To kick off 2018, Google said to hell with Amazon and Alexa getting all the attention and used CES to big up Google Assistant. Google’s series of smart speakers has been improving and expanding and – most importantly – selling, all slightly under the radar - until now.
So what is Google Assistant? It's a platform which powers both the voice tech on Android phone and a range of voice controlled, Wi-Fi connected smart speakers with microphones and, now in some cases, devices with displays too. It’s also a platform for Google and third-party developers to create extra features, or Actions, for the voice assistant and the devices.
With a smart speaker, you can talk to Google Assistant from across the room to control your music as well as get news and weather; control other smart home gadgets and appliances, set timers and reminders and even take calls. You can link the speakers for multi-room audio and set up as many as six different users on one Home, for personalised calendars and music playlists.
Google and Nest are both formidable smart home ecosystems already and now they're joining forces with Nest being returned into Google, it will only get stronger as 2018 goes on.
In this Missing Manual, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to get started with Google Assistant and Google Home, as well as pointing you in the direction of helpful how-tos, reviews and lists.
The Google Home smart speakers
There are now three smart speakers made by Google: the original Google Home, which was launched in 2016 in the US and later elsewhere, as well as the new(er) Google Home Mini and Google Home Max.
The Google Home Mini (above) is the cheapest option on offer. It’s $49, so ideal for dipping a toe into the smart home waters, and it’s a stylish, small puck-shaped device that will easily blend into your home. Our main concern is that the audio quality just isn’t there and – ulike its equivalent the Amazon Echo Dot – you can’t hook it up to an existing speaker either unless you fork out more money for a Chromecast Audio adaptor.
The original Google Home (above) now sits smack bang in the middle of the range. For $129 you get the inoffensive, air freshener-style design, better sound than the Mini (though still not exactly room filling) and it’s super easy to set up too. If you run your whole life in Google, this is a good place to start.
Finally, there's the Google Home Max. This is the high end speaker which Google is promising will have 20 times more powerful sound than the Google Home and in testing we were very impressed with the audio. It costs $399 and went on sale in December.
Third party speakers
The biggest story in third party Google Assistant speakers right now is smart displays, which are Amazon Echo Show-type devices that give you a voice controlled speaker and a screen. Google announced the new category at CES with two speakers – the JBL Link View (above) and the Lenovo Smart Display – as well as the promise of future, similar devices from Sony and LG. No Google branded device this time.
With the screen, you can watch YouTube videos, make video calls via Google Duo and view Google Photos - it's also useful for pulling up info e.g. Google Maps from your voice search.
CES also saw the launches of non-screened Google Assistant speakers from Anker, iHome, Altech Lansing, Braven, Hogar and more. Bang & Olufsen, a big name, is putting out speakers with built-in Google Assistant this year and Klipsch announced that the next generation of its Heritage Wireless speakers will come with Assistant too. RIVA Audio was another speaker brand mention during the week.
The end of 2017 saw a number of smart speakers with Google Assistant built in. We’re talking about the JBL Link series of portable and home speakers which is now on sale in the US, as well as Harman Kardon’s upcoming range of Google powered speakers. Sony has its LF-S50G Google Assistant speaker too (above) which puts it under the Google Home umbrella and the Panasonic GA10 speaker is worth considering too.
The $199 Sonos One smart speaker is another option to consider. At the moment it works with Alexa, as does the entire Sonos range in beta when you also have an Echo, but Sonos has promised to add Google Assistant to its own do-it-all speaker in 2018 - no firm date.
Now that Google Assistant is supported by free smart home app Yonomi, though, you can control Sonos using Google Assistant on smart speakers via this platform - you have to set up routines to play certain playlists or pause music.
What can Google Assistant do?
Music and TV controller
So what can these Google Assistant devices do? The features are pretty much identical across the range. Let’s start with music. First up, they are all Wi-Fi connected speakers, with varying audio quality, that you can control with your voice via the ‘Hey, Google’ or ‘OK, Google’ phrase which wakes Google Assistant. The Google Home also has a touch interface on the top – tap to play or pause and move your finger in a circle to tweak volume.
You can set your music streaming service as a default – it supports Spotify Free and Premium, Google Play Music, Pandora in the US, TuneIn, YouTube Music in the US and Australia and iHeartRadio. You can tell the speaker to play a track, artists or genre, skip tracks and stop the music. You can also tell Google Home to play a radio station, e.g. BBC 6Music or podcasts.
