Today, after unveiling it earlier this year at its annual I/O conference, Google shed more light on its answer to the Amazon Echo. Google Home is a connected speaker like the Amazon’s, but with the Google Assistant built-in, and it’s that latter bit that sets it apart from its main competitor.
When discussing the device one could simply say Home is an Echo, but with Google built in, and thus an Echo that is smarter. Of course, the minds in Mountain View are far too tactful to use such language, but there is truth to that thought. If any one company was going to take the new hardware sector Amazon created and build it out into something really meaningful, it’s Google. Having been the king of search for 18 years, it has more information than most Silicon Valley powers, and it is leveraging that now with the new Assistant.
The Echo and Home are essentially the same device. Both have speakers and both have microphones so you can converse with them. The latter only has two microphones to the former’s seven, but Google claims it will do a better job of locating and understanding you. It also works in tandem with other Assistant devices, to make sure only the closest machine will respond if you say the keyword, rather than the five you may have in your house. Home also has an edge in price, coming in $50 cheaper than Amazon’s flagship Echo at $129.
Visually, the speaker is meant to blend into its surroundings and thus has a more welcoming design with softer lines and a rounded bottom. It has been knocked around the internet for resembling an air freshener, but I love the look. I would gladly put it in my living room, and with its host of swappable bottoms it can be customized to further fit the look and feel of whatever room it is in.
A visually appealing design doesn’t matter, though, if the device isn’t useful. We’ve not yet had a chance to get our hands on it, but early reports are that it’s far ahead of Siri and Alexa thanks to the Google Assistant. To use it, a user will simply say “OK Google” and then ask away. For those with privacy concerns, the company insists that none of what Home hears is sent to the cloud until the speaker is triggered by the keyword, but if you’re wary of having a device that is always listening, I doubt that will dull your fears.
Once you do say the keyword, Home can do numerous things. Tell you the weather, tell you when Iron Fist is coming to Netflix now that you’ve finished your Luke Cage binge (answer: March 17), play a song, list off your calendar events and reminders. You can use it in tandem with a Chromecast to sling video to your TV or dim the lights when you sit down for movie night. If you ask it a question it doesn’t know, the speaker will scour the internet to find the information you need from an appropriate website.
The power of Google is what makes Home such an intriguing device. It’s clear that Mountain View is ahead of the curve, or at least clearly thinks it’s ahead of the curve, for the next big moment in technology: Artificial Intelligence. If it is really years ahead of its competitors, the Google Assistant and Google Home could become massively powerful tools for users, but right now it’s the second coming. Amazon beat everyone to the punch with the original Echo, meaning that it has a huge head start in terms of connectivity.
The Echo is currently integrated with more than 3,000 devices. Home will ship in November with a handful of music services, including Spotify and Pandora, the ability to control smart home devices from Philips Hue, SmartThings and Nest, plus integration with IFTTT. Google certainly has enough sway to get partners on board, and the company says an API for third-party apps is coming soon, but there is no denying the device is behind at launch.
Amazon also smartly expanded the Alexa lineup earlier in 2016, including the Echo Dot which simplifies the connected speaker idea into something smaller and cheaper. The new version of the Dot is just $49.99, making it the best place to start if you’re interested in the concept. Google, even with a $50 advantage over the Echo, has nothing that can compete at that price point, at least not yet, which means Home will have to prove itself significantly more useful lest have people point at the Echo Dot and say “It’s like Google Home, but much cheaper.”
Still, if any company were primed to swallow Amazon’s lead, it’s Google. It clearly sees an opportunity to strike with the Assistant, which is why it is putting so much effort into making it as accessible as possible. But there is one glaring issue.
The Home only works with one Google account at a time.
Forget those of us that have multiple accounts and think even simpler. Imagine a house with more than one person, but only one Home. Only one of those people can ask what their day looks like and get a comprehensive answer that includes their calendar, reminders and more. The other person is left in the dark. Sure, they can still ask numerous questions and get answers, but the concept of Google Assistant being everyone’s own personal assistant is immediately broken.
The idea of having Home suss out different voices and connect them with different accounts may sound like Star Trek level science fiction, but consider the Trusted Voice feature found on Android phones. This lets users use the OK Google prompt even when their phone is off, and the phone will recognize only the user’s voice, not an imposter’s. It’s not perfect, but works well enough to imagine Google must have engineers working on a way to integrate this concept at a higher level.
If it could be put into Google Home, allowing one machine to work as a truly personal assistant to multiple people, Amazon will really be shaking in its rainboots. Perhaps that is too much of a stretch, though. In that case, I’ll settle for any solution that allows it to be used with multiple accounts but, given Google’s history with handling multiple accounts on services like Gmail and Hangouts, I won’t hold my breath.
In a year, Google Home could be the biggest name in the world of connected speakers. With Mountain View’s massive amount of data behind the Google Assistant, there is little doubt the company’s attempt to oust the Amazon Echo is smarter and more vibrant than the competition. It has serious ground to make up, though, and had better be fast out of the gates come November.
Google Home is available for pre-order at $129 starting today.