Saturday, December 24, 2016

At Home with Google Home

I just became the proud owner of a Google Home. This review will cover the initial experience of setting up and using Google Home.

Why Google Home?

First off, how did I end up with a Google Home, and not an Amazon Echo? The simple answer is, I received it for Christmas as a gift from my family. This year we celebrated Christmas a couple of days early so that our college-aged daughter Susan could join us. I'd overheard a few whispers here and there that "we got Dad something cool," so I knew there was some kind of special gift awaiting me - could it possibly be one of these home assistants? It turns out my family had purchased a Google Home for me. I've now had the Google Home for 36 hours, and in this post, I'll share what the initial experience has been like.

In November 2014, Amazon released Amazon Echo, their home smart speaker. It has been enormously successful for Amazon. Several former colleagues of mine who now work for Amazon have been regularly tweeting about the ever-expanding skills available for Alexa, the Amazon Echo assistant. Much more recently, in November 2016 Google released their competitor, Google Home. If I'd made the purchase myself, I admit I would have been torn: you can tell from reading reviews that both products are compelling with plenty of potential to do even more.

Reviews seem to suggest that both products are very good additions to the home and of course each maker has some advantages over the other. Both can play music or send things to your TV. You can order a zillion products from Amazon using Echo, and there's a vast network of partners providing support for just about every kind of smart home device there is. From Home you get amazing search and voice recognition plus the ability to ask general knowledge questions. The Home also lets you direct video from Netflix and other sources to your TV via Chromecast and control some home devices, including the Nest thermostat.

I've been aware of Amazon Echo and Google Home for the last year but hadn't had the opportunity to play with either before now. To be honest, I wasn't too keen to jump into anything voice-driven because I haven't had very good experiences with voice recognition in the past--this is my own fault, as I tend to talk fast or speak too low. But I know the technology has been getting better and better. From reading reviews, both Amazon Echo and Google Home are good useful products. Well, I was now the owner of Google Home so it was time to find out what all the excitement was about.


Home comes nicely packaged in an attractive white box which is very reminiscent of the experience you get with Apple products. Inside is the Google Home unit, a wall adapter, and some minimalist start-up instructions.

Home resembles an air freshener. It's white with an angled round top. The bottom colored band (gray on mine) covers the speaker. You can buy bands in other colors if you want to match your home decor. 

Google Home on my fireplace mantle

The Get Started card has just 3 steps: plug the power cable into the home, plug the other end in to a wall socket, and download the Google Home app on your phone.

The phone app detects your Home device and performs a quick test which causes your Home to make a sound--confirming you are connected to the right device.

You also configure access to your wireless network for the Home, choose a default music service, and tell it what address it's located at.


There are more things you can configure to get the most out of the device--see other sections below--but at this point you can already start using Home for music and search queries. From here on, you use the phone app to do further setup on Google Home such adding home devices and service accounts (see later below).

Basic Usage and Interaction

To get Google Home's attention you say a wake-up phrase of "OK Google" or "Hey Google," followed by your command or question.  I find "Hey Google" to be easiest to say.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't sure that *I* would get much out of a voice-driven product as I tend to speak too rapidly and softly. And how well would it do with a whole family of people talking at it? This turns out not to be a worry with Google Home: from the moment we plugged it in, everyone in our family has had no problems at all being understood. The voice recognition is really good, and it can pick up voice from quite far away.

The round top appears to be featureless white, but as you interact with Home you'll find it can do a variety of fun things with lights. As soon as Home recognizes the wake-up phrase, four lights appear to show it is active.
Google Home when active

The top of Home also responds to touch. You can tap the top to pause (or resume) playing music or video, or to interrupt a response. You can dial your finger around the top in a clockwise motion to increase volume or in the other direction to decrease volume. Of course, you can also do all these things by speaking to it.

From the reference card included in the box, here are some examples of commands you can give Home (in each case, preceded by the wake-up phrase):

"What does circumlocution mean?"
"What's the latest news from NPR?"
"Who won the Giants game?"
"How is the S&P 500 doing?"

Google Home also has great contextual memory. Once you are discussing something, it knows what "it", "he", or "she" means. For example:

"Who is president of the united states?"
"When was he born?"
"What is his favorite food?"

Since the phone app configuration includes telling the Home the address where it is located, you can ask it lots of locale-based questions:

"What's the temperature outside?"
"Where's the nearest supermarket?"
"What time is 'Passengers' playing?"

And there are also some things it can't do--yet:

"Give me directions to Panda Express" responds with an apology that Home can't give directions yet. This is kind of odd, since Google has fantastic direction-giving ability when you use it from a computer or phone. This is clearly coming, though. I have to remind myself that this product was only released last month.

Controlling the Thermostat
Home is clearly behind Amazon when it comes to partnerships that allow you to control a vast array of home devices, but they do have support right now for Nest thermostats, Philips Hue lights, Samsung Smart Things, plus the IFTTT online service.

