Don’t get me wrong: when Google Home works, it is nothing short of delightful. It just doesn't always work.
Overall, I had no problems with set-up and very few problems getting Google to understand me. Even having lived with the Amazon Echo for months — and therefore being pretty used to controlling things with my voice — there were still some great things that Google Home offered that stood out.
The best of these was integration with the Chromecast, Google's streaming device. Being able to search for YouTube videos and have them play on my television without having to lift a finger was great — especially while doing chores that required both my hands. (Ironing can be the worst, right?) It’s a little convenience, but one that is very welcome. Being able to pause and resume my videos with Google Home felt a little bit like magic, especially since the user interface on my phone for Chromecast doesn’t always obey my commands.
Another neat feature was being able to listen to podcasts on-command, even if I hadn’t subscribed to them. It was a nice way to try something new without having to pull out my phone, do some searching and hook it up to the speaker.
Yet the wins for Google Home, in some ways, just set high expectations for other commands that it didn’t meet.
Some were small. One unexpected downside: saying “OK Google” into my living room also activated the voice assistant on my Android phone, leading to an occasional, unintentional chorus. Also, when I had the music on a little too loud, as with Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home couldn’t quite hear me — but that could easily be taken as a compliment to Google’s speakers rather than an insult to its microphones.
Other issues were much bigger. Empowered by my first brush with success with podcasts, for example, I asked for a specific episode of a podcast I had missed: no dice. When dealing with the Chromecast, I got bold and asked it to work with third-party apps that also work with Google’s streaming stick— a feature that hasn’t been added yet.
Feeling out the edges of Google Home’s current capabilities was frustrating. While I have no doubt that Google will add more services constantly — it will have to if it wants to keep up its arms race with Echo’s capabilities — it will be a long training process for the both of us.
And there were simply some services that I use that Google Home doesn’t work with, such as iTunes. In fact, I couldn’t hook up my iPhone’s music to Google Home at all. Amazon’s Echo can work as a Bluetooth speaker, meaning that even if Apple and Amazon never get along, my iPhone and my Echo still can. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.) With the Google Home, I’m somewhat out of luck.
That put something into sharper focus: if you want the most out of Google Home, you have to fall in line with the Google universe. That doesn’t solely mean Google products, but it does mean only products with which Google has a good relationship. And that subtle steer to your purchasing decisions isn’t one that should be ignored, regardless of your voice assistant of choice. Consumers won’t have to choose their tech giant of choice quite yet, but in the future, you may buy your appliances and light bulbs based on which voice assistant you use.
That day, though, is not today. And the truth is that it won’t be tomorrow either — for Google Home or Echo. These are both capable products right now, and people who want to play with these products, and who find experimentation fun, should buy one if they want it. In terms of recommendations, I’d say that Google Home is best for people who’ve already got a Chromecast and use Google services; those who don’t may want to look at the Echo.
But ultimately, the Google Home — and any voice-controlled device — is an investment in future technology. In fact, Google Home does a great job of pointing that out itself. Ask it for something it can't do, and it will tell you that it only can't do it “yet," leaving open the tantalizing possibility that someday it will do everything that I ask of it. Just not today.