Blind Bargains

Okay Google… Find Me First Impressions of Google Home

It seems like we are going to have yet another first mover advantage debate in our community. Yep, Windows versus Mac is new again. Android versus iOS was over before the war even started. Now we can add Amazon Echo versus Google Home into the fray as many out there have started to form factions on which Digital Assistant they would like to use for asking everything from How far is the Taco Bell on 3rd street? to ordering an Uber to take you to get a crunchy taco on 3rd street.

I'll get the big question out of the way first, and that is, of course, which is better: Home or Echo? The Magic 8 Ball answer is Ask Again Later . The reason for this is that the Amazon Echo product has close to a two year jump on the Google Home. During that time the product has shown that it is a viable way to order, request and search for many things through Amazon's Alexa voice assistant. A thriving third party developer ecosystem has sprung up through the Amazon Skills community as well. These skills extend the product's abilities greatly beyond what Amazon launched with initially. And not unlike Apple's original iPhone, which did not launch with the now infamous App Store, Amazon has shown that this product is not just a proof of concept swing at the fences moonshot, largely because of these dedicated Alexa Skill programmers. Having said that, I'll bet they wish they had this thing working back when they were developing their own line of phones several years ago.

Google, on the other hand, appear to be in the midst of what is called a soft launch of the Home. The ability to use an Alexa Skill-like system will launch in December for developers and a few things that were shown during Google's i/o event earlier this year appear not to be enabled yet. What is there now, out of the box, has some strange omissions from the initial feature lineup that will leave you scratching your head in wonder. For example, at launch, reminders and calendar support are listed but you cannot activate them or adjust their settings at the time of this writing.

Your enjoyment of Google Home will depend greatly then on your expectations and familiarity with other digital voice services. Home is better than Microsoft's Cortana in Windows, more accurate than Apple's Siri and in many respects Home can do some things better than Alexa. However, all rely on your commitment to their respective ecosystems, i.e. you have to let them know about you and your habits in order to unlock more functionality. For some this means that there is a need for trust and a good read of each company's privacy agreements. And if this sounds like it is a bridge too far then be aware that these devices are neutered from the start, which might impact their usefulness to you beyond simple tasks like What is the weather like out there or Play next song .

Unboxing And Installation:

I was surprised by the weight of the Home when I scooped it up from my local Best Buy. The person at checkout said I was not the first to exclaim the wow word when lifting the device. This is not to say that the Home is bulky or a 50 pound stone dead weight. It is solid and honestly that is a point in the unit's favor. You will not have to place it on a reinforced steel table but you do not have to worry about it easily falling over if the cat bodychecks the unit when chasing the laser pointer.

The packaging was heavily influenced by Apple's marketing in look and in the reveal of the actual Home product. You have tape on two sides of the box's outer sleeve. Once removed, the inner box slides out to offer you a pull tab that will open the inner box halfway vertically. Nestled inside is the Google Home, a 5.5 foot power cable and some cards with info about acquiring the Google Home app. The Google Home app is available for iOS and Android, and both are working well with Voiceover and Talkback respectively. A more detailed walkthrough of the install process can be found at Android Central.

The Google Home feels like an enlarged air freshener. It has a wide base and narrows towards the top, and it could almost be called teardrop shaped. The color is an off white with a second color on the bottom being a lighter gray. The bottom of the unit can be swapped out for other bases.

The base attaches magnetically and it covers the area where the speakers reside. The various color options allow you to give the Google Home some personality, or it can help you remember that the purple based model is the one for the kitchen and the carbon based model is for the one in the living room.

The power cord attaches to the back of the Home and you could easily run the cable behind a bookshelf, end table or another piece of furniture to hide those unsightly cable bulges. The back of the unit also sports a button that will let you disable the two microphones that capture audio. The rest of the Home's controls are placed on the top of the device. A touch sensitive surface lets you tap in the middle to interrupt the speech or pause audio playback. The volume can be adjusted using a clock-like interface that increases volume when you move your finger clockwise, and decreases when you move your finger counterclockwise. The lowest volume starts around 6 o'clock and gets to be extremely loud for a small room somewhere around 2 o'clock. Visually, a light will aluminate as your finger travels the dial. The lights will also spring to life when the Google Home is listening or searching for information.

Sadly, my recently purchased Vizio Smartcast TV that features a built in Chromecast is not supported at launch. I'll need to secure a second Chromecast or the newly released 4k support-enabled Chromecast ultra if I want to test out the ability for Google Home to play YouTube videos on a TV. My Chromecast Audio was found instantly and the option to use the multi room audio function was available upon the completion of the initial setup process.

