Ever since Amazon’s Alexa came to the market, I’ve been a little hesitant about buying a smart speaker. The most obvious reason for being cautious is privacy. Do we really need Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft turning our thirst for information into advertising revenue? Well, if you have an email or a social media account, all of these tech companies have that information anyway. And the information they don’t have, they are buying it from other companies because you have, knowingly or unknowingly, given permission to sell it. So I’ll check that one off the list of concerns.
It’s one thing to trust a major, international tech company with your private data, a company that has hundreds of millions of users (if not billions) and a strong financial incentive to protect such data with state-of-the-art security and encryption technology. But what about concerns of a nefarious hacker listening in on your personal conversations? I’d say that if you already own a mobile phone with a microphone, which is just about every smartphone ever made, you’re at the same level of risk. So we’ll check that one of the list too.
Then there’s the final question: Is a smart speaker actually useful? I hear people say great things about the assistants baked into smart speakers, but I’ve also heard the same about mobile phone assistants. Frankly, I don’t really use Google Assistant that much on my phone. Sure, it comes in handy when I need to send a hands-free text in the car (it’s a cumbersome process, but it works). I also use Google Assistant for directions. But for most things, I just use the Google search bar on my phone’s home screen.
My wife purchased a Google Home speaker for our family for Christmas. She paid about half of the normal cost, and figured if we didn’t like it we could recoup the money by selling it. This made it easier to take the plunge. Although we’re still learning how we can use Google Home, here’s my review of it after a month of use.
Google Home is a home-assistant smart speaker designed to answer questions, help remind you of your schedule, and perform home automation routines. It can also be used with Chromecast to stream multimedia to TVs, and actually makes for a pretty decent whole-home audio solution. Google Home can also play games like trivia and 20 Questions. Need an Uber? Just ask Google Home. Need to order an item online? Google Home can do your shopping too. Google Home has worked well in my testing to control smart home devices such as Nest, Harmony, Lutron, and SmartThings. Just tell Google Home to "dim the lights in the living room to 10%" and it will. Google Home works especially well with Harmony and shortcuts. I can tell Google Home to "change the channel to ESPN" and it does the rest. Of course, Google Home can also tell you jokes, and asking it goofy questions in hopes of getting a humorous answer can be entertaining as well. Whether you're looking for entertainment, home control, or companionship, Google Home can help.
What Can It Do?
Google Home retails for $129, so, for that kind of money, it needs to have some kind of useful functionality. I don’t live in a congested city where I need traffic reports or train schedules before heading out to work. I don’t particularly need a weather report to start my day. However, I found out there are a few features that make Google Home a must-have for me and my family.
Home Control. This one kind of caught me off guard. Let me explain. We use Lutron Caséta light switches for lighting automation. This gives us physical and remote control of our lights. I mean, how much easier would it be to tell Google Home to turn off the lights than pressing a button in the Lutron app on my phone? Well, it turns out it really does simplify the process quite a bit. For one, I don’t have to get up and look for my phone (half the time I just use the switch on the wall after I find my phone since I’m already up).
Another reason this caught me off guard is because I’ve had Google Assistant on my phone for quite some time. I messed around with it a little bit, but never really used it for home control that much. One reason is, as I just explained, I tend to leave my phone laying around the house. A smart speaker sits in one place all the time. So it’s always there and always available.
Google Home is pretty good at controlling your home automation devices. At this time, you can’t control things that would give someone access to your home, like smart locks, garage door openers, or alarm systems. But as far as turning on lights and fans, Google Home is great.
As a bonus, Google recently added support to update your existing Lutron, SmartThings, and other home control devices without having to unlink and then relink them. Simply say “Hey Google, sync my devices.” No more constantly re-adding devices then having to assign them to rooms again. This alleviates a lot of work for end users who love to tinker with their home automation system.
Here’s a demonstration of lighting control using Google Home .
