Welcome to CNET’s guide to the Google Home smart speaker and Google’s growing lineup of smart home gadgets. Perhaps you’re wondering if you need a smart speaker, a smart display, both or neither. Do you want one with Google Assistant or with Amazon’s competitive voice assistant, Alexa? Maybe you’ve made that decision and just bought one of Google’s smart speakers or smart displays and now you want to know what you should do with it.
We can help. Below, we’ll get you familiar with the basics of the Google Home, then dive into everything you can do once you’re up and running. We’ll also look at the flaws of the system and what’s next for Google’s smart home.
Editors’ note: Originally published April 26, 2018, this article is continuously updated as new features and products are announced.
What is a Google Home?
The smart speaker from the eponymous search giant was designed to compete with the popular Amazon Echo. The Google Home can play music, but it’s primarily designed as a vehicle for Google Assistant — Google’s voice-activated virtual helper that’s connected to the internet. The Google Assistant you access via the Home is the same as the one on recent Android phones such as the Google Pixel 3.
The Google Home is always listening to its environment, but it won’t record what you’re saying or respond to your commands until you say one of its preprogrammed wake words — either “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google.” Here’s a list of commands you can give your Google Home.
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Google actually has three smart speakers. Google Assistant debuted in the original $130 Google Home. The $50 Google Home Mini squeezes all of the smarts of the original into a smaller, more affordable package. The $400 Google Home Max puts Google’s smarts into a speaker designed to deliver premium sound.
All three speakers give you access to the same Google Assistant service. They differ in size, sound quality and price. You use the same Google Home app to set up all three, and they all respond to the same wake words and the same commands.
In addition to the voice commands, each Google Home speaker has a limited set of physical controls. You can change the volume, mute the microphone and play or pause your music via a physical interface on the speaker. Check out the video below for details on these physical controls.
Where to buy your smart speaker
You can buy the original $130 Google Home, the $400 Google Home Max and the $50 Google Home Mini online via the Google Store. You’ll also find Google’s speakers at a number of electronics stores, including Best Buy and even hardware stores such as Lowes. Third-party speakers like the $250 JBL Link 300 are also widely available at electronics stores.
Once you get your Google Home set up, you may want to use your smart speaker to listen to music. You can use a Google Home as an ordinary Bluetooth speaker and pull up the song you want to listen to on your phone. Better yet, use your voice to tell Google what song you want to hear. You can even search by lyrics if you don’t remember the name, or tell it to start a playlist of a certain genre.
Google pulls songs from a variety of streaming services including Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. In the Google Home app, you can pick one of those services as your default, and Google will search that service first when you ask for a song or a playlist. You can still access music from any of the other services by asking for it by name.
You could always ask your Google Home to perform basic tasks like searching the web and checking your calendar. Now, Google Assistant in your smart speaker can do so much more. You can train Google Assistant to recognize up to six distinct voices, which will enable it to customize its responses based on who’s talking. Google can then offer personalized answers if you ask about your commute to work or your schedule for the day.
You can add different profiles for each member of your family and if you want Google Assistant to respond to you in a unique voice, you have several options now. Better yet, different family members can pick different voices, and Google will switch which one responds based on who’s talking.
With the Continued Conversation feature, you don’t have to say the wake words every time you want to ask a question. The Google Home’s microphone stays hot for up to 8 seconds so you can ask a follow-up question without saying, “Hey, Google” again. It’ll shut off early if you say “Thank you,” and if you don’t want Google’s mic to stay listening for longer than normal, you don’t have to enable the feature.
Night mode: Your Google Home can automatically lower the volume of its vocal responses and music streaming at certain times of the day.
Storytime: Your smart speaker can read aloud a number of stories from Disney and Nickelodeon. Better yet, you can read certain stories while your Google Home provides appropriate music and sound effects.
Multiple lists: You used to just be able to make shopping lists with your voice. Now you can create to-do lists, gift lists and more.
Routines: Give a command such as “Good morning” or “I’m leaving” and you can customize your Google Home to respond in a variety of ways, including telling you about your commute, playing the news and controlling your compatible smart home devices.
Routines will soon be integrated with apps like Google Clock, so your alarm can trigger your morning routine. Third parties will also be able to build specific functionality for routines, such as playing meditation music on your Google Home.
For most gadgets, you’ll need to use the Google Home app to sync your Google account with the account for any smart device you control — such as your Philips Hue account for your smart light bulbs. Certain C by GE devices let you set them up directly from the Google Home app. Once it’s set up, either way, you can control your smart devices with a voice command to your Google Home. You can add them to rooms and control multiple devices at once by giving a command such as, “Turn off all lights in the living room.” You can also add them to routines.
Touch controls and smart displays
After filling out the voice control options for the smart home, Google turned its attention to touch controls at the company’s Made by Google event in October. The Google Home app was previously only useful during setup, but it’s now a handy way to see and control all of your gadgets.
Shortcut buttons at the top let you perform common tasks such as turning off all of your lights with one tap. Scroll down and you’ll see all of your gadgets organized by room. The app allows you to quickly access any connected gadget and control it in detail — you can set the exact brightness or color of your smart bulb or change the temp or settings of your smart thermostat.
You can also use the app to reorganize and rename your gadgets and even add multiple accounts to your home so people you live with can also see the gadgets via the app on their phones. Or you can group your gadgets into different locations if you’ve set up smart gear in your office and your home.
