Google Home Speaker to Challenge Amazon Echo

Google has unveiled its answer to the Amazon Echo speaker system, called Google Home, along with a significant update to the Android smartphone operating system. Both announcements came at Google I/O, the annual conference that opened on Wednesday in Mountain View, Calif., near Google headquarters.

The two developments are closely related, because the products will both leverage Google’s conversational Assistant. This is an amplified version of Google Now On Tap, an Android smartphone feature that's already available. It tailors search results based on what else you’re doing on your phone, such as listening to music or watching YouTube videos. It also can access calendar items and road information to perform tasks such as prompting you to leave early for an appointment and to use an alternate route to avoid traffic.

Here are more details on Google Home, available later this year, and the new version of the mobile OS, which is being called Android N in its pre-release form.

Google Home Speaker

Google Home is an omni-directional WiFi speaker, which looks to me like a foot-tall Glade air freshener. Talk to it, and Google Assistant will deliver weather reports, stock quotes, and other info gleaned from Web searches and apps linked to your Google account. It will also be able to control automated lights, thermostats, and more.

In addition, Google says, Home will be able to communicate with a Chromecast streaming media device plugged into a TV—essentially giving you voice control for playing movies, as well as YouTube videos and other content. It will work with Google Play Music and some other music-streaming services.

But Google Home's best gadget partner will be a user's Android smartphone. If you ask the speaker what the traffic to a particular address looks like, it's supposed to answer verbally—while also sending the address to your phone so that directions are queued up in Google Maps when you get in the car.

On a smartphone, Google Assistant is designed to be adept at interpreting your requests. For example, if you ask it what movies are playing nearby, it will show you several of the most popular titles near you. But if you follow up with “I want to bring the kids,” it is supposed to automatically modify its suggestions to display family-friendly movies.

Allo Messaging App

Google introduced a new messaging app called Allo with some innovative features. For instance, Whisper Shout allows you to enlarge or shrink the size of an emoji to convey your emotions more precisely. It’s also easy to add photos, then scribble notes on them with your finger.

But here’s where convenience is tinged with creepiness: Allo is also paying attention to your conversations, and suggesting replies. For instance, if you’re messaging with someone about Italian food, Google Assistant will be on standby to suggest a nearby Italian eatery and even make a reservation (via apps like Open Table).

And it’s not just words that Allo will be scrutinizing. It will also be able to analyze images sent to you, like a dog photo or the ingredients of a plate of food. Google says Allo’s smart replies will more closely mimic you as it gets to know your habits. So, if you're a "what a cute puppy!" kind of person, Allo may toss that into the conversation for you.

Allo has several privacy protections built into its Incognito Mode. Use it, and Google says you'll have end-to-end message encryption using Signal, a system that has been praised by security advocates for its effectiveness. That means that only you and the intended recipient will be able to decipher the message; not even Google will have access to it. Incognito Mode's other features include expiration paramaters for chats—messages will disappear, SnapChat-style, after a set period of time.

Duo Video Calling App

Google’s Duo mobile video calling app will work with both Android and iOS. Its signature feature, called Knock Knock, shows you a video stream preview. The idea is to let you decide whether to pick up based not only on who is calling, but what they look like at the moment. Smiles and birthday cake? Pick up. Scowls and a screaming baby? Consult your conscience and then decide. Like Allo in Incognito Mode, Duo is encrypted.

Both Allo and Duo will be available this summer with Android N.

More Android Features

Besides the new Allo Messenger and Duo video calling apps, Android N has some additional tweaks that, while not earth-shattering, should improve the experience of using an Android smartphone.

Split Screen. With Android N, Google addeds refinements already familiar to many Samsung and LG fans, including a split-window view that allows you to work with two apps simultaneously. The default view gives equal space to both apps, but you can move the dividing border with your finger to give one app more screen real estate.

Notification overload. Notifications have always been a key advantage of Android phones, which keep their owners in the loop—even from a locked screen—using a notification bar, color-coded LEDs, and customizable audible alerts. With Android N, the notifications can display more details, and users will be able to respond to notifications from many apps right from the home screen. (That's something you can do on iPhones running iOS 9.) One new option: blocking notifications from specific apps.

Recent apps. When you’re multitasking on a smartphone, it’s easy to end up with several dozen open apps, some of which you haven’t used for weeks. On Android N, the maximum number of apps you’ll be able to leave open will be trimmed to just seven. Android will automatically shut down anything beyond that, which should make it easier to toggle among them. And Android designers have conveniently moved the Close All apps button to the top of the screen.

Android Wear. Android Wear 2.0, due later this year, will enable Android smartwatches to show data from any app, according to Google. And the interface will be more message friendly, even translating notes you scribble with your fingertip on their tiny screens into text. Many smartwatches are focused on fitness, and Google’s new activity recognition feature is supposed sense what type of exercise you’re engaged in—say running or cycling—and then automatically open the proper apps.

Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.