Google Home Mini review: Google's dinky smart speaker is a strong Echo Dot contender

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As sun surely follows moon, the appearance of the Google Home Mini was inevitable, ever since the search giant launched its first smart speaker this time last year. Now, at last, Google has a range of smart speakers to rival Amazon with a smaller, cheaper unit to go alongside the larger Google Home.

It was about time, too. Up until now, if you wanted to dip your toe in the water of smart speakers – but weren’t sure if it was for you – the only way to try it out for less than £100 was the £49 Echo Dot, a temptingly priced gateway drug into the Alexa universe.

READ NEXT: Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod

Google Home Mini: What you need to know

That’s basically what the Google Home Mini is: a cheap way to introduce yourself into the world of Google Assistant-powered smart speakers. Plus, if you already own a Google Home and love it, it’s also a more cost-effective way of spreading the net of assistants around your home. It’s a way of adding extra rooms to your Google speaker network for less.

Despite its smaller size, though, it does pretty much everything its larger sibling can, hooking into your home network and drawing on Google’s server-based AI smarts to answer questions, play music for you and control other third-party devices.

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Google Home Mini review: Price and competition

The new Google Home Mini costs £49 in the UK and $49 in the US and is a competitor for the Amazon Echo Dot, which retails for exactly the same price. Also worth noting is that it’s free with all Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL purchases from the Play Store and Carphone Warehouse until 31 December 2017, or while stocks last. It’s £80 cheaper than the regular Google Home and is available to buy right now in the UK and six other countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the US and Japan.

That’s about it when it comes to direct rivals, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the third-party smart speaker market over the next few months. A number of manufacturers have committed to producing speakers powered by Amazon Alexa in the run-up to Christmas 2017. There are plenty of manufacturers, including Sony and Sonos releasing products this year.

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Google Home Mini review: Design and key features

If there’s one thing in the pebble-shaped Google Home Mini’s favour it’s the design. It’s available in three colours – chalk, charcoal and coral (I was sent the charcoal for this piece) – and the roughly textured fabric that wraps around the top of the speaker looks great. It’s a lot Ikea-home friendly than the rather utilitarian Echo Dot.

Now, you can’t swap colours or buy different base textures like you can with the regular Home, but it makes up for this slight disappointment with touch controls to the right and left, which allow you to control volume, and four pinprick LEDs that light up in the centre to indicate the volume and activity. (This used to be a touchpad, but Google had to get rid of that feature because of a bug that would leave the device constantly eavesdropping on you.)

Around the base, you’ll find a single micro-USB port for powering the Home Mini and a switch to mute the microphone. That’s it for external features; on the inside, there’s a 360-degree speaker and a pair of far-field microphones to help it pick up voices not only nearby but across the room, just like the Amazon Echo and Echo dot.

And, just like the larger Home, the Mini has dual-band WiFi with MIMO and Bluetooth so you can connect your phone to it directly. What it lacks compared with the Echo Dot is a 3.5mm output jack, so you can’t hook it up to your Hi-Fi and use it as a voice-powered streamer. However, once again, there is some form of compensation in the form of Google Cast compatibility, which you can use to send audio both to the speaker itself and from the speaker to any Cast-compatible audio equipment.

Google Home Mini review: Performance

That’s a pity because compared with the full Home and Echo speakers, sound quality isn’t great. It’s fine for listening to talk radio shows, podcasts and the like, but music sounds thin and brittle and lacking in body. It’s hardly surprising that there’s no bass. It’s only wee, after all, but I’d like a bit more richness in the mids.

The sensitivity of the microphones, too, is a little on the disappointing side, certainly compared with the Echo Dot. I found I was repeating myself more frequently than with Amazon’s efforts; and don’t get me started on Google’s key phrase. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate saying “OK Google” all the time, and while “Hey Google” rolls off the tongue a little easier, it’s still a bit of a tongue-twister compared with “Alexa” or  “Siri”.

Which is a shame, because the Home Mini is a perfectly capable digital assistant. Indeed, if you own and run any other Google hardware, and you’ve ever used the speech recognition on your Android smartphone, you’ll know exactly how impressive Google’s technology is. And the fact that it works beautifully with other Google products gives it an edge over Amazon’s Alexa alternatives.

I particularly like the way it’s possible to play movies and control playback to my Chromecast Ultra by voice, to find directions and have them squirted directly to Google Maps on my phone and to even locate my phone when I’ve mislaid it. Better still, the hands-free calling feature that was only available in the US and Canada until recently is finally in the UK, too, as is the broadcast feature, which allows you to use multiple Google Home speakers as an intercom system.

That’s only a small sample of the Google Home Mini’s capabilities and these, like Alexa’s Skills, continue to expand as time wears on. You can, of course, access services such as Google Play Music, control your Chromecast and Chromecast audio, but there’s also support for Spotify and a bunch of smart home gear, including British Gas’ Hive smart thermostat, Nest, Philips Hue and Samsung Smart Things among others.  

Google Home Mini review: Verdict

I do like the Google Home Mini, despite my issues with the key phrase and the slightly weak microphone and speaker quality. It otherwise works really well, replicating the features of the larger Google Home beautifully, and offers an affordable introduction to the world of digital assistants.

If you already own a Google Home, it’s a no-brainer, and if you rely on Chromecast or Chromecast Audio to deliver your media you’ll find the Home Mini a fantastic addition to your home.

On its own, though, is it better than Echo Dot? The answer to that question is ultimately a no and that’s purely down to the ecosystem. Alexa as a system is not only more mature with more capabilities, but it also has wider support amongst third-party speaker manufacturers. That may change over time but, for now, my vote goes to the Echo.

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