Google Home review UK: The Amazon Echo challenger has all the answers

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Google Home is the firm’s feature-packed digital butler. It will help with your organisational missteps, play soothing tunes, boost your pub quiz chances and dim your lights with the power of your voice. But you want to know the best thing? Google Home isn’t just a gimmick. Google Home is the future.

I was never sold on Amazon’s Echo. The idea of having some strange circular tower in my home that listened in on my every conversation didn’t interest me. It doesn’t help that it’s so insistent on promoting Amazon’s own shopping services, either. Google Home, thankfully, has no such motive.

The concept of the digital assistant is nothing new to Google, of course. Google Assistant and, before it, Google Now have been at our beck and call for a few years now. Google’s gone all sci-fi thriller on us in 2017, though, transferring its AI consciousness into physical form. This is Google Home.

Google Home review: Price and competition

Google Home has some stiff competition in Amazon’s Echo, which had a five-month head start on it, certainly in UK homes. If you’ve already invested in Echo, Google Home might be a hard sell. The Home costs £129, whereas the new and improved Amazon Echo is currently going for £90.

Amazon’s digital assistant does come in even more distinct flavours, too – there's the cheaper, dinkier Echo Dot, the smart-home-focussed Echo Plus, the Echo Spot and the Echo Show. Likewise, Google offers another Home alternative, in the form of the Google Home Mini.

Google Home review: Design

Of the two main systems, I prefer the look of Google Home. It looks a bit like one of those motion-activated air fresheners and, while it won’t go “poof!” when you walk by, it does blend right in. At least, far better than Amazon’s stark black cylinder, and it’s significantly more compact, too. You can even swap out the base with a colour of your choice, for it to blend in (or stand out) even more.

As far as physical buttons go, there’s just the one: a large microphone mute button on the back, should you be a little privacy-conscious and don’t want Home listening in on you 24/7. There’s also a capacitive touch panel on the top, which you can use to adjust the volume – with the speaker’s four LED indicator lights changing to a radial volume indicator as you do so – or play/pause your music with a tap. A long press and Home will start listening, saving you from having to bark “OK Google” prior to every request.

Google Home review: Features

If you’re already invested in the Google platform, you’ll fit right in with Home. It syncs directly to your Google account and can help manage pretty much any aspect of it, should you let it.

Ask it any question and Home will answer. Ask: “Tell me about my day” and it will tell you the weather, inform you of any appointments and reminders you have coming up and will give you a quick rundown of the latest news via your chosen news source. Home is also a great resource for inquisitive minds, too. How far away is the moon? 384,400km from Earth if you were curious. Google knows everything.

It’s not just a gimmicky trinket, either. Where Google Home excels is in its interaction with the other tech in your home. Its Chromecast pairing is wonderfully slick, able to cast Netflix shows straight to your TV with minimal effort. Want to skip forward 30 minutes to get to the best scene? You can do that. It works with all the usual apps, too, including BBC iPlayer, Now TV, Netflix and Spotify.

Home can connect to many IoT-enabled smart devices in your home, too, and you’ll be dimming your lights with the power of your voice and controlling your heating with Nest in no time flat. There’s a long list of third-party devices you can connect to, from Samsung SmartThings to Philips Hue and, excitingly, anything that supports IFTTT as well.

Now, it could be my thick Lincolnshire accent, but I found Home wasn’t so good at picking up a few of my commands. I was in the mood for Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 album on Spotify the other night, but Home insisted on playing Babybertè Live 2007 instead, whatever that is. It called me “Nay-thon”, too.

Another thing? Parts of the YouTube casting functionality don’t yet work in the UK. Ask Google Home to play your YouTube “watch later” playlist, and it tells you it’s locked behind the paid-for YouTube Red service, something that isn’t available in the UK.

Buy Google Home from Currys PC World

One disadvantage Google Home has in comparison to Echo is that there aren’t yet quite as wide a choice of third-party integrations available. That should change over time, however, with developers able to produce their own integrations via Conversation Actions and the Conversation API.

Google Home review: Sound quality

When you link your Spotify account or Google Play Music collection, you can bark song requests at Home, but when it comes to audio quality this isn’t much of a replacement for your £300 KEF Muo or £500 Zemi Aria.

That’s not to say the sound is poor – far from it, in fact – but I found it just a smidge too bass-heavy for my tastes. There’s not quite enough definition to pick up some of those subtle organ nuances in Hans Zimmer’s excellent Interstellar soundtrack, and mid-bass notes had a tendency to overwhelm rather than underpin.

Voices, for the most part, sounded crisp and clear, however, and audio wasn’t quite so tinny at increased volumes. It goes plenty loud enough, too, and the sound it produces is still reasonably rich and detailed. Critically, it’s a better speaker than the Amazon Echo and it’s absolutely perfect for listening to podcasts, the radio and background music in the kitchen.

Google Home review: Privacy

As with any always-listening device in your home, you might be concerned about the potential for eavesdropping. But Google has made it clear that Home only listens for things you actually give it permission to listen out for, and points out that it’s only active once you shout “OK Google” at it.

Home can learn all sorts of details about you; your calendar, emails and family schedule, but only if you let it. In fact, at setup you don’t have to grant any permissions at all.

And if you want to mute the mic, just press the button on the back. Regardless, if you’re that concerned about Google knowing details about you, why pick up Home in the first place?

Google Home review: Verdict

If you haven’t already splashed out on an Echo, Google Home is an essential purchase. Aside from a handful of teething problems, it’s a remarkable little home helper, and one I can’t recommend highly enough. Amazon’s Echo just isn’t as all-encompassing as Home and, as such, no other personal assistant comes close.

One of the best things about Home is that its main purpose isn’t in driving ecommerce or purchasing goods, as with Echo. Google’s architecture is so much more fleshed out than Amazon’s, and it’s great to take full advantage of this.

Buy Google Home from Currys PC World

Google Home has completely sold me on the idea of having a little digital butler in my home. I was initially put off by Echo – its underlying purpose never really resonated with me – but I can now see a future where these digital helpers become a fundamental part of the home. Google Home has shown me the way.

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