No doubt this list will expand over time. In the meantime, I do have a Nest thermostat in my home so I configured that. In the Google Home app, I added the Nest device and provided my account information, and that was that.

Now I can give commands and queries like these:

"What's the inside temperature?"
"What's the thermostat set to?"
"Set the heat to 72 degrees"
"Make it warmer"
"Make it cooler"

I can see the day when I have more smart home devices and control them via Google Home, such as lighting and alarms.


One of the most useful aspects of Home is playing music: that's where having this device in the home with a good speaker (as opposed to using your phone) really shines. The Home's speaker is pretty good and music sounds great coming from it.

In configuring Home with the phone app, I selected Google Play Music as my default music service, which automatically makes my Google Music library available to Home (alternatively, I could have selected YouTube Red, Spotify or Pandora). Now I can play songs from my library like this:

"Play my Christmas playlist"
"Skip this song"

Oddly, though, it doesn't seem I can play an individual song or album by name: "Play song" doesn't work. After some research, it appears you currently can only play playlists, not individual songs or albums from your Google Music Library. That's a bit of a downer, and hopefully will be addressed soon. I believe this may just be an issue with Google Play Music and not the other music services.

On the other hand, we've had great success just asking Home to play things that we don't even own in our music library. My wife has been getting hours of Christmas atmosphere with requests like these:

"Play some Christmas music"
"Play some instrumental Christmas music"

It's not really clear to me yet where this music is coming from--since I haven't paid for it. It makes me wonder if there's some kind of premium music trial going on that will eventually need to be paid for.

But wait, there's more. Radio is also available through Google Home, via the TuneIn service:

"Play KOST FM"


I have a Chromecast device connected to my TV, and that is also something Google Home understands. After using the phone app to tell Home our Netflix account, I can now give commands like the following:

"Play Zootopia from Netflix on TV"
"Fast forward 10 minutes"
"Play 'What Does the Fox Say' from YouTube on TV"

I only have one TV and one Chromecast, in the same room as Google Home--but if I had a more elaborate setup I could tell Home where to play things:

"Play Zootopia from Netflix in Living Room"

Although video worked right away on my Chromecast, audio did not. It took me about a day of trial and error to get audio working (I had go to my LG TV Settings and turn speakers on instead of letting it default to integration with my home theater). This is an extra step I'd prefer to avoid but its not a bad reflection on the Google Home itself. When I next upgrade my TV and home theater, I'll be paying attention to Consumer Electronics Control (CEC). As I understand it, with the right set up playing video from Home can automatically turn on the TV and switch input to Chromecast.


Home can also play photos (from my Google Photos collection) on my TV via Chromecast. You can reference photos by date, by special occasion, or even by subject. I'm not sure how Google manages to find photos by subject, but it does. If (for example) I say "Play car photos on TV", it finds all my photos that contain an automobile. There's some kind of impressive analytics going on with Google Photos.

"Play photos from Christmas on TV"
"Play photos from December 22 on TV"
"Play car photos on TV"
"Play dog photos on TV"


The Home also has plenty of fun built into it, including some personality in the Google Assistant that powers Home. My son has been building up his comedic material by constantly asking Home "Tell me a joke" and getting a different joke each time.

Home can also play games. For example,

"Play mad libs"
"Play lucky trivia"
"Play crystal ball"
"Entertain me"

Google Home has the concept of applications, known as conversation actions. When you're interacting with an action such as Lucky Trivia (which is multi-player by the way), you're executing a conversation action. You don't have to say "OK Google" before each response, which is nice.

How Useful Is it?

I admit it, I expected Google Home to be an interesting geek toy but didn't really expect it to become an integral part of my home--but I was wrong. After just a few days, it's regularly used by my entire family.

Everything the Home does can also be done with my phone, so how useful is it, really? Well, very! Think about the number of times you pick up your phone or pull it out of a pocket--it's a lot. Just being able to call out voice commands is extremely convenient. When I first installed the unit, I wondered if it would be necessary to be right in front of it in order for it to recognize speech, but it turns out it does really well even when we call out commands from another room.

I also wondered how strict the Home would be about the format of commands and queries: would we have to memorize exact patterns of words in order for it to understand us? Many voice-driven devices in the past have ended up "training the user" to speak the way the device can understand. Fortunately, that isn't necessary here. The Home has excellent natural language speech recognition and is very tolerant of variations in phrasing. All of my family members have been able to interact with it right from the start.

One limitation of the Home is that it is linked to a single account--in our case, my music library, my Netflix account, my calendar, etc. There's no support as yet for switching profiles for different users. I presume this will come in time.

One other limitation that I don't expect to get resolved is there's no support for competing services like Apple iTunes. That's a shame, because the rest of my family is on Apple devices. I think that's a shortcoming of any home assistant, whether from Google, Amazon, or (coming soon) Apple: you won't necessarily be able to access every service you want to.

In my next blog post on Google Home, I'll talk about how developers can teach Google Home new actions.

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