Though there are multiple options for voice-activated smart assistants available in the US, the launch of Google Home marks the first official entry of this exciting new category into Australia.
This cute little $199 speaker essentially acts as a hub for all things Google in your house, performing tasks you might already do on your phone or computer — quick web searches, streaming music and TV shows, interacting with smart home gadgets — but it does it all with a quick spoken request from you.
Given how hit-and-miss voice services are in general, I was immediately impressed with how naturally you can interact with the Home. It can hear you whispering from across the room, can learn to differentiate different members of the household, and can parse natural-language requests regardless of your syntax, so you don’t have to remember many exact phrases to get to what you want.
Just say “OK Google” or “Hey Google” to make it listen — you can tell by the colourful lights that appear on its surface — and then make your request. The Google Assistant replies in a soft, female, clearly Australian voice, answering your questions or confirming the operations it’s carrying out on your connected devices.
Let the music play
The first query the app suggested I try after setup was “OK Google, play some music”. Home, of course, had no problem carrying out the simple request, immediately pumping out some 80s rock I didn’t recognise.
While I swiped through the Home app on my phone trying to see if it displayed the song details anywhere, my wife said “OK Google, what is this?” Turns out it was Aerosmith. Getting used to interacting with technology using your voice, apparently, comes more naturally to some than others.
“OK Google, play some Vengaboys”, was her next request. Dutifully Home swapped out Aerosmith for We Like to Party to the delight of my infant son who, like all babies, is a sucker for eurodance. “OK Google, turn it up”. It’s clear this is going to be the primary function of the Google Home in my house.
As a music player Home is surprisingly competent, one the nicest sounding speakers of its size I’ve used, even at full volume. You can use it just like a Chromecast Audio, sending directions from any compatible app to play on the speaker, and an update rolling out soon will let you connect via Bluetooth if the app you’re using doesn’t cast.
Most convenient though is just asking for what you want to hear. You can be as broad or as specific as you like, asking for genres, moods, artists, albums or songs. If you want a specific version, just add more details.
You’ll need Spotify Premium or a YouTube Red / Google Play Music subscription, and personally I think it works better with the latter. Once you’ve trained Home to recognise the voice of each person in your household, it will use their Play Music library to tailor choices to them, so my wife and I will get very different responses to “play something heavy”.
It will also easily pull music you’ve personally uploaded to your Play library, so I can listen to Tool even though the band isn’t officially available through the service. You get six months of YouTube Red free when you buy a Google Home.
You can ask for the radio too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Just say “play Triple J”, and Home will grab the stream from TuneIn. If you have Chromecasts in your home you can also choose to beam your audio to any speaker or groups of speakers you like, as easily as saying “OK Google, play Metallica in the lounge room”.
Beyond being a media player, Home can connect to a multitude of services — Google owned and otherwise — to quickly fetch info and fulfil tasks in a fraction of the time it would take you on your phone.
This is great for the dozens of quick queries you might usually Google each day — “what time will the sun set tonight?”, or “what is 800 ounces in grams?” — but also for information you might get from other apps, like weather forecasts, news on a particular topic, or where the nearest burger joint is.
Home can also read your calendar so you can ask “when’s my first meeting”, “what do I have on today” or “can you schedule a lunch meeting at 1pm Thursday”. Unfortunately this currently only works with the main calendar of your Google account. For example I use a personal calendar, shared family calendar and one for work, but Home can only deal with the personal one.
I’ve also been using it to set timers, alarms, and reminders, although the inability to glance at my phone and see how much time is left makes me a bit anxious.
Smart home pioneers can use Home to interact with certain brands of connected light globes, powerpoints and more as well. The selection is a bit limited, but there is full compatibility with IFTTT, so you can apply your own recipes and, for example, have all your globes turn on when you say “OK Google, lights up”.
If you watch TV on a cast-enabled device, Home will also pull down shows from Netflix, Stan and YouTube just fine, but beyond picking up a show where you left of it’s generally easier to just use your phone.
Of course like any voice-activated tech it’s also fun just to chat to it and see what it says. You’ll occasionally get a bemused dead end, but there’s a surprising amount of simulated wit packed in.
My wife peppers it with queries that seem purely designed to test Google Assistant’s ability to hold a coherent conversation.
“Hey Google, do you have kids?”
“Kids are a lot of hard work. So is searching. I think I’ll stick to one at a time.”
“OK Google, do you want to look after my kid for me?”
“I don’t know how to help you with that just yet. But I’m learning every day.”
“Hey Google, play I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book.”
“OK, here’s I Wanna be Like You by Christopher Walken.” (This was an extremely unexpected response even though it followed the request perfectly. Sometimes operating Google Home is a bit like wishing on a monkey’s paw).
One unexpected issue I ran into early was a simple one: where to place the Google Home? It can control your TV and music, so the lounge room seems like a good place. But then the kitchen is where I’m more likely to want to add stuff to my shared shopping lists, set timers and ask for metric conversions. Occasionally I’ve just shouted out a request, which works but is not ideal. Aside from buying a second Home — or moving into a loft — I haven’t really figured out an answer for this.
A touch of Australiana
With the local launch, all Google Homes can now be set to English (Australian) language, meaning it will understand your ocker tongue and respond in kind. While many users might not notice, this will be an improvement for anyone who’s previously imported a Home from the States.
The main selling point of the Home is that you can just speak to it naturally, so it’s nice to know it will give you directions to Caltex if you ask for “the nearest servo”, but there are some more subtle Aussie tweaks in there as well.
News comes from the ABC and a handful of other local outlets, all the Australian radio stations I’ve tried have worked, and there are a few new Aussie-specific easter eggs on top of the dozens Google has already snuck in. These are generally pretty trite (say “Hey Google, look what I made you” and Home will reply “I love it, this is going straight to the pool room”), but they’re funny nonetheless.
Overall Home has been adapted very well to life in Australia. The language recognition is top notch, the responses are in-depth and conversational, and it makes heaps of tiny tasks I do every day a little bit simpler. Future updates will doubtlessly add more functionality as well — it’d be great to place a favourite Menulog order with just a shout for example — but if I had one hardware feature I’d like to see in a Home 2 it’s a bit of battery power so I could carry it temporarily to a different room.