In the growing world of voice-controlled smart speakers, Google has thrown down the gauntlet with its introduction of the Google Home, a Wi-Fi speaker, digital assistant, and smart-home controller similar to Amazon’s Echo. The Google Home brings Google’s search and voice-control expertise to the category, making this device especially compelling for people who have already entrusted their digital lives to the Google ecosystem.
The Home’s biggest promises concern its voice-activated search functions, its Google-integration skills, and its music abilities. On search, it relies obviously on Google, which gives it a depth that other voice-search systems like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri can’t match, although they’re not actually as far apart as you might expect.
Because they’re such similar devices, it’s impossible to avoid comparing the Google Home directly with the Amazon Echo. In fact, the two devices are so alike that it’s tempting to think of the Home as a copycat, yet that viewpoint shortchanges all the ways in which they’re different. To find out how good a digital assistant, music player, and smart-home controller the Google Home is, we spent two weeks trying all its features, comparing it against Amazon’s Echo where appropriate. We also enlisted the help of The Wirecutter’s Los Angeles audio experts—Brent Butterworth, Lauren Dragan, and Geoff Morrison—to judge the speaker quality.
If you are already invested in the Google ecosystem and want a voice-controlled speaker for listening to music or controlling smart-home devices, the Google Home is an easy recommendation. Despite being new to the game compared with Amazon’s Echo, the Home feels surprisingly polished and complete, both in design and abilities.
One of the advantages the Home offers over existing smart speakers is the ability to track the context of your queries based on previous inputs. For example, if you ask “Who wrote this song?” and then follow that up with “When were they born?” the Home would know to give you the birthday of the songwriter. However, in our time with the device, we didn’t find much use for that feature.
The Home’s integrations with Google services, such as Calendar or Keep, rely on your personal account information. But keep in mind that the system can synchronize with only one Google account at a time, which limits its effectiveness for families or any household with multiple Google users.
The Echo, with Alexa, has a similar issue in that it also uses a single Amazon account, but Amazon Prime accounts are typically shared by a family, so unless you have multiple Prime accounts in your household and use the Echo for Amazon shopping (something you can’t do with the Home), you shouldn’t run into any conflicts.
Amazon’s Alexa has a healthy head start in smart-home integrations, but the Home already works with Philips Hue lights, the Nest Learning Thermostat, and Samsung’s SmartThings hub (which connects to a variety of other Z-Wave devices), so it’s off to a decent start with more to come, according to Google. Overall the Home is a great smart speaker for early adopters who already use Google’s services, but waiting to buy to see how it improves over time wouldn’t hurt.
Amazon also provides more device options for specific uses than Google does right now. Currently you have three Echo models to choose from: the original Echo, the smaller Dot (aimed at people who want several units around the house, or for use with other speakers), and the more portable Tap (which lets you take Alexa out into the yard). Alexa works identically on all of them. Our comparisons here, unless otherwise noted, are with the original Echo, but our findings with regard to the Alexa voice-control system should apply across the line.
Finally, there’s the issue of looks. If the black tower of the Echo seems a little too goth for your design tastes, you’ll like the Home better. In addition to its curvy shape, another attractive feature is its replaceable base (actually the speaker grill cover), for which you have seven color options to suit your taste.
The Google Home uses Google Assistant, the voice-recognition system that’s also found on the new Google Pixel phone. The Home includes two built-in far-field microphones that are always listening in on your conversations, ready to leap into action when it hears the right trigger words. The Home will respond when you address it with either “Hey Google” or “OK Google” but not just plain “Google,” so you won’t accidentally trigger the device when you’re casually discussing your favorite Google searches over breakfast.
No buttons, dials, or switches mar the Home’s design, though a microphone mute button is hidden in the back. When you query it, four color LEDs light up to let you know that it hears you. The top of the device is touch sensitive; to turn the volume up or down, you touch it on its head and swipe your finger in a circle clockwise or counterclockwise while a ring of white LEDs indicates the volume level. We found the touch-sensitive top a little awkward to operate, preferring the Echo’s buttons and dial, but a person could get used to it.