The Home, Mini and Max can also be connected to use as a multi-room system in your house, which is pretty nifty though obviously very much on the budget, low quality end of things. After an update they also now work as Bluetooth speakers, so each speaker can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth to play music. But you still can’t hook a Google Home Mini up to an existing speaker via Bluetooth.
Let’s stay with media controls for a minute. Google Assistant talks to both TVs with a Chromecast plugged or built in as well as speakers with Chromecast Audio functionality – you can buy this as a $35 add-on just like the TV dongle. Voice controls for playing, pausing etc work for a small range of apps including YouTube, Netflix and Google Photos as well as CBS and the CW in the US.
And now you can set up Voice Match profiles for the Netflix profiles of everyone in the house so that when you speak, you get your own Netflix account - that's something Alexa can't do yet.
Google Assistant is also built in to Android TVs from brands like Sony's 4K range, Philips' OLED TVs and LG's new 4K TVs. So you will find a 'mic' button on the remote control or you can navigate to the search/mic icon at the top of the smart TV home screen to start talking to your set - no wake word here.
Features include searching for movies and TV shows, playing music or podcasts, controlling the volume and power of the TV, asking internet search questions as well as getting weather, calendar and traffic info on screen. You can also link the TV to your Google Home app to control the smart home gadgets you've added. With smart displays now here, you can see the potential in the original living room screen as a true hub - to view security camera footage, for instance, or video doorbell feeds.
At CES, TiVo announced built-in Google Assistant (and Alexa) voice controls and options like Nvidia's Shield TV already support the ecosystem whereas other set top and streaming box manufacturers, like Roku, are working on their own voice systems.
Your AI butler
A good way to find out what else Google Assistant can do is to explore the Google Home app. The features generally split into two groups: AI butler and smart home controls.
On the butler, or concierge, side of things you can ask Google Assistant all sorts of questions and get it to complete various tasks just by talking to it. You can set up a My Day program of news, weather, traffic and calendar updates that the Assistant reads out when you ask, for instance, “what’s my day like”, plus you can ask for info on all of the above plus commute times, flight info, weather forecasts, upcoming events and local businesses. You can also get info on sports teams, stocks, unit conversions, short translations, dictionary entries and well, plain old facts.
Getting more practical, you can set a timer (a popular use case), an alarm or a reminder and add an event to your Google calendar. You can also add items to a shopping list in Google Keep. It’s worth noting here that you can now give Assistant two commands at once e.g. “play pop music and what’s the weather?” and it will handle both.
Google Home Actions are how Google Assistant is able to interact with existing apps. They are the equivalent of Alexa’s Skills and can make it more useful when it comes to reference, productivity and getting things done with voice controls. Best of all, Home learns them automatically so you don’t need to set them up. To see what you can do head to the Google Home app on your phone, then Settings, then More Settings, then hit Services.
A couple of non-smart-home Actions from well known third parties include calling an Uber, asking questions on Quora, ordering and tracking pizza deliveries from Domino’s, doing quizzes on BuzzFeed, looking up lyrics on Genius, looking up recipes on Food Network and working out with FitStar.
How to control your home with Assistant
The third way you can use Google Home is as a voice control hub for smart home gadgets outside your TV and speaker set-up. In the app you can set up devices by going to ‘Home Control’ and selecting the brand/device, e.g. Philips Hue. It’s all pretty simple, and there's no QR code nonsense as with Apple HomeKit. Depending on the tech, you can do things like turn gadgets on and off, change settings and set up routines.
You can see a full list of Google Home compatible devices here – it includes smart thermostats, security cameras, lights, robot vacs, plugs, locks, fans and more. Some have Assistant controls built-in, others are existing speakers which require the Chromecast Audio add-on.
There’s less of a focus on automation (scenes, geofencing etc) for Google Home as with some more dedicated hubs or what Apple is doing with the Apple TV. So if you’re more interested in this side of things, best to pair it with a system like Wink, Hive or iHome.
To get started, here are a few things to try out.
One of the first things you might want to do is set up multiple user profiles. You can have up to six for one Google Home – each person just needs to download the app on their phone then find the device. The speaker can be trained to recognise your voices and then deliver personalised info, limited for now to commute times and music preferences.
