Hands On With Google Home

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Compared with Amazon's Echo, Google Home—a compact speaker you can ask to turn off the lights, check the weather, and play music—might seem like a latecomer to the smart home party. It doesn't arrive until November, while the Echo has been conversing with connected home enthusiasts for nearly two years and has two spin-off devices, the Echo Dot and Tap.

But the $129 Google Home has one huge advantage over the Alexa-powered Echo, Siri, and every other personal digital assistant on the market: Google already knows everything about you and pretty much everything that's on the Internet. That omnipotence was on full display at Home's debut in San Francisco yesterday, where PCMag got to play with it.

All you have to do is say is "OK, Google, tell me about my day," and the diminutive speaker launches into a monologue about your life. It will tell you the weather, how long it will take you to get to work, what's on your calendar, and a news briefing from a source of your choice. All of that is pulled from Google products you probably already use, like Gmail, Calendar, and Maps, though you can disable access to certain corners of the Google ecosystem if you want to.

Of course, Google Home also has access to Google's Web search, which means instant answers to a huge variety of questions, from the New England Patriots' season record (3-1) to the name of the Canadian prime minister (Justin Trudeau).

Google Home also works well as a music server, beaming songs from a variety of cloud sources. At launch, you'll be able to chose from Spotify, Pandora, YouTube Music, Google Play Music, and TuneIn. Like everything else, playing audio is customizable. You can simply tell Home to play some jazz, or you can ask it to play a curated Spotify playlist on your living room surround sound system, with Google Cast making the connection. To accomplish the latter, you'd say something like "OK, Google. Play Beyonce on my speakers," assuming they're connected to a Chromecast Audio.

Google Home is always listening, and you can say "OK, Google" any time you want it to respond. In the crowded demo room, with many journalists and Google employees all speaking at once, it only understood about half of the commands I tried. But Google says that its omnidirectional microphone is designed to filter out anything that's not a human voice, so it should work well in a quieter room.

To adjust the volume, there's a touch interface on the top of the speaker that's reminiscent of an iPod click wheel or a rotary telephone. You slide your finger in a clockwise circular motion, and lights illuminate to indicate increased volume.

The device's design is inspired by wine glasses and candles, so it looked great in the Martha Stewart-esque demo room. It will also likely bring a touch of class to your living room or kitchen whether or not you've hired an interior designer. The speaker grille, which takes up the bottom of the device, is interchangeable and snaps on with a magnet. Both metal and fabric grilles in various colors are available.

If you want Google Home to temporarily stop listening, you can press the mute button on the rear of the speaker. It's the only physical button, which seems appropriate for a device that's designed for voice interaction.

Google Home will come with an Android and iOS companion app, which is still under development. It can do things like adjust which news sources or music libraries are connected, as well as control your home's lights and temperature while you're away. (For automation, Home works with Philips Hue, Nest, Samsung SmartThings, and IFTTT). I was only offered a brief glimpse of the companion app and wasn't allowed to take photos, but it appeared similar to the Alexa app, albeit with Google's trademark fonts and colors.

The big question with Google Home, other than how it stacks up against Echo, is whether or not you're comfortable with giving it so much access to your digital life. Google says you'll be able to prevent Home from accessing certain information sources, but then you'd be robbing the speaker of much of its functionality. Google knows so much about your life anyway that allowing Home to offer that information to you in spoken form probably won't increase your risk of snooping or identity theft.

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