Everything you need to know about Google Home – CNET

Welcome to CNET’s guide to the Google Home smart speaker. Perhaps you’re wondering if this relatively new category of tech is for you, or maybe you just bought one of Google’s smart speakers or smart displays and you want to know what you should do with it. Maybe you saw all of the news from the Made by Google event and want to know what it all means. 

We can help. Below, we’ll get you familiar with the basics of the Google Home, then dive into all you can do once you’re up and running. We’ll also look at the flaws of the system and what’s next for Google smart speakers to complete the overview. 

If you’re not sure whether you want a Google Home, an Amazon Echo or perhaps an Apple HomePod, we can help with that, too. Here’s a guide to buying the right smart speaker for you, and here’s a breakdown of the three main digital assistants built in to smart speakers — Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. If you just want to get caught up on the latest, here are the Google Assistant highlights from I/O in May and Google’s new vision for the smart home from the company’s October’s event. 

Editors’ note: Originally published April 26, 2018, this article will be updated as new features are announced, such as news out of Google I/O Developer Conference and the Made by Google October event. 

What is a Google Home?

The smart speaker from the eponymous search giant was designed to compete with the popular Amazon Echo. The Google Home can play music, but it’s primarily designed as a vehicle for Google Assistant — Google’s voice-activated virtual helper that’s connected to the internet. The Google Assistant you access via the Home is the same as the one on recent Android phones such as the Google Pixel 3.

The Google Home is always listening to its environment, but it won’t actually record what you’re saying or respond to your commands until you say one of its preprogrammed wake words — either “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google.” Here’s a list of commands you can give your Google Home.

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Google actually has three smart speakers. Google Assistant debuted in the original $130 Google Home. The $50 Google Home Mini squeezes all of the smarts of the original into a smaller, more affordable package. The $400 Google Home Max puts Google’s smarts into a speaker designed to deliver premium sound. 

All three speakers give you access to the same Google Assistant service. They differ in size, sound quality and price. You use the same Google Home app to set up all three, and they all respond to the same wake words and the same commands.

JBL Link 300

The JBL Link 300 offers a lot of sound quality for the price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also use the same Google Assistant through a variety of third-party smart speakers such as the portable TicHome Mini and the JBL Link series. The Sonos One will work with Google Assistant later this year as well. Unless it’s specifically stated otherwise, all of the Google Home features I discuss below work with any Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker. Pick your speaker, then check out our tips for getting started. Here are a few tricks specific to the original Google Home and a few tricks specific to the Google Home Max

In addition to the voice commands, each Google Home speaker has a limited set of physical controls. You can change the volume, mute the microphone and play or pause your music via a physical interface on the speaker. Check out the video below for details on these physical controls.

Where to buy your smart speaker

You can buy the original $130 Google Home, the $400 Google Home Max and the $50 Google Home Mini online via the Google Store. You’ll also find Google’s speakers at a number of electronics stores, including Best Buy and even hardware stores like Lowes. Third-party speakers like the $250 JBL Link 300 are also widely available at electronics stores. 

Making music

Once you get your Google Home set up, you might want to use your smart speaker to listen to music. You can use a Google Home as an ordinary Bluetooth speaker and pull up the song you want to listen to on your phone. Better yet, use your voice to tell Google what song you want to hear. You can even search by lyrics if you don’t remember the name, or tell it to start a playlist of a certain genre.

Google pulls songs from a variety of streaming services including Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. In the Google Home app, you can pick one of those services as your default, and Google will search that service first when you ask for a song or a playlist. You can still access music on any of the other services by asking for it by name.

Here are nine tips for getting the most out of your Google Home as a music streamer. The article also discusses how to group multiple speakers so you can play a single song synced throughout your house. If you don’t like the sound quality of your Google Home or Google Home Mini (both are serviceable but not outstanding) you can send music to your speaker of choice via either a Chromecast streamer or a Bluetooth connection.

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Google Assistant can even play music on your TV if it’s Chromecast-enabled, and you can ask it to play your favorite TV show through a variety of streaming services such as Netflix and HBO Now. At I/O, LG announced several TVs with Google Assistant built in. You have to push a button on a remote to give a voice command, so the TV isn’t always listening. Sony was the first to offer TVs with similar voice control functionality

Ready to assist

Since it launched in November 2016, the Google Home has gotten a lot better as a personal assistant. Here’s a look back at the smart speaker’s eventful 2017 and the many new features it gained throughout the year. Here are the main updates announced at Google’s 2018 I/O developer conference, some of which are live now and some due out later this year. 