Also during setup, I connected the Home to my Google Play account. I have a Google Play Music subscription and this became my default option for Google Home's streaming playback. Unlike other services such as Spotify and Pandora, which are also supported by Google Home, I have close to 9,000 personal music tracks in my Google Play Music library. Unfortunately, unless I create a few playlists, direct playback of those tracks can be a little tricky. And even more unfortunately, the Google Play Music Manager is neither Windows screen reader or Apple Mac Voiceover friendly. So, unless you like getting ad free YouTube from YouTube Red which comes free with Google Play Music, this may not be your music service of choice. Luckily, while you do have a default music service, you aren't restricted to just one. The Google Home will search using your default, and then branch out to other services if the requested song or album isn't available on the first one.

General Use:

So after you get the thing up and running, what's next? Honestly, that is a great question. The Google Home app, and the little cards in the box, give you a basic idea of what you can do with this $129 voice assistant. But, if you aren't used to doing voice searches or voice commands, the Home isn't all that intuitive. In fact, the Chromecast connection process can be a bit of a challenge without considering Google Home. More on that in a moment.

Google Home's voice is female and in a midrange register. Speech is uncannily clear at almost every volume. Music playback can be a bit muffled at lower volumes for some types of music like dynamic film scores. The Home is a mono speaker and this can account for some of the problem here. However, like the standalone edition of the Amazon Echo which also features mono playback, the voice of the Home tends to speak phrases with more positive tone or upturns on replies.

You can ask the Home to play a particular song, artist or style of music. You can search for where Doctor Strange is playing at the local movie theater. You can generally do a lot of things you can do in a Google search prompt such as basic math inquiries, translations and flight lookups. If you ask Home to find you a recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice soup, the voice assistant will answer with some information and then it will prompt you to view the Google Home app for more details. The Home App will have the recipe posted at the top of the Home tab. It will then take you to Chrome, if you have that installed on iOS, for the page where Home found the recipe.

Where Home differs from Alexa, and others in this space, is in the area of contextual search. For example, after asking Home where the movie Doctor Strange is playing, you can then ask it who is in the cast and then how long is the running time followed by who is the composer of the score. The downside is that you have to say okay Google or Hey Google for each successive question. That can feel a bit awkward and it might break the chain of questions if you are not careful with specific phrasing. Still, the advantage for Home in this arena is real and you can spend a lot of time searching down various rabbit holes if you desire to do so.

Home can play a trivia game show with multiple players in the room, it can walk you through the completion of madlibs and you can ask the crystal ball what your future holds. Along those lines, you can ask it all the things you would ask other assistants like What do you think of Siri? to How do you feel about Cortana? With similar responses to the competition. There are hints of pre-recorded answers if you ask things like Sing me a song , Tel me a joke or are you hungry? . And you can easily tell the scripted from the unscripted answers to common questions or reactions to requested tasks.

You can customize options for dedicated sets of tasks from within the Google Home app. You can say Hey Google, good morning and the Home will give you time, weather, traffic conditions and then start playing a list of adjustable news sources. This list, and the sets of things you can do, are limited at launch and it has been hinted at by google that the list will expand dramatically when the SDK for Home goes live in December.

Home is a perfectly capable assistant for media consumption if you rely on Home solely as a standalone playback device. Where some might run into confusion is the act of casting music from a tablet or phone. Home, unlike the Echo, does not sport amoxicillin otc connection option. Home relies on apps for connecting, or casting, to various services. For example, you can cast audio from Tune In via iOS or Android. However, you do have to then open Tune In and find the dedicated Cast button. And in my case, since I have a few Cast enabled devices in the office, I have to specify where I want to cast. I have the option to cast Tune In to my Google Home, my Chromecast Audio or I can even cast it to my Vizio Smartcast TV. Or, if I was really feeling lucky, I could cast my entire output of my android phone or tablet to my Chromecast device and open tune In from that device instead. This flexibility is fantastic yet it can be incredibly complicated if you do not become intimately familiar with how the Chromecast system works.

Conversely, and just as cool, I can tell Home to play something on another device. Just as long as I remember to give it the correct destination. Okay Google, play Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool on Mabel is a command I would give the Home if I wished to hear Radiohead's latest release on my renamed Chromecast Audio. I've renamed a few of the devices on the network to be more compatible with speech recognition, and the Home discovers them as long as I do not give them complex or made up names.

