Google Home – review

Is it worth buying the tech giant's voice-controlled hands-free smart speaker system?

Google Home

What is it?

Google Home is a speaker that you can talk to. You can ask it questions and give it commands – and hopefully it will give you an answer or do the thing you want.

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It’s the tech giant’s foray into smart speakers and at the centre of the experience is Google Assistant, your very own invisible digital PA.

What does it look like?

A small vase or perhaps a high end air freshener. You can buy different grills to customise the colours to suit the décor of your house. It’s quite attractive.

So what can it do?

Quite a lot, actually.

Ask it a question and it’ll have a good stab at giving you a reply.

What’s the weather going to be like today? How old is Simon Cowell? How long will it take me to drive to Skegness? Where is the nearest off licence? What time is it open until? Google Home isn’t going to be phased by any of that.

Set a timer for my boiled egg. Easy. Set an alarm to pick up the kids. No worries.

But it can do better, much better.

How about a song? Well, depending on your subscriptions Google Home can play pretty much anything you like whenever you ask for it.

The sound is actually pretty good for its size, with perfectly good punch and separation for a smallish unit, and certainly loud enough to fill a decent sized room with your favourite Spotify playlist. It’s not going to replace your serious hi-fi set-up – but as its main music sources are heavily compressed streaming services, its size doesn’t matter as much as you might think.

Want to tune a radio station – no problem: “Hey, Google, play Radio 2…” you’re at home with Chris Evans.

And if your TV has Chromecast (which mine does) it can do something really neat – switch your telly on and start playing the show you ask for on Netflix, or the clip you’re looking for on YouTube.

Indeed, the future has truly arrived – I said “Hey, Google… play Better Call Saul,” and not only did my TV switch on, it began playing the show at the point where I’d stopped watching it. “Hey, Google, pause.” And it worked. “Hey, Google, rewind…” Again, it did what I wanted.

I even managed to find my wedding video on YouTube without lifting a finger.

Sadly it can’t turn my telly off again, but it’s voice activated video control is definitely an impressive feature.

And if you have other parts of your home “connected” (like your Nest heating system, or Philips Hue lights etc.) Google Home is able to work with them to control various features. On paper you should be able to ask the machine to turn up your heating and switch off the lights, but in practice the more complicated the commands get, the harder this device (and others of a similar nature, like its big rival Amazon Echo) struggle to do what you want.

So what are the issues to look out for?

The reality is, voice control is very much an evolving area of tech and an incredibly difficult one to get right when you account for variations in language, accent and intonation.

This smart speaker is far from perfect in this regard and at times, can be very frustrating.

Google Home is certainly not alone, but the device often struggles to understand exactly what it is you are asking for, and therefore can sometimes deliver undesirable (and bewildering) results.

“Play the Frozen soundtrack” can sometimes result in a random piece of music interrupting your morning coffee or a confused Google Assistant telling you in a very friendly female voice that it’s not available.

Most of the time Google understands you, but when it doesn’t (say, because you are asking for music by a wordy and obscure mid 90s indie band like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – what, me?) you can quite quickly end up in an argument with the speaker as it tries to play things you don’t want. You have to keep saying “Hey, Google, STOP!” and then repeating yourself more slowly and loudly with more precise pronunciation like a Carry On character speaking to a non-native English speaker on holiday.

It’s not much fun shouting at a small box in the corner of the room, especially as it takes a little while to pluck up the courage to start talking to it in the first place (particularly when you have guests).

However, it is clear that Google are putting a lot of time and effort into getting Google Assistant right and so over time, I’m sure there will be improvements as the technology matures and more “connected home” partners come on board.

So what’s the verdict?

Voice control isn’t for everyone – but if you are considering taking a leap into this area of smart home technology, Google Home is definitely worth considering.

It is nice looking and customisable to suit your house, intuitive and easy to use and on the whole delivers what you ask for. Its Google Assistant seems to understand context and subsidiary questions well and it has some real marquee features around controlling your TV (using Chromecast) and its ability to tap into the Google-owned YouTube network of content.

Once you get used to having it, you’ll be surprised at how much you begin using this device in your everyday life for simple tasks, and that’s the sign of a useful gadget.

“Hey, Google… what’s next?”

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Google Home is priced from £99, available at John Lewis