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You could always ask your Google Home to perform basic tasks like searching the web and checking your calendar. Now, the Assistant in your smart speaker can do so much more. You can train Google Assistant to recognize up to six distinct voices, which will enable it to customize its responses based on who’s talking. Google can then offer personalized answers if you ask about your commute to work or your schedule for the day.

You can add different profiles for each member of your family, and soon, Google will be able to enforce some manners when your kid wants to give a command. Announced at I/O 2018, a feature called “Pretty Please” works through voice control and will prompt your child to say “the magic word.” You can enable the feature for yourself as well.

Other I/O updates are live now and make the Google Home a better personal assistant. If you want Google to respond to you in a unique voice, you have several options now, and John Legend’s voice will be added soon. Better yet, different family members can pick different voices, and Google will switch which one responds based on who’s talking. 

With the Continued Conversation feature, you don’t have to say the wake words every time you want to ask a question. The Google Home’s microphone stays hot for up to 8 seconds so you can ask a follow-up question without saying, “Hey, Google” again. It’ll shut off early if you say “Thank you,” and if you don’t want Google’s mic to stay listening for longer than normal, you don’t have to enable the feature. 

You can even make purchases via the Google Home verified only by your voice. Be careful enabling this functionality, though, as we were able to fool its voice recognition fairly easily.

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Thanks to frequent feature updates, you can now do quite a few things with your Google Home. Here’s how to find the full list of its capabilities, including third-party skills.

Other highlights of the Google Home’s resume include:

  • Broadcasting: Make an announcement to one Google Home and it will play on all connected smart speakers throughout your home.
  • Recipe assistance: Your Google Home can help you cook with step-by-step instructions, skipping forward and back as needed.
  • Calling: You can use your Google Home speaker to make a phone call. (Note: You can’t use Google Assistant to make calls on third-party speakers for now.)
  • Multiple commands: You can issue two commands to your Google Home in sequence.
  • Night mode: Your Google Home can automatically lower the volume of its vocal responses and music streaming at certain times of the day.
  • Routines: Give a command such as “Good morning” or “I’m leaving” and you can customize your Google Home to respond in a variety of ways, including telling you about your commute, playing the news and controlling your compatible smart home devices.

Google Home in the smart home

Routines make it easy to control multiple smart home devices with a single command. Plus, they’re getting better. At first, you had to pick from six prepackaged options. Now you can customize the command that activates the routine and add any element you want to any routine — including podcasts, smart home controls, music playlists and calendar updates. 

Later this year, routines will be integrated with apps like Google Clock, so your alarm can trigger your morning routine. Third parties will also be able to build specific functionality for routines, such as meditation music on your Google Home. 

With customizable routines and now more than 10,000 compatible devices, the Google Home’s gotten quite comfortable in the smart home. You can now sync a wide variety of devices with your Google-equipped smart speaker. Here’s a guide to getting started with a Google-centric smart home.

Here’s Google’s list of compatible devices. It includes thermostats, smart lights, smart switches, smart locks, sprinklers, security systems, large appliances and even some cars. Google also expanded its list of compatible devices at I/O and made them easier to control with natural commands. Here’s CNET’s guide to Google’s compatible smart home devices.

You’ll need to use the Google Home app to sync your Google account with the account for any smart device you control — such as your Philips Hue account for your smart light bulbs. Then, you can control your smart devices with a voice command to your Google Home. You can add them to rooms and control multiple devices at once by giving a command such as, “Turn off all lights in the living room.” You can also add them to routines.

Touch controls and smart displays

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The new Google Home app.

Google

After filling out the voice control options for the smart home, Google turned its attention to touch controls at the company’s Made by Google event in October. The Google Home app was previously only useful during setup; it’s now a handy way to see and control all of your gadgets.

Shortcut buttons at the top let you perform common tasks like turning off all of your lights with a tap. Scroll down and you’ll see all of your gadgets organized by room. The app allows you to quickly access any connected gadget and control it in detail — you can set the exact brightness or color of your smart bulb or change the temp or settings of your smart thermostat. 

You can also use the app to reorganize and rename your gadgets and even add multiple accounts to your home so people you live with can also see the gadgets via the app on their phones. Alternatively, you can group your gadgets into different locations if you’ve set up smart gear in your office and your home.

In addition to offering a visual reference of your smart home and an alternative means of controlling your gadgets when you don’t feel like talking, this new-look app will help you keep your devices organized in a way that makes sense to you.

