Amazon's Alexa hogs a lot of the digital assistant limelight, but that started to change in 2018. Google has put in a ton of work to make Google Assistant a worthy rival, and if you have its voice tech in your home already you know how capable it is.
So what exactly is Google Assistant? It's a voice platform which powers both the tech on Android phones and a range of voice controlled, Wi-Fi connected smart speakers with microphones and, more recently, devices with displays too. Itâs also a platform for Google and third-party developers to create extra features, or Actions, for the voice assistant and compatible devices.
With a smart speaker, you can talk to Google Assistant from across the room to control your music, get news and weather, control other smart home gadgets and appliances, set timers, 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.
Now that Nest has been folded into Google, the two formidable smart home ecosystems can offer more integration, making Google Assistant a stronger smart home play in 2019 and beyond.
In this Missing Manual, weâll 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.
To start with, there are now three smart speakers made by Google: the original Google Home, which was launched in 2016 in the US and later elsewhere. Google then expanded the lineup with the Home Mini and Home Max in the second half of 2017. And now, it's got the display-enabled Home Hub.
The Google Home Mini (above) is the cheapest option on offer. Itâs $49, so ideal for dipping a toe into the smart home waters, and itâs a stylish, small puck-shaped device that will easily blend into your home. Our main concern is that the audio quality just isnât there and â unlike its equivalent the Amazon Echo Dot â you canât hook it up to an existing speaker either unless you fork out more money for a Chromecast Audio adaptor. On the plus side, Google is practically giving them away - there are a number of deals and bundles that'll get you one for a reduced price.
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 itâs super easy to set up too. It's not as good of a starter option as the Mini, but if you're looking for something a little better this is for you.
There's also the Google Home Max. This is the high end speaker which Google is promising has 20 times more powerful sound than the Google Home. This beast has impressive, rich and powerful sound. It does cost a pretty penny, at $399, but you're paying for premium sound. It's available in the US and UK.
The newest kid on the block is the Google Home Hub, which is Google's own entry in its larger Smart Display initiative, though the Home Hub isn't like the rest. While most Smart Displays run on Android Things and feature cameras for video chat, the Home Hub runs on something called Cast and has no cameras.
Launched at the beginning of 2018, Smart Displays were a riposte to Amazon's Echo Show. Initially, Google leaned on third parties like Lenovo and JBL to make Smart Displays, but now it's taking things into its own hands with the Home Hub.
And, well, the Home Hub is an excellent Smart Display. Google is also continually updating it, like with new features like Google Assistant Broadcast (read: intercom-style messages) and Recommended Recipes. Plus, there's a new translation feature coming - the Home Hub will operate as a translator between you and someone else.
At its core, Smart Displays partner a touch interface with Google Assistant, allowing you to swipe and tap your way around. There's also YouTube, which is missing on Echo Show thanks to a corporate spat. The Home Hub also arrives with Home View, a top-down look at your smart home devices and an easy way to control them. Since there's no camera, Google thinks it will make users more likely to stick it in places like the bedroom.
The big movement in third-party Assistant speakers right now is Smart Displays. Google took the Android approach here, and let third parties make their own Smart Displays without an initial flagship from Google itself. That's now changed with the Home Hub, but the move did its job.
There are a handful of Smart Displays out there from the likes of Lenovo and JBL, and more of the way. There are more Smart Displays from the likes of LG on the way, including a rumored one from Sony. In 2019 and beyond, we're going to see different kinds of Smart Displays. Lenovo and Google unveiled the Smart Clock at CES 2019, for instance.
As for what you can do on the display: You can watch YouTube videos, view Google Photos, control smart home devices, take a look at your commute with Google Maps, search for recipes, how-to videos and more. If your Smart Display has a camera, you can even use Google Duo to make video calls. If it doesn't, you can simply do audio calls.