The Google Home’s main advantage over the Echo and Alexa is, well, Google. On simple information searches, the Home does a little better, offers a bit more contextual information, and usually gives a longer (though not necessarily more informative) answer. When we asked the two devices about the weather one morning, the Home reported that it would be “partly sunny,” while the Echo indicated “intermittent clouds.” When we asked what the smartest dog was, the Home said it was the collie, while the Echo kept silent, probably out of respect for a hound dog that happened to be in the room. When we asked what the best Bluetooth speaker was, the Home had no answer, while the Echo, unsurprisingly, suggested a model and asked if it should order that speaker from Amazon right at that moment. Both can do math, tell you the population of China, and state how many teaspoons are in a cup. Google is better if you ask how to roast a chicken or what wine goes with steak, but you can find more than 20 Alexa skills about cooking and another 20 for wine fans.
Google Assistant has some context awareness when you ask questions. For instance, after you ask “Hey Google, when did the Sex Pistols form?” and receive your answer, you can follow up with “Hey Google, who was the lead singer?” without having to say “Sex Pistols” again. (You’ll still have to say “Hey Google” every time.)
One of the expectations of a Google digital assistant is that it works with Google’s online services, but in this regard it falls short. You can set alarms and timers, and even schedule recurring alarms. You can ask the Home to translate a phrase from English to another language. You can ask what’s on your calendar, but you can’t add things to it, which is surprising because you can do that with the Echo. You can add items to Google Keep by adding things to the Home’s shopping list, which will also show up on Keep. Currently, however, you have no way to create a to-do list other than using Keep, nor can you ask Google to read or create email or to make a Google Voice phone call. Google Assistant uses the intelligence of Google Maps to give you an address or a distance to a location, as well as to let you know what traffic conditions are, but currently it can’t give you directions. These are all things we’re told are on Google’s own to-do list, so we expect Google Assistant to evolve over time.
If you buy the Google Home for music, you have several music services to choose from. First off, all Home owners get access to Google Play Music (free), Pandora (free and paid accounts), Spotify (paid accounts only), TuneIn for Internet radio, and YouTube Music (paid accounts only). Within the Home app you can select which service your system defaults to, but in use you can always specify which service you want the Home to access. Google’s free Play Music service isn’t as user-friendly as Amazon’s Prime Music for Alexa (which requires a $100-a-year Prime membership). It’s more like Pandora, in that you get mixes based on your artist or track request, rather than music solely by that artist. To access specific songs, you need Google Play’s paid tier, which costs $10 a month. Finally, the Home isn’t a Bluetooth speaker, so you can’t stream music from your phone, something you can do with the Echo (and the Tap, but not the Dot).
The Home can also work as a key part of a multiroom audio system when you combine it with a Chromecast wireless media streamer (you have three of them to choose from: Chromecast, Chromecast Audio, and Chromecast Ultra). The Chromecast devices allow you to stream music or video to another device such as a powered speaker, an audio system, or a TV, and control it with your phone. Google Assistant can play the same music through all units simultaneously or different music in each room. In this way, the Google offering behaves more like a Sonos system than the Echo and Alexa do.
We tested the multiroom feature using one Home and one Chromecast Audio. With the Audio plugged into a TV, we were able to tell the Home to play music on the TV and to play the same music on both the TV and the Home at the same time, essentially creating a multiroom music experience similar to that of Sonos. Echo/Alexa owners can add multiples of the cheaper Echo Dot to their existing Bluetooth speakers or audio system, but the units won’t play the same music in every room, and you can’t ask the Echo in the kitchen to play music via the Dot in the living room—all of those restrictions make the Echo arrangement ineffective as a multiroom-audio system. Adding Chromecasts throughout your home costs less than buying multiple Sonos speakers, too, though Sonos works with more music services and has an easier-to-use app (and soon will be Alexa compatible).
In our listening tests, we found the Home to be a decent speaker for rooms such as kitchens, dens, or bedrooms for casual listening, but it is not a speaker for critical listening, or for entertaining a roomful of people at a party.
