Remember when Google announced Google Home? Yeah, you probably don’t — it was back in May 2016 at the company’s annual developer event, Google I/O. Almost exactly one year ago.
I remember it distinctly, both because I was covering the event and because I was so excited by the product. An Amazon Echo-esque speaker/mic combination, powered by Google? That’s literally exactly what I wanted.
My only hesitation with buying the Echo — other than the whole “voluntarily buying an internet-connected listening device for my home” — was the lack of deep Google integration.
Google is my internet backbone. I use Google Contacts to move my contacts from phone to phone, I use Google Messenger for text messaging, Google Voice for work, Google Keep for notes. We use Google Calendar here at Business Insider for meetings, and I use it in my personal life as well — the same goes for Google Docs. I chat with colleagues from other publications throughout the day using Google Hangouts (sorry, boss!)
So when Google Home was announced, I was ready for it.
The product re-emerged five months later alongside Google’s new Pixel phone, packed with Google Assistant and ready to ship in November. I immediately plunked down $US140.45 (with tax — it costs $US129), and received a unit a few weeks later.
It had problems right from the start.
I downloaded the Home app to my Nexus 5X and expected a seamless experience. Not only was I using an Android phone, but I was using an Android phone made by Google. It’s not the new Pixel, but it came out in 2015 — not exactly eons ago.
What I encountered was a frustrating setup process that only worked when the app seemingly felt like working.
Over and over, the WiFi broke, rendering the device entirely useless. And if it’s not connected to your home WiFi network, you can’t do anything with Google Home — no Google requests, no music, nothing.
This happened repeatedly across two weeks. I have a standard home WiFi network, with a highly-rated dual-band Asus router and an Arris Surfboard modem (that I own/don’t rent from my ISP). I live in a small-ish Brooklyn apartment — the Home sits about 15 feet from my router. At any point, there are a maximum of six wireless devices in my home connected to the internet (and, more commonly, two or three). I even contacted Google’s press line for help (the company also sent me a review unit, which I experienced the same problems with) to no avail.
When Google Home did work, it’s worryingly limited.
- It couldn’t set reminders (“Sorry, create reminder is not yet supported.”)
- It couldn’t give directions or transit warnings (“Sorry, I can’t give directions for public transit yet.”)
- It seemingly has no idea that I have a personal or work calendar (“Sorry, I’m not sure how to help with that yet.”)
This is all stuff that Google Now does on my phone. In fact, Google Now is part of why I continue to use Android.
Every time it tells me something useful before I even realised I needed to know it — my boarding gate for tomorrow’s flight, for instance, and then if there’s traffic on the way to the airport — I marvel at its usefulness. Google Now is a strong argument for an entire phone OS.
Instead, Google Home is powered by a new AI assistant from Google called, “Google Assistant.” The sell point with Google Assistant is it can do conversation-like stuff. Ask it, “OK Google, how far is Mars from Earth?” and it gives you the answer. Then you can ask, “How about Pluto?”
Presumably, if all goes perfectly, Google Assistant will keep the conversation going with an answer, passively understanding all the context in between. But in reality, this is something I rarely use. I need Google Home to do stuff for me — set appointments in my calendar, warn me that my train is going to be late so I should leave earlier, tell me about that concert I might’ve forgotten about. I need it to do stuff that Google Now already does successfully — at bare minimum.
In this respect, it’s a terrible assistant.
The other thing it’s supposed to do — be a speaker — is just ok. I have a Sonos Play 3 speaker, which is really, really good. It’s loud, and has stunning bass depth considering how small it is. It’s also significantly more expensive than Google Home ($US299 compared to Home’s $US129). With that price comes a gigantic increase in quality — Home sounds tinny and cheap by comparison.
In the end, I returned my Google Home soon after buying it.
If I can’t trust it to consistently work, what’s the point? It was already a luxury purchase — a lark on a brand new type of technology — and ended up being one that I couldn’t justify spending $US140 on.
If I had stuck with Home, it’s possible I’d enjoy it much more nowadays. Google Home now supports multiple users, interacts with Google Calendar, and does other (necessary) stuff it didn’t do near launch. Still, I’m sceptical. There were major problems with Google Home even staying connected to my home internet, to say nothing of its inability to recognise my commands with consistency.
Maybe I’d like the Amazon Echo much more, and maybe I’ll give it a shot eventually, but in the meantime I’m going to wait for AI-facing consumer technology to improve dramatically. Perhaps Google has a big surprise for me this week at Google I/O 2017.
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