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Google’s new focus on touch controls aligns with its latest entry in the Google Home lineup — the Google Home Hub. Also announced at the company’s October event, the Hub keeps the same Assistant as the original Google Home and responds to all of the same voice commands. It adds a touchscreen to the functionality of a smart speaker, so if you scroll down on the Home Hub, you’ll see a similar smart home control panel to what you find in the new Google Home app

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Google Home Hub’s smart home panel. 

James Martin/CNET

While the app makes organizing your smart home easier, the Home Hub offers a centralized place for your family to control your devices either with their voice or with a touch if they prefer. 

The Hub’s touchscreen also provides a visual reference that comes in handy when you’re cooking and want to see the steps and ingredients spelled out on the screen. If you ask about the weather, you’ll see a visual overview of the forecast for the week. Search for restaurants, and the hub will show pictures and hours of nearby places. It can even pull up a map and send directions to your phone. You can also use the screen to look at pictures or watch videos on YouTube. 

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The Google Home Hub is part of a new category of devices called smart displays. Unlike with the Google Home, third-party smart displays equipped with Google Assistant hit the market before Google’s own model. The Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View were both built in partnership with Google. They feature the same Google Assistant and have almost all of the same functionality as the Google Home Hub. They didn’t launch with a smart home control panel, but that will roll out to both devices through an update soon. LG and Sony also have Google Assistant-equipped smart displays in the works

You can make video calls on all three current smart displays. But unlike the models from Lenovo and JBL, the Google Home Hub doesn’t have a camera. The video call’s recipient won’t be able to see you. Google says it removed the camera so you’d feel more comfortable putting the Hub in any room of your house. The smart displays from Lenovo and JBL both have physical shutters that slide over their cams.

The Google Home Hub will be released on Oct. 22. It’ll cost $150 with a 7-inch screen, and it will be available from the same retailers as the Google Home. The Lenovo Smart Display comes with a 10-inch screen for $250 or an 8-inch screen for $200. The JBL Link View costs $250 and has an 8-inch screen. The smart displays from Lenovo and JBL are also widely available at major electronics retailers. LG and Sony haven’t announced the details of their upcoming smart displays yet. 

Flies in the ointment

Though Google’s done an admirable job of adding features to its lineup of smart speakers, the company’s had its share of issues with the Google Home as well. Perhaps most importantly, Google’s struggled to catch up to its main competitor — the Amazon Echo and the smaller Amazon Echo Dotin sales.

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The Echo Dot (right) headlines Amazon’s formidable lineup of smart speakers.

Ian Knighton/CNET

The growing competition between Google and Amazon in the smart speaker space has mostly been good for customers as the companies try to outdo each other with newer, better features. However, it’s recently resulted in a feud over YouTube. Amazon stopped selling some Google products on its website. Google retaliated by pulling YouTube rights from Amazon’s smart speaker with a display, called the Amazon Echo Show. Here are the rest of the details on the dispute.

Google’s launch of the Google Home Mini also ran into some trouble, as a user discovered a bug that caused the Mini to record constantly, instead of just after you said the wake words. Google patched the issue quickly, but it still raised the issues of privacy and trust around Google’s new, always-listening assistant.

Finally, here’s a list of surprising things Google Home can’t do yet.

More to come

Now that you’re caught up on the current state of the Google Home, here’s a quick glimpse at what happens next. At CES in January, we saw a rise in third-party devices with Google Assistant built in, such as alarm clocks and smoke detectors. We could see even more third-party Google Assistant devices soon, as Google opened Assistant to third-party developers in 2017 and recently made it possible to create custom commands. In fact, you can even build your own Google-equipped smart speaker with the company’s speaker kit.

The coolest thing to come out of I/O is pretty experimental, but shows Google’s goal of creating a more human AI. Google Duplex can actually call restaurants and make reservations for you. I don’t just mean it can dial for you, the Assistant will do the talking and it pauses and stutters just like a human. Check it out here. It’s stunning. The tech is starting to roll out to Google’s Pixel phones now to help screen calls for you. As Duplex continues to develop, it could make your Google Home much more like an actual human assistant. 

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From left to right, the Google Home, Home Mini and Home Max all offer lots of features and are only getting smarter.

James Martin/CNET

For more than a year now, the smart speaker landscape has been changing quickly. We’ll keep this piece updated as it continues to shift. Fortunately, you can feel pretty safe investing in a smart speaker now. Google, Amazon and Apple are all battling for supremacy of the market and rapidly rolling out new features, but the features get sent out as updates to existing devices, so you don’t have to worry about your new assistant getting left behind — at least, for now.

First published April 27, 5 a.m. PT. 
Update, Oct. 16 at 12 p.m.: Added info from Google’s October event. 

CNET Smart Home

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