To find out how the Home and the Echo compare in sound quality, Wirecutter audio expert Brent Butterworth set up some blind-listening tests and borrowed the critical ears of our Los Angeles–based audio editors, Geoff Morrison and Lauren Dragan. We also ran some lab measurements to get a clearer idea of the devices’ technical performance and to better test how well the microphone arrays and voice-recognition systems separated the user’s voice from other sounds.
Complicating our blind test was the fact that the Google Home plays only material sourced through the Internet, which meant Brent would have to use voice commands to cue up the music for the test. Of course, the voice commands would reveal the speakers’ identities, so Geoff and Lauren listened to pink noise through Direct Sound Serenity II noise-isolating headphones while Brent told the speakers which tunes to play. On top of that, even though the speakers were hidden behind thin black fabric, the listeners would have been able to identify the speakers as their flashing lights shone through the material. Thus, Brent insisted that Geoff and Lauren each wear a special pair of “blind-testing glasses”—sunglasses covered with painter’s tape. The listeners were so well isolated that when the music started, he had to clap loudly to signal the listeners to remove the headphones. The two speakers’ coarse volume steps made it impossible to match their listening levels perfectly, but Brent was able to get the match within 0.43 decibel, which is reasonably close.
Geoff, Lauren, and Brent all ended up describing the sound of the two speakers much the same way. It was a Goldilocks-style dilemma: The Echo seemed to have almost no bass, so much of the drive and rhythm of the music was lost, and voices could sound harsh and sibilant. But the Home had a muffled midrange and treble, making voices harder to understand. Lauren summed up the group’s unhappiness when she concluded, “I … guess I’d prefer the sibilant one?” Considering that only Geoff picked the Home as his favorite, the Echo has the advantage, especially if you listen to a lot of talk radio programs. But anyone who wants voice command with good sound should get an Echo Dot and connect it to a better system.
Brent also ran some lab tests on the speakers to confirm what everyone heard. Because the Home has neither input jacks nor Bluetooth capability, which would allow it to accept test signals from an audio analyzer, Brent had to perform the tests using a pink noise track sourced from Spotify. He measured each speaker from the same eight locations in his listening room and then averaged each set of eight measurements to minimize the effects that the acoustics of his listening room had on the speakers’ performance. He found, to his surprise, that the Home actually had stronger measured treble response, but that the Echo had much better response in the midrange, between 300 and 1400 Hz, which covers most of the range of the human voice.
A few other performance characteristics are worth noting. For starters, in our tests the Echo played +4.5 dB louder than the Home. In a bedroom or kitchen, such a difference probably doesn’t matter, but in a very large living room the Home might not sound loud enough. The Echo is a true omnidirectional speaker, too, so it will more easily fill a large space with sound. In contrast, the Home has a single, front-firing speaker driver with passive radiators on the side to reinforce the bass, and the sound seems even more muffled when you move to the sides and back of the speaker.
In addition to testing the sound quality of the Home and the Echo, Brent subjected both speakers to microphone tests. He used computer-generated male and female voice commands so that they would be perfectly consistent for every test, something a live human voice can’t achieve.
He found that the Echo edged out the Home in hearing voice commands through the music it was playing, and that it could hear at levels -2.75 dB lower than the Home with the music playback levels set the same. If you play your music loud, the Echo’s voice recognition might work a little better for you. However, Brent also found that the Home did a better job of recognizing voices while pink noise played from a nearby Bluetooth speaker (set at 70 dB). Coincidentally, the Home could hear commands at levels -2.75 dB lower than the Echo through the same noise level. If you plan to use your speaker in a noisy workshop, the Home’s voice recognition might work a little better.
Overall, we think both these speakers are okay for casual, low-level listening, but many of the other wireless speakers that The Wirecutter has tested deliver clearly superior sound quality.
The ability to turn things on and off with your voice is a big selling point of the Echo, and the Home is also poised to appeal to smart-home fans.
Considering that this smart speaker comes from a company that both makes smart-home devices (Nest’s thermostat, camera, and smoke alarms) and helped design a smart-home protocol (Thread), you might expect it to include integration skills from the start. At launch, Home worked with Philips Hue smart lights, the Nest Learning Thermostat (but not the Nest Cam or the Nest Protect), Samsung’s SmartThings Hub, and the integration cloud service IFTTT. Other device integrations came later, including Wink and Harmony smart-home hubs, August locks, LIFX bulbs, and TP-Link bulbs and switches. Echo devices still work with considerably more smart-home accessories, but Google is catching up.