We've also seen plenty of non-screened Google Assistant speakers from Anker, iHome, Altech Lansing, Braven, Hogar and more. Bang & Olufsen, a big name, has put out speakers with built-in Google Assistant this year. Klipsch announced that both its next generation of Heritage Wireless speakers and five new Klipsch soundbars will come with Assistant too.
Meanwhile, Polk Audio 's speaker also packs in Chromecast, and JBL will be adding to its Assistant-powered Link series of portable and home speakers with an Assistant sound bar heading our way later in the year. And yes,
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. It's been Alexa only for ages, but at CES 2019 we finally got to hear what Google Assistant sounds like on a Sonos. So it's finally, definitely coming.
Since 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.
Music and media controller
So what can these Google Assistant devices do? The features are pretty much identical across the range. Letâs 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 â 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 â 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, Home Hub, 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.
Letâs stay with media controls for a minute. Google Assistant talks to TVs with a Chromecast plugged in. You can also plug a Chromecast Audio into your speakers to make them Wi-Fi enabled, but that device is discontinued. If you opt for the new 2018 Chromecast, you'll also be able to add your TV to your multi-room audio setup. Oh, 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 Spotify and Netflix profiles of everyone in the house so that when you speak, you get your own account.
Google Assistant is naturally built into Android TVs from Sony, like its 4K range, but that's not where it stops. LG's TVs don't run Android TV, but they do come with Google Assistant built in. Samsung's TVs, which run Tizen, will also add Google Assistant into the built-in party in 2019.
There are an increasing number of TVs, like those from Vizio, that are at least building in Google Assistant support. If your TV does have it built in, you will find a 'mic' button on your remote control to start talking to your set - no wake word needed 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.
In the world of set-top boxes, the Nvidia Shield TV already supports built-in Google Assistant, while TiVo announced built-in Google Assistant (and Alexa) voice controls and options. Dish has also said its Hopper set-top boxes will add Google Assistant support. Other manufacturers, like Roku, are working on their own voice systems.
Here are some example Google Assistant commands to get going with music and TV:
- "Hey Google, play some hip hop" [genre]
- "Hey Google, play Bon Iver" [artist]
- "Hey Google, play KEXP" [radio]
- "Hey Google, play some music on Pandora" [service]
- "Hey Google, skip tracks"
- "Hey Google, play my Wine Goes In playlist" [playlist]
- "Hey Google, stop in 20 minutes"
- "Hey Google, what's this song?"
- "Hey Google, play Honest Trailers on Chromecast" [YouTube]
- "Hey Google, play Mudbound on Netflix"
- "Hey Google, play House of Cards on TV"
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, âwhatâs my day likeâ, 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, dictionary entries and well, plain old facts. Plus, there's translations. You can get short translations in about 30 (and growing) languages. You can also use the Home Hub to act as a translator. It'll translate entire conversations, though it's not great right now.
Getting more practical, you can set a timer (a popular use case), an alarm or a reminder (including new interactive alarms for kids) and add an event to your Google calendar. You can make calls to contacts, numbers or businesses right there on the speaker. You can also add items to a shopping list in Google Keep. Itâs worth noting here that you can now give Assistant two commands at once e.g. âHey Google play pop music and whatâs the weather?â and it will handle both.
Google Home Actions are how Google Assistant is able to interact with existing apps. They are the equivalent of Alexaâs 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 donât 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 Dominoâs, doing quizzes on BuzzFeed, looking up lyrics on Genius, looking up recipes on Food Network and working out with FitStar. You'll soon be able to set multiple Actions too, allowing you to group multiple tasks into one command.
Here are some suggestions of Google Assistant commands on everyday info and internet queries:
- "Hey Google, what does my day look like?"
- "Hey Google, what's the weather like today?"
- "Hey Google, what's the traffic like on the way to work?"
- "Hey Google, how do you make mushroom risotto?"
- "Hey Google, good morning" [daily briefing]
- "Hey Google, did Chelsea win?"
- "Hey Google, order me a Domino's pizza"
- "Hey Google, call Sandy"
- "Hey