Shopping List. One of the more useful features of Google Home is letting it help with the little things in life. This includes simplifying the shopping process.
The old way it worked: My wife does the shopping. Once a week, she would ask me what I needed (at a time that was convenient for her, not me). So I would have to drop what I was doing and run around to see if I needed anything. Sometimes I would miss something or forget to tell her that I needed something.
The new way it works: When I know I need something, I tell Google Home or Google Assistant to put it on the shopping list. Then my wife gets it when she goes shopping using our shared shopping list in the Google Home app on her phone. We are forgetting fewer items and making less trips to the store.
Before you use a shared shopping list, first you need to understand how it works. Google Home supports multiple accounts. It uses voice recognition to associate you with your account. Each account has its own default shopping list. You can create more shopping lists if you want. If you have more than one shopping list, you’ll need to choose one to be your primary. The primary list is the one Google Home will add your items to by default.
If you want to use a shopping list with another person, you have to share that list. The other person needs to make that list their primary too. Google Home will only add items to the primary list for each account!
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
TV Control. If you use a Logitech Harmony hub to control your entertainment devices, Google Home will give you the ability to voice control your activities. You can even have it adjust the volume and change the channels for you! The default Harmony commands are cumbersome to use, for example, “Hey Google, ask Harmony to turn on the TV”. However, you can quickly set up shortcuts that allow you to use natural speech! Using shortcuts, you could shorten this phrase to “Hey Google, turn on the TV”.
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
Answer general questions. According to others with experience using both Google Home and Amazon Alexa, Alexa is slightly ahead of Google in terms of home control. But they also say that Google Home blows Alexa away as far as being able to answer your questions. I don’t use Alexa, but Google Home easily answers 75% of the questions my family throws at it. Google is our go-to referee to settle movie and actor/actress arguments my wife and I frequently have on movie nights.
Play games. We’ve worked Google trivia into our game nights. It’s hilarious to hear the kids interact with Google Home, and Google adds some humor to ensure everyone has a good time.
Whole-home audio. This one is a work in progress. So far, I just have one Chromecast Audio set up. It’s plugged into a Denon AVR-1912 receiver using the V. Aux input because we wanted to be able to play music on the in-ceiling speakers. To make this work, I needed to purchase a 3.5mm female mini-jack to RCA male adapter cable. So, we say “Hey Google, play music on Chromecast” to start streaming music from the speaker to the Chromecast. And then use a Harmony shortcut to change the input on the receiver- “Hey Google, play music on speakers.”
I had a small issue after adding my home control devices. As previously mentioned, I use Lutron Caséta. I also use Samsung SmartThings, with my Caséta switches integrated. So, when I added both Lutron and SmartThings to Google Home, I ended up with duplicate entries. It annoyed me that when I told Google Home to turn off my living room lights, it would tell me that it was turning off two devices. More importantly, it caused some lights not to function correctly. It’s an easy fix, just follow the slideshow below:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
After you add another account, you might need to retrain the voice model for the first user (I had to do this). It’s a little frustrating, because my wife and I had to repeat this step two or three times before each of our voice was accepted without overwriting the other one. The fix is easy though…simply retrain the voice model. Follow the slideshow:
Slideshow- Tap or click to view
All in all, Google Home has done well understanding our commands, especially as far as home control goes. It doesn’t feel gimmicky, but it does lack certain features like being able to complete a sequence of events. For instance, I want to be able to say “Hey Google, put on some music” and have it cast music to Chromecast AND change the inputs on my receiver. As a matter of fact, Google is planning this feature. Much like SmartThings, they call it routines.
With that said, companies in the smart home space make promises and then take their sweet time implementing those changes (if they ever come at all). Although this would be awesome, I can’t guarantee that Google Home will ever get this feature. However, it’s already pretty good at what it does.
- Read more about Logitech Harmony
- Read more about SmartThings
- Read more about whether or not a smart home is right for you
- Read more about Plex Media Server