In addition to offering a visual reference of your smart home and an alternative means of controlling your gadgets when you don’t feel like talking, this new-look app will help you keep your devices organized in a way that makes sense to you.
While the app makes organizing your smart home easier, the Home Hub offers a centralized place for your family to control your devices either with their voices or by touch.
The Hub’s touchscreen also comes in handy when you’re cooking and want to see the steps and ingredients spelled out on the screen. If you ask about the weather, you’ll see a visual overview of the forecast for the week. Search for restaurants, and the Hub will show pictures and hours of nearby places. It can even pull up a map and send directions to your phone. You can also use the screen to look at pictures or watch videos on YouTube.
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The Google Home Hub is a cute, little home control center
The Google Home Hub is part of a new category of devices called smart displays. Unlike with the Google Home, third-party smart displays equipped with Google Assistant hit the market before Google’s own model. The Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View were both built in partnership with Google. They feature the same Google Assistant and have all of the same functionality as the Google Home Hub. They didn’t launch with a smart home control panel, but that rolled out to both devices through an update.
You can make video calls on all current smart displays. But unlike the models from Lenovo, JBL and LG, the Google Home Hub doesn’t have a camera, so the video call’s recipient won’t be able to see you. Google says it removed the camera so you’d feel more comfortable putting the Hub in any room of your house. The smart displays from Lenovo, JBL and LG all have physical shutters that slide over their cams.
The Google Home Hub costs $150 with a 7-inch screen, and you can buy it from the same retailers as the Google Home. The Lenovo Smart Display comes with a 10-inch screen for $250 or an 8-inch screen for $200. The JBL Link View costs $250 and the LG WK9 costs $300. Both have an 8-inch screen. The smart displays from Lenovo and JBL are also widely available at major electronics retailers. Head to LG’s site to find retailers for the WK9 in your area.
Kitchenaid’s display will have a 10-inch screen, is due out in the second half of 2019, and will cost between $200 and $300. Sony hasn’t announced the details of its upcoming smart display yet.
Though Google’s done an admirable job of adding features to its smart home lineup, the company’s had its share of issues with Google Assistant gadgets as well. Perhaps most importantly, Google’s struggled to catch up to its main competitor — the Amazon Echo and the smaller Amazon Echo Dot — in sales.
In many smart home respects, Google is still chasing Amazon. The Google Home was meant to emulate the Amazon Echo. The Google Home Mini took notes from the Echo Dot. The Google Home Hub combined a smart speaker with a screen like the Amazon Echo Show before it. At CES, Google and Lenovo partnered to show off a trimmed down smart display meant for your bedside called the Lenovo Smart Clock. Even that has an Amazon precedent called the Amazon Echo Spot.
The growing competition between Google and Amazon in the smart home space has mostly been good for customers as the companies try to outdo each other with newer, better features. However, it resulted in a feud over YouTube. Amazon stopped selling some Google products on its website. Google retaliated by pulling YouTube rights from Amazon’s smart display, the Amazon Echo Show. Here are the rest of the details on the dispute.
Google’s launch of the Google Home Mini also ran into some trouble, as a user discovered a bug that caused the Mini to record constantly, instead of just after you said the wake words. Google patched the issue quickly, but it still raised the issues of privacy and trust around Google’s always-listening assistant.
After launch, a hacker found potential vulnerabilities in the Google Home Hub’s code that he was able to use to reset the device and change some notifications settings. Google responded quickly to this issue as well, but called the claims of a vulnerability inaccurate. The company noted that you’d need to be on the same Wi-Fi network to access the code in question.
At CES, Google showed off Google Assistant Connect, which promises to make it even easier for manufacturer’s to build interesting devices that work with Google’s smart home. The idea is still in development as Google talks to interested manufacturers, but Connect would essentially be a chip or some other small and inexpensive piece of hardware that device makers could build into gadgets. It would allow the gadgets to communicate over Bluetooth to a nearby Google Assistant device like a Google Home.
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Google Assistant Connect paves a path for wacky future…
Google showed off prototypes of a button that could turn on your lights and an e-ink display that could show the weather and the traffic. Both sent signals to a nearby Google Home Mini, which took care of communicating with the cloud on behalf of the Connect gadget. This would allow manufacturers to focus on unique hardware while Google handles the computing.
Google also debuted a fascinating feature called interpreter mode at CES. Rolling out to smart displays over the next couple of weeks, and eventually to smart speakers and the rest of the Google Assistant devices, interpreter mode uses a Google Assistant device as an intermediary between people speaking different languages. The Home Hub will show and speak translated phrases on its screen.
While interpreter mode could be pretty useful in the right circumstances, the coolest feature Google debuted in 2018 is pretty experimental. It shows Google’s goal of creating a more human AI. Google Duplex can actually call restaurants and make reservations for you. I don’t just mean it can dial for you, it will do the talking and it pauses and stutters just like a human. Check it out here. It’s stunning. The tech is starting to roll out to Google’s Pixel phones now to help screen calls for you. As Duplex continues to develop, it could make your Google Home much more like an actual human assistant.
For more than two years, the smart speaker landscape has been changing quickly. We’ll keep this piece updated as it continues to shift. Fortunately, it’s a safe time to invest in a smart speaker. Google, Amazon and Apple are all battling for supremacy of the market and rapidly rolling out new features, but the features get sent out as updates to existing devices, so you don’t have to worry about your new assistant getting left behind — at least, for now.
First published April 27, 5 a.m. PT. Update, January 24th, 2019: Updated after final 2018 updates and CES.