You can raise or lower the volume, change tracks and pause/play the audio all by voice command. You cannot, however, fast forward 30 seconds or say go to 30% in a file. This is strange as this functionality exists for Siri on the 4th generation Apple TV and feels jarringly absent on Google Home media playback.

Overall Impressions:

The Google Home is a good voice-driven device for simple media playback and search results. Setting timers, alarms and other digital assistant tasks are easy to perform and the Google home will fit right in if you place it in the kitchen or family room. However, the device is in its infancy, and that becomes brutally apparent when you ask it to do things like making appointments or creating reminders.

Android users have an advantage because many of the services they may use are app defaults thanks to those phones that use Google Play services. Apple users might find themselves downloading Google Keep or Chrome in order to better access some information that Home will direct them to through various features. Apple users will have to become familiar with the discovery nature of Chromecast as well for external playback as the process is not intuitive as, say, Air Play is for Apple TV or Air Play-enabled audio devices are.

Furthermore, depending on where your digital footprints lie in each sandbox, you may not find that you can get the most out of the Google Home unless you begin to explore the landscapes of other apps or companies with related services. The possibility of an Amazon Skill-like system holds promise, however, that is still off in the distance at the time of this writing. Since Amazon forked Fire and Echo off from Android, it is possible that the gap here could be made up quickly if the code allows those same Skill developers to deploy their wares on the Home side of things, and even possibly eclipse Alexa as those developers will be able to leverage Google's cloud-powered search for more customizable actions than Amazon allows currently.

There is also an 800 pound gorilla in the room I need to acknowledge here in this section. I've been asked on social media if I thought that this device would be abandoned by Google in two years if sales were not spectacular. I admit that there is a danger there for that to happen, however, I don't feel like this unit will sit next to the Nexus Q in J.J.'s old technology collection. And that is solely based on the fact that this device fits into the core of who Google is and what it does.

Amazon's Echo, as neat as it is now, is primarily designed to take the guesswork out of the buying process. Amazon wants you to roll right into the impulse buy as easily as reaching for a pack of gum at the checkout counter of the local grocery store. After all, this is the company who perfected the one click buy it now philosophy and Amazon has demonstrated that nothing can be more drop dead simple than Alexa, order me toilet tissue as a natural phrase one would say without a thought. The goal is to have you search, purchase and exist in the Amazon Prime universe. To that end, and with two years of refinement, the Echo accomplishes this quite well.

Google does the same thing in that it derives much from your searches. The Home is meant to gain as much information about you as Amazon is designed to sell you products. Both companies are making platforms that speak directly to their business core directives while leveraging their respective cloud technologies to make all of this easier by enabling you to use your voice. Moreover, when it comes to the chicken and the egg debate, Google did it first with Google Now and their move into contextual voice search years before the Echo debuted. The Google Home is a natural extension of what Google has done before, and that is why I think it has staying power over things like Google Wave. Plus, as my mother used to say, no one wants to be first but everyone will kill to be second when implementing a good idea. The Echo paved the way for others to jump into this space by making the business case for voice command powered products.

Therefore, for many in our community, the question should not be: Should I get an Echo or A Google Home? but rather a question of Should I get an Echo, a Google Home or wait to see if Apple makes a Siri Home next year? . The good news is that these devices are not expensive and you can play around with them easily if you find a demo, or know others who have them. And the functionality becomes much greater if you live and route for one team over the other. You just have to decide how much effort and data you wish to hand over to really get the most out of these objects and that depends on the trust you have with any of the titans of technology. Just remember that none of the companies I've referenced here, despite any marketing to the contrary, are wholly altruistic in their intentions.

We will cover the Google Home, as well as provide some audio demonstrations of the features mentioned here, in episode 82 of the Blind Bargains Qast. Additional links you may want to read if you want to know more about the Google Home can be found below.

Google Assistant: Tips for talking to Pixel, Google Home and Allo

Google Home: first impressions and thoughts

Google Home review: Home is where the smart is

Google Home is pretty great and crazy ambitious:

Google Home review: A step forward for hotwords, a step backward in capability

Mossberg: Google Home shows promise, but needs work

Should you buy Google Home or the Amazon Echo?

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Joe Steinkamp is no stranger to the world of technology, having been a user of video magnification and blindness related electronic devices since 1979. Joe has worked in radio, retail management and Vocational Rehabilitation for blind and low vision individuals in Texas. He has been writing about the A.T. Industry for 15 years and podcasting about it for almost a decade.

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