3 months with Google Home

Earlier this year, I lamented how great Google’s rollercoaster was at CES. It was easily the highlight of the show, and at the end of the ride, instead of reviewing those photos you normally get on rollercoasters – the ones you walk away from – Google were taking email addresses from delegates to allow them to claim their own free Google Home product. Not a bad piece of swag at all.

I collected mine a few months later, and have been gradually getting used to it – when I can remember I have one. The first thing you realise is how well integrated Home is, or can be, into one’s own life. Our family are all Android users, with a shared calendar, and Home is able to work with this quite nicely.

Long before you begin (and end) the phase where you ask your voice assistant daft questions, Google Home is useful at answering questions about your calendar. When you think about it, a large portion of our immediate, go-to smartphone use is to determine some form of timing or availability. The assistant is clever enough to answer questions around the week ahead, a week from now or what’s happening on a specific date. That it can read the appointments out in normal English too makes it feel more conversational.

Then you can simply say hello to it, or, more usefully in my view, “Good morning”. Unprompted, Home talks back with the news headlines and weather from the BBC, and then launches a video summary from Sky News – quite useful. Strangely though, I’ve tried to ask it what my commute looks like before setting off and it can’t handle this – “I’m not yet able to answer your question” – which is odd given that my own Android phone regularly generates a notification based on when it thinks I might be leaving to go to or from work.

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Headlines from the Beeb can be played as audio.

It’s worth mentioning the setup process, which isn’t particularly taxing but does take a while to get right. You use the Home app on your phone, which finds a Home nearby, and from that, it can connect to your Wi-Fi connection. Then, you declare where the hub lives; in our case, the kitchen, as we felt that this would be a better place for conversation and organising the day. Once this is complete, you can then assign users to the hub. The Home app approach works well enough, although around once every month, Home reports it can’t find the Wi-Fi network. If you leave it alone for long enough, it seems to fix itself.

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This screen appears about once a month on average. Note the “kitchen display” in the lower right; you tell the Home where it is located.

So what do we use it for? Good question. The main drawback from a personal perspective is remembering that Home is there at my disposal; it will take time to realise that we humans can more easily and conveniently solve our day-to-day questions and challenges using such a device. When we’re not asking questions, we use it to play music instead; I like the fact you can ask it to play a radio station for instance, while if you have a specific record in mind, it will play that too (YouTube Music is its default search choice). And when done, Home will carry on playing something similar. When some of my requests have been more obscure, it also seems to rely on my YouTube viewing history which makes sense, and is useful.

There is a further clever media feature with photos. If you use Google Drive to store photos, you can run Home in an “ambient” mode which uses your photos as a screensaver. I found this a little distracting though (I was worried I might miss something!) so we now just have a clock face when active and then the screen simply powers down to wait in standby.

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90s dance tracks? Yep, they play just great. Sound quality is quite good.

I’ve not taken up any Smart Home products yet, but Google’s purchase of Nest means that door is wide open. The Nest Hello is a “smart” doorbell with a camera, which can transmit its feed to Home, so as well as a ringing tone to tell you someone is at the door, you can look at the screen to see who it is. Our kitchen is at the back of our house, so that feature would be useful (assuming we take up some of Nest’s products in due course).

Similarly, Home is very tightly linked to your phone. If you ask Home something, your phone will light up with a dialog box, repeating the query back. I’ve not yet worked out what the value of this is, although being able to cast your phone content to Home is more useful.

My overall feelings so far are positive. I’m well aware that I actually have something extremely powerful in terms of capability sitting – largely dormant for long periods, it must be said – on the side in my kitchen. I thought my two sons would constantly tease and abuse it too but this hasn’t happened, mercifully. Not a bad return for a rollercoaster ride.

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