We had no problems linking a Nest thermostat and several Philips Hue bulbs to the Home. In the Home app you can designate rooms and note which bulbs go in each so you can control the lights either individually or by group. The Home responds quickly to lighting commands and can turn the bulbs on, turn them off, dim them, and change their color, though in a few days of our testing this feature, it failed to turn on all the lights in a group about 30 percent of the time. The Echo can also change the color of Hue bulbs, but it does so through a clunky method of switching scenes, which you have to set up ahead of time in the Hue app. The Echo isn’t always perfect, but over many months of use, it has been more reliable.
Nest integration worked perfectly for the Home in our tests. You simply link your Nest account with the Home though the Home app, name the thermostat, and then tell the Home what you want it to do. The Home’s Nest commands are a little easier to use than the Echo’s. With the Echo, you need to state the name of the Nest exactly (“Turn living room Nest to 68 degrees”), whereas with the Home you can use simpler phrases such as “Turn the temperature to 68” or “Make it warmer.” It’s a small difference, but a useful one if some members of your household aren’t as knowledgeable about smart-home control as others.
The cloud integration service IFTTT allows you to expand the Home’s smart abilities beyond the limited natively supported hardware. Currently you get a short list of IFTTT applets, but some of them include controls for Harmony’s Hub home theater remote, plus social media services Twitter and Facebook. As with the Echo’s IFTTT integration, using the feature with the Home can require awkward voice commands, and because it necessitates a meeting in the cloud of multiple accounts, it isn’t always fast.
The Home’s SmartThings integration allows you to control in-wall and plug-in smart switches wirelessly connected to your SmartThings hub. As with the Hue bulbs, you can group these devices for easier control.
If more than one person with a Google account lives in your household, you’ll quickly realize the Home’s biggest flaw: It works with only one Google account. Only one person’s calendar can be accessed, and only one person can use the shopping list. Even if you’re the single Google user in the house, if you have multiple Google accounts, such as a personal account and another for work, you have to pick one and stick with it. Ideally, the Home would recognize multiple accounts and access them by name with commands like “Hey Google, what’s on Grant’s schedule today?” We’ve talked to Google representatives, and they know this is a common complaint.
The Home also shares a notable flaw with the Echo: It understands only one command at a time. You can’t say “Hey Google, play The Band and turn up the kitchen lights.” You need to speak each command separately, which can feel a little ridiculous sometimes.
People familiar with Amazon’s Alexa group of products will probably wonder if Google has an equivalent to the Dot (the $50 mini Echo version that connects to your Bluetooth speaker or other sound system to make up for its poor built-in speaker) or the Tap (the battery-operated version of the Echo for outside use). Right now the answer is no. On the other hand, Google’s Chromecast devices, which we discussed earlier, offer a good way to get your Home’s content onto other speakers, or even screens, around your house.
Beyond the always-listening aspect, which understandably may trouble some people, the Home is an Internet of Things device, so we asked Google about the protections it has in place to keep customers’ data safe and to prevent it from being exploited in DDoS attacks. Google representatives replied that while no third-party software is allowed to run on the Home, all software is validated through a cryptographically verified secure-boot process before it runs on the device. If any software is tampered with, the cryptographic signature verification will prevent the software from loading and stop the Home from operating. Google also cryptographically protects all communications between the Home and Google cloud services. Also, as with the Echo, all Home updates are automatically pushed from Google to the device.
We expect that if Google is successful with the Home, it will launch more models, something that the company did after the initial success of the Chromecast. Will Google follow Amazon’s move in allowing the Google Assistant to speak from non-Google products? Again, if Google Cast is an example, the answer is probably yes, but we don’t know. We do expect that the Home will catch up to the Echo and Alexa in terms of smart-home device compatibility, and we will update this guide as that happens.
(Top photo by Jon Chase.)
Originally published: November 22, 2016