Something is happening in your home. We’re already totally lost without the internet inside the house, and we fully expect the same connectivity out of the home too. Trouble is, we’re all turning into phone zombies. We’re staring down at our screens and there’s lots of dangerous driving going on as we attempt to use mobile phones at the wheel.
However, there’s a new way of interacting with this technology, and it’s by voice.
Although it might prove awkward for some, there’s an increasing amount of people – like myself – finding that talking to your phone is quite a freeing experience. I tend to find that it fits my thought process a bit better. As an example I can be driving home and something will pop into my head that needs doing the next day. I know that if I don’t make a note of it there and then, it’ll fall out of my head. I can’t fiddle with the phone because, well, I’m driving, so instead I just say “OK Google” and then say, “Remind me to call the bank at 8 tonight”. Boom, it’ll setup a reminder, it’ll ask me if I’d like to save it and then it’ll ping up a reminder at 8 o’clock that evening.
Here then, we have the home version, and it’s called “Google Home” too. It’s £129 from Maplin and is an intelligent hands-free smart speaker which is powered by the Google Assistant. After a very brief and simple setup you can play music, handle daily tasks, control compatible devices and get answers from Google in a similar way to your phone. Although it’ll play tunes from Google Play Music, it’ll also hook into Spotify too.
Out of the box there’s a definite familiarity to it. It has a whiff of Ikea styling to it and there’s a touch-sensitive top where you can quickly adjust the volume. It measures in at 96.4mm x 142.8mm and is pretty weighty at 477g, but believe me, it’s worth it. The speaker is properly good. More on that in a moment.
Don’t worry about this looking out of place either, as you can swap out the bases (above) from £18. There’s a range of colours and styles available from Google and it’s when you pull the unit out of the base that you notice the chunky 2″ driver and dual 2″ passive radiators.
There’s two microphones which will detect your voice from quite some distance away even when music is playing. They, and the Google technology behind them, even seem to understand my weird accent.
That said, you will quickly tire of saying, “OK Google, turn the volume down” or “OK Google, turn the volume down a bit more”. So instead you can use that touch-sensitive panel to change the volume to the exact setting you’re looking for. Not only that, but you can also play and pause your music or activate the listening option. Tap once to play or pause, circle your finger for volume control and long press to start a request.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself ever-so-slightly. To be honest that’s OK though, because I’d not really thought about the install process at all. It’s ridiculously simple, and even opening the box is a little bit joyful, if I’m perfectly honest.
You plug it into the mains and download the “Google Home” app on your iPhone or Android device. It’ll guide you through the rest of the way, finding your Google Home, passing your home WiFi credentials through and finding any other devices on your WiFi. It found my Chromecast too, and you can give that a name like “Living Room TV” or something. Not only that, but I was able to add in my Google Nest home thermostat, which means that I could just say “Turn the heating up to 22 degrees” and it’ll talk to the Nest to action that.
You can also plug in a lot of services and apps. Philips Hue lighting, Wemo, TuneIn and much more are available. I started off by asking it to play music from a certain artist on Spotify. You’ll need to go through a tiny amount of pain to begin with, just basically approving your Spotify and other online accounts with the Google Home device. Once you’ve done that you’re all set.
You just say, “OK Google, play some Ed Sheeran”, and off it goes. The music will – unless you’ve specified a destination – play on the Google Home speaker itself. It is, and I’m being totally honest here, a very good quality speaker. There’s some hefty bass tones and crystal-clear top notes. It’s loud but without any vibration or distortion. Properly good this.
It’ll connect through to your WiFi using either 2.4GHz or 5GHz WiFi and can sync music across speakers that have Chromecast built in. This is really good if you want to have that whole-house music experience or want to do your daily chores and move around the place without headphones.
When you come home, Google Home will let you walk into your home and achieve so much while you’ve got your hands full. No need to put down the shopping. No need to ignore your family while you stare down at a screen. No. Imagine it.. you’ve walked in and you got everything from the shops but forgot the milk…
“OK Google, remind me to get milk tomorrow at 8AM”
“OK Google, play Radio 1 on TuneIn”
“OK Google, volume level 5”
“OK Google, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”
It goes from there, but you can see how much you can achieve without having to faff with your phone, and it’ll integrate with your phone too – so if you’re away from Google Home it’ll still remind you. There’s also a slightly conversational element to Google Home, and when (for example) setting reminders you’ll find that you don’t need to say, “OK Google” all the time. The Google Home unit will ask you small questions during the process and you can simply reply – no need for the keyword all the time.
My only bugbear with this is that, despite this, I still have to say, “OK Google” a lot which isn’t the most comfortable thing to say repeatedly. It also tended to activate the phone across the room when it was on charge, which perhaps was mainly a problem with my phone being set to have the screen on when it’s charging.
The speaker itself is solid, and the sound quality is robust and throaty. It’s more the capable of playing music and filling a room. Filling a house actually. It’s loud, but you can’t output the music to Bluetooth speakers you may have elsewhere in the house. Instead you’ll need to send audio to a Chromecast audio-connected speaker. The local app on your phone will help you set that up, but then you just tell Google to play it on your Chromecast Audio.
What I perhaps like the most is the potential this has, because the more devices that connect in and the cleverer it becomes, the better. At the moment you can still, sometimes, trip up and think that you’re having a nice conversation in places. This happens especially when you’re setting reminders (which I tend to do a lot) and I’ll end up saying, “please” to it because it’s almost human. I also don’t find the need to speak in my strange “generic English” either. I can speak quite freely in my normal way and it understands well.
You can ask it to launch YouTube on your Chromecast or dictate websites. There’s a little helper card in the box to guide you, but after a very short while you’ll be trying new things with a greater confidence.
I liked the fact that you could see what was going on thanks to the smooth lighting on the top and you could mute the microphone so that the mighty Google wasn’t listening (you can always check up on what Google knows about you on myactivity.google.com).
Until very recently this was just for you though, just your account. Me and my wife rather obviously have different accounts, but you could only hook Google Home into one or the other, which was a tad annoying when my wife was trying to set a reminder. It would pop up on my phone and tablet instead. Doah.
But wait. A new update, which appeared as I was writing this review, will now recognise voices and will associate those voices with different accounts. Again, it’s the Google Home app that guides you through this process and it’s very easy to setup. In fact, the only minor pain point about all of this is the fact that you will need to spend a minute or two finding your other connected devices and syncing accounts. That’s all done out of the box though, and once it’s done, it’s done.
Overall, with the new multi-account feature becoming available, the sensitivity of the microphones, the cleverness of the Google brain and the accuracy of the voice recognition, this is a device which can only get better and better.
More functionality is being added regularly and the speaker setup will deliver tunes in different directions around your room. Without fully realising it, it’ll integrate its way into your life and help you be more efficient at competing those little tasks that would normally take even more screen time. It’s fun to use too.
Want one? You want one. You do. Get one for £129 from Maplin