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Google Home: The Up-and-Coming Home Assistant

It’s likely that the first name that comes to mind when you think of voice-activated home assistants isn’t Google, or even market leader Amazon Echo. The name you probably think of is Alexa, the “personality” of the Echo who’s been burned into public consciousness by a seemingly never-ending ad campaign.

Alexa is worthy of that recognition; the Amazon Echo remains the best (and best-selling) home assistant currently available. But Google Home is coming on fast, and with the many competitive and technological advantages that the search giant holds, it’s easy to visualize a neck-and-neck battle in the near future.

Google Home

What Google Home Can Do

There are two primary strengths of Google Home as it currently exists. First, it uses the Google Assistant (first available on Pixel phones) to access the company’s enormous search resources to answer informational questions, and integrates with your Google Calendar, Maps and Keep accounts to answer personal questions about your schedule, flight reservations or the best route to take to a destination. There are drawbacks though; you can’t yet have the Assistant add information to your accounts (except for shopping lists), nor does it integrate with other Google services like Gmail. Those functionalities are likely on the way.

Google Home’s second big strength is its ability to work with more home theater and entertainment devices than the competition. It integrates with Google Cast speakers and Chromecast streaming audio, and allows you to control your HDTV if it uses a Chromecast streaming system; more audio/video control alternatives are said to be coming in the near future. Sony has just joined the party, adding Home compatibility to its Android 4K HDR TVs and speakers with built-in Chromecast.

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A related advantage to Google Home is that you can wirelessly group devices in multiple rooms, so you can (for example) play the same music throughout the house. The audio quality isn’t a substitute for a high-end Bluetooth speaker, but it’s still quite good.

One other category in which Google Home is very good and getting better is smart home control. It doesn’t yet interface with the same number of devices as the Echo, which has been on the market far longer. But it’s already compatible with Switchmate and Belkin light and electric switches and plugs (so you can turn on or off plugged-in devices, or dim the lights), Nest and Ecobee learning thermostats and Philips/Hue lighting products. It also responds better to natural, intuitive voice commands than the Echo, and allows you to create “If This Then That” (IFTTT) commands so you can just say something like “Okay, Google, I’m going out” and Home will shut off the appropriate devices.

It’s true that “Okay Google” isn’t as catchy a way to address a home assistant as “Alexa.” There’s always a price to pay, though, and with Google Home part of the price is a lack of familiarity.

homeAll images credits: https://madeby.google.com/home/

Google Home or Amazon Echo?

Today, Echo might be the better choice because of Alexa’s greater interaction capability, which lets you do things like make multiple lists and set calendar reminders. It’s also further along the learning curve in terms of the number of smart home devices it can work with. The rapid expansion of Google Home and the greater institutional advantages of Google, however, would argue that Home is the best choice if you’re making an investment with “tomorrow” in mind.

The price difference between the two (Google Home is about $50 less expensive than the $180 Echo) might also argue in favor of the Home system, especially if you’re new to the idea of home assistants and not sure whether you really want a device in your home that might be smarter than you – and can talk back.

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