Another useful, if not exciting, place to start is the Settings in the app – specifically More settings. Here you can set and change your default music source, and also enter and make sure your home and work address are correct for Google Maps based queries.
If you have a Chromecast, it’s definitely worth renaming it to something easy to say out loud like ‘TV’ so you can then say ‘OK, Google, Play Rick And Morty from Netflix on my TV’.
For more ideas and to get the most out of Google Assistant, have a read of our tips and tricks piece.
If you want to have bit more fun with Google Assistant, see our list of Easter Eggs, jokes and games to try out. Some of our faves are:
- OK Google, clean my room
- OK Google, how do you like your coffee?
- OK Google, who shot first
What works with Google Assistant?
The list of smart home devices and appliances that work with Google Assistant is pretty comprehensive and includes Nest, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Belkin and August.
Now Nest is returning to Google control, expect much more Assistant functionality too.
We’ve pointed out the few big names that aren’t compatible below in the ‘what can’t Google Home do?’ section.
If a gadget or piece of tech works with Google Assistant, that means it can be controlled via Google Assistant, not that it is a Google Home controller itself. So you can talk to the Home speaker to change the lights or open your garage door but you can’t talk to the individual third party gear – you have to be in the same room as the Home speaker.
By Google's count Assistant now works with 225 smart home brands and 1,500 devices. Outside the realm of speakers, new additions include Insteon hubs, cars via Android Auto, TVs from Haier and Hisense, Android TVs from LG and Xiaomi and even Kohler's Konnect smart bathroom (in future, it's Alexa only to start).
Check out our comprehensive list of Google Assistant compatible devices here.
Google Assistant also works with the IFTTT platform, which lets you create applets between different bits of connected kit as well as Yonomi and Stringify. This is especially helpful for filling in any gaps.
What can’t Google Assistant do?
Obviously this is all subject to change but there are a few things that Google Home can’t do which its rivals can, as well as some devices which it is currently not compatible with. It really all depends on what you want out of a smart home controller and which services you use the most.
On the music front, there’s no Apple Music support and with Apple’s HomePod due later this year, there’s not likely to be. Ditto no Amazon Music controls as per its rivalry with the Echo family.
When we get to Chromecast TV controls, the list of services that aren’t compatible is longer – notably Google’s own Play Movies, Amazon Prime Video, Mubi and Now TV.
As we mentioned, there is no native support for controlling Sonos speakers yet but this is coming via the Sonos One device in 2018 and for now we'd suggest trying Yonomi routines for now. When it comes to music, there’s also no support for controlling Samsung’s multi-room speaker system. Plus you can’t connect the Home Mini or Home to a better sounding speaker (via a 3.5mm jack or Bluetooth, for instance) unless you pay for the Chromecast Audio.
The Google Home Mini did launch with a feature that let users tap it to begin speaking, getting rid of the wake word, but this functionality has since been disabled after it turned out the Home Minis were recording everything people were saying.
When it comes to voice controls, i.e. actually talking back and forth, Google Assistant is only available in the following languages right now: English (American and British), French and Canadian French, German and Japanese.
There is also a translation feature for short phrases which is available for a bunch more languages, though not all of the languages that Google Translate supports on mobile and desktop. This isn’t an exclusive list but there's no translation for languages including Iranian, Arabic, Punjabi, Icelandic and Urdu. The Assistant will simply tell you it is “not able to do that yet”.
Google Assistant: Privacy
One of the reasons people might be scared of getting a smart speaker, especially one from Google which knows so much of our online lives already, is the issue of privacy in the smart home.
If you want to read through Google’s policy on Home, you can do so here. Here are the main points, though, so you don’t have to.
- Google Home devices aren't recording all the time, only when they hear the wake word 'OK Google' or 'Hey Google' with a few second snippet which is saved when this is detected. The error rate for this isn't perfect though so after you've used it a while, you will find some non relevant conversations in your history.
- Google uses your personal data to help advertisers target you with more “relevant” and “useful” ads but it doesn’t actually sell personal data to anyone. Ads, not hardware, are still Google’s main business model.
- Google does share transcripts of your recordings with third party developers who integrate their services with Google Home but not the audio.
- You can delete your conversation history via the Google Home MyActivity dashboard which removes them from your Google Account. But it isn’t 100% clear if Google still stores the data on its servers in its data centres even after a user has ‘deleted’ it. Google says it keeps “service-related information” about your account.