader prices. This was my net price for each device, not including sales tax:
Google Home: $79 sale price at Walmart – 20% Google Express app coupon – $20 Amex/Google Express promo – $25 future Walmart purchase = $18.20 ($129 retail)
Google Home Mini: $29 sale price at Walmart – $25 future Walmart purchase = $4 ($49 retail)
Due to Amazon’s success selling Alexa devices, Google’s aggressive pricing was a necessary move. According to Google’s blog post, it is a serious contender in the virtual assistant wars. The competition is only going to intensify once Apple releases its HomePod.
After using the Home devices for a few days, here are my thoughts:
Sound quality: For playing music, the Google Home has decent sound for a small device. It has acceptable bass and mid-range. The treble seems to be somewhat attenuated in comparison, giving the overall sound a bass-heavy quality. The Google Home app has an equalizer, which can help flatten the frequency response curve.
The Mini sounds as tinny as you’d expect for a device the size of a doughnut. At the default equalizer settings, it sounds much brighter than the Google Home. The Mini sounds similar to portable battery-powered Bluetooth speakers. It’s fine for listening to background music, but not for partying or serious listening.
Neither the Home nor the Mini should be used as your primary means to listen to music. You’ll likely be disappointed. Google sells the Home Max to compete with Sonos speakers and the HomePod. For those who aren’t satisfied with the sound quality of the Home device speakers, music playback can be routed to a Chromecast Audio dongle. The dongle can be connected to any music system with an audio input connector.
Music casting: I really like the ability to group the Home speakers, so that music can be played throughout the home. (This is the same concept as grouping on Sonos speakers. Likewise, iTunes on the Mac can play to multiple Airplay speakers. Airplay 2 will add multi-room playback on iOS devices.) Casting on the Google Home devices works with any iOS app that is Chromecast enabled, such as Pandora and Spotify. Spotify on the Mac doesn’t currently have the ability to use Chromecast – unless you start Chromecast playback on an iOS device first.
Questions: The Home Assistant works exactly the same on any Home device. It provides good answers to random questions like, “What is the depth of the Grand Canyon?” It also gives useful information for weather and travel guidance. It will send navigation directions to your iPhone, via the Google Assistant app.
Speech recognition: Google has done a fantastic job with speech recognition. It understands me from anywhere in the room. I can walk into another room, talk at normal speaking volume, and it will still understand me. It’s spooky how sensitive it is. Of note, the speech recognition often fails when music is playing loudly. In these cases, it’s best to stop the music first. Or shout “HEY GOOGLE!”
Logitech Harmony integration: My home theater is controlled using a Logitech Harmony Hub, so I looked forward to controlling it with my voice. This is one area where Google has a lot of room for improvement. For security reasons, the Home will only control the Harmony when it recognizes my voice. Google calls this Voice Match. The problem is that sometimes the voice matching doesn’t work. I need to restate my command while talking slowly and clearly in the direction of the Home. I tried retraining the Voice Match, but this didn’t improve the situation.
Even when Voice Match works, the spoken commands are a chore. Harmony commands use the syntax: “Hey Google, ask Harmony to…” That’s quite a mouthful. The Google Assistant app allows shortcuts to be created. These can take a long time to configure, especially if you have many Harmony Activities that you’d like to control with the Home.
My last gripe with the Harmony integration is that the Hub needs to be unlinked from the Home before making changes to Activities. After your new configuration is complete, the systems are relinked. This process is arduous.
Phone calls: The Home can dial anyone by name in your Google Contacts list. It also functions like an intelligent directory lookup service, whereby you can ask to call “pizza place” or Best Buy. It finds the closest locations to you.
Unfortunately, calling on the Home devices is of little use because of the outbound sound quality. On test calls, I could hear the person on the other line clearly. However, my voice sounded distant, despite being relatively close to the Home. These types of complaints seem to be common.