Seems everybody wants you to have an intelligent assistant – theirs preferably of course – and with Google Home the mega tech company is pushing to dominate the ever-expanding market for devices with a talking virtual assistant built-in.
This first Google Home device is a small cylinder with a slanted top, about 5.6 inches tall and 3.8 inches around at its base. You plug it into power with the supplied adapter, and it asks you to install the Google Home app on your Android or iPhone. You’ll need a Gmail address to fully set up the device, but otherwise, the setup is pretty easy; the device connects to your phone, then confirms your Wi-Fi network, physical address and asks a few more questions. After that, you’re good to go.
What can you do with Google Home? Frankly, a lot of the same things you can do with Amazon’s Echo devices (often referred to as “Alexa”) and the to-be-released Apple HomePod (with “Siri”). If you own a recent Android phone, you’re likely familiar with the built-in Google Assistant, where you say: “OK Google” and ask it a question or to perform a simple task, such as “what’s the weather for today” or “show me directions home.”
With the Google Home device, the cue is either “OK Google” or “Hey Google” and you can ask the built-in Google Assistant the same kind of questions, and more. Because it has an amplifier and decent speakers inside the cylinder, you can ask it to play music, from Google’s own Play Music or YouTube services, Spotify, Pandora or Tune-In. Of course, some of those require paid subscriptions. Using Chromecast – an additional product – the audio can be sent to a larger stereo system. You can ask it for news and get the latest from NPR or ABC News Radio, even podcasts from The New York Times, among others. Google Home can – with the right video connection – call up Netflix or YouTube, or other services on your TV.
Then there are connected home devices, such as the Nest thermostat, Philips Hue smart light bulbs, and a long list of various smart devices from other companies with that will take commands over Wi-Fi from Google Home, commands given with your voice, such as “lower the temperature to 72” or “dim the lights in the living room.”
Now many of these smart devices either already work with Amazon’s Echo and will likely work with the Apple HomePod – for instance, Nest & Philips Hue. Amazon in particular has been adding “skills” to its Alexa assistant and has had a two-year head start on Google, at least as far as partnering with other technology is concerned.
Google, of course, is the dominant search provider, and it has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, which is what helps power these digital assistants. For example, Google Home can have multiple users and tell them apart, so you and better half can get individualized schedules and traffic conditions to a job or other destination. (The Echo can now do this too.)
And Google recently announced two new devices – although they were not immediately available.
The original Google Home, for instance, is now supplemented by the Google Home Mini and the Google Home Max. The Mini is a small, round device made to compete with the Amazon Echo Dot – less than $50 – allows Google Assistant commands and can be charged up and used unplugged. Google Home Max is a large stereo speaker designed to be bought instead of a Sonos or Bose, and it is smart enough to adjust its sound to the room – or corner of the room – where it is placed. $399 when available later this year.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that Amazon is not going to be left behind in this intelligent assistant race, and it has new or improved Echo products, including two with screens, something Google hasn’t come out with, at least not yet.
So who are these digital assistants for? Well, if you’re too lazy to pick up the remote, or walk over to the thermostat or light switch, they might be for you. But as they grow in what they can do, these assistants can be helpers in a good way, especially for older folks, or those who have physical limitations of one kind or another. And after all, didn’t you buy The Clapper 30 years ago?
The original Google Home device sells direct for $109 – and is available in many retail and online stores – although not on Amazon, of course.