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Hands-On With the Google Home Speaker

The Google Home speaker, Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo talking speaker, starts shipping Friday, Nov. 4, for $129 from Google's online store and from retailers including Best Buy and Walmart. Like the Amazon Echo, the Google Home speaker is less a wireless speaker than a conduit for a cloud-based virtual assistant. It can control internet-connected devices, procure Uber taxi rides and other services, and answer questions—silly or serious—to help get you through the day.

It’s pretty nifty as a speaker, too, because the assistant, the same Google Assistant you'd use with Android smartphones, will begin streaming your favorite music, news reports, and traffic and weather updates from an impressive number of sources at your command. Just use the wake-up phrase “Okay, Google,” tell the device what you're looking for, and a friendly female voice will confirm your request.

I received a press sample of Google Home and took it home for a trial run alongside my own Amazon Echo.

It was interesting to compare their abilities to fetch music, news, weather reports, and so on. While Amazon and Google each has its own distinct content services, both support my Pandora and Spotify accounts. The Google Home and Amazon Echo also draw data from some of the same third-party sources, such as NPR and Wikipedia.

Physically, it’s easy to tell the devices apart. The squat, white 6.6-inch Google Home looks like a giant air freshener while the Echo is a black, 9.3-inch cylinder. But with your eyes closed, having both devices is confusing. The omnidirectional nature of their speakers, which sounded quite similar, made it easy to forget which speaker was doing what. While testing music playback at high volumes, I found myself barking “Alexa stop!” when it was really the Google Home that needed to pipe down.

And a lot of the functionality Google promised when it introduced Google Home isn't up and running yet. For instance, the plan is to let you ask Home for directions, then see them pop up on your phone by the time you get to your car. Once the Home is fully integrated into the larger Google world, the device should be able to help you juggle appointments and turn on the lights as you pull into the driveway. That's the kind of functionality that Amazon will be hard-pressed to offer. 

On the other hand, the Echo and its cheaper siblings, the Amazon Tap and Dot, have far more third-party apps right now. 

I had hoped to compare the Google Home to the Amazon Echo as an interface for automated lights, appliances, and entertainment equipment. But the Home's Internet of Things (IoT) repertoire does not yet include the Insteon and Logitech smart-home controllers that run my house. Right now the smart-home skills of the still-nascent Google Home are confined to Nest thermostats, Philips Hue lighting systems, and SmartThings devices. You can also summon content on Google Cast-enabled televisions. Google says that more capabilities will be added over the next few months. 

But there were positive surprises as well. Here are details on how the two devices stack up.

Google Home at Home

Easiest setup ever. Installing wireless devices, even those with intuitive setup menus, can be a challenge—especially if the device you’re installing depends on both Bluetooth and WiFi connections. But setting Google Home was incredibly simple and quick—at least using my new Google Pixel and creaky old LG G3 smartphones.

You just plug the included AC adapter into the Google Home’s base and into a wall outlet, and then launch the Google Home app, a free download from Google Play or the Apple App Store if you have an iPhone.

The Home app will automatically see the Google Home speaker within about 30 seconds of it being plugged in. The app will ask you three things: Permission to sign into the Google Account you’re using on the phone; whether it can use the WiFi password stored on your phone to access your router; and confirmation of your home address as reported by the GPS location of your phone. If you simply click okay to both, Google Home will be ready for its first command in about 45 seconds.

After setup, the Google Home app is used mainly for adding capabilities, changing account preferences, and getting suggestions on how to interact with Google Home.

There’s a Google Store shopping cart in the Google Home app, as well. But the only option in it currently is to pre-order a Chromcast Ultra streaming dongle for $69.

You can also use the app on the phone as a remote control for tasks such as pausing or skipping a song that's playing on Google Home. 

It's a smarty. Start using Google Home, and it becomes clear that the Google Assistant has a slightly higher IQ points than Alexa does.

For instance, the Google Assistant understands and responds appropriately to questions spoken in sloppy English, such as like "What's the calories in a bagel?" And it also seems to have a better grasp of context. For example, you can ask Google Home, “When’s the next time it’s going to rain?" And it will tell you, "In [your home town] it will rain on Thursday."

That's sophisticated. Ask Alexa the same question, and you'll just get the current forecast, whether it’s for rain or shine.

If you're asking for other kinds of information, the Google Assistant seems to provide more details than the relatively laconic Alexa. For instance, when I asked Alexa, “What is Consumer Reports?” it told me something like, “An American magazine founded in 1936.” the Google Assistant provides several more sentences of details.

But in other ways, the two platforms are interchangeable. News updates are the same, often repetitious string of podcasts from NPR and Bloomberg that seem to drone on and on. I suspect most people will avoid asking Google Home for such reports.

Like Alexa, the Google Assistant makes an effort to keep the 12-year-old in all of us amused when things are slow. There’s a trivia game that should be aced by high school graduates, and even an instrument tuner.

One of the more useful apps is a language translator. For instance, you can ask the Google Assistant “How do you say good morning in German,” it will answer, “Guten Morgen” in an authentic-sounding German accent. The Google Assistant also uses authentic sound bites to tell you what a cow sounds like, but whatever you do, don’t ask it to sing you a song.

Decent-sounding speaker. Our engineers will provide the definitive assessment of Google Home’s sound quality. But in my informal tests, I found the Google Home to be quite similar to the Echo’s, which our engineers found to be decent, but overall “a bit thin, grainy, metallic, and processed sounding." 

I had both Google Home and Echo stream “2nd Avenue Mambo,” by the Aaron Kula & Klezmer Company Orchestra, a dynamic Cuban-style song heavy on percussion and brass. Both speakers did an acceptable job at midlevel volumes, in my opinion, but at higher volumes trumpets started sounding notably harsh and the bongos started warbling. Here's one interesting thing about the volume level on the Google Home: Just like guitarist Nigel Tufnel’s amp in the classic mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” the volume level goes to 11.

Where’s my music? One good thing about storing copies your music files in the cloud is that you should be able to instantly access them as soon as you log into the appropriate app on your device.

I've uploaded the 10,000 or so MP3 files I have stored on my computer to both Amazon Music and Google's Play Music service. (Google Play Music lets you store up to 50,000 songs from your computer for free using its Music Manager app, while Amazon Music stores up to 250,000 songs from your personal collection,for $25 a year). 

But so far Google Home is having a bit of trouble finding that music. While Pandora was fully operational as soon as I logged in, Google Home said it couldn’t find any songs in my music library.

Over the course of several hours, it found about half of them, but only via playlists. For instance, if I told the Google Assistant to “play West Coast Jazz,” it found and played my West Coast Jazz playlist from Google’s cloud servers. But if I asked it to play a specific piece of music in that playlist, the Google Assistant would say “I can’t find that song or album in your library, but here’s a Google Play Radio Station you may like.” I've asked Google to check on this problem, and I'm told the company is looking into it.

Hold the phone. As Consumer Reports' smartphone reporter, I often have several Android smartphones in my vicinity. And if I happen to say “Okay Google,” they all respond.

But this comical annoyance is not an issue when Google Home is in the room.

When Google Home is active, other Android devices stay quiet. Consequently, if you want to place a call on your Android smartphone, you’ll have to use the touchscreen because a command like, “Call Jennifer” will go unheeded. It would be nice if you could make and take phone calls through Google Home, but that feature is not available yet.

We’ll have more on the Google Home in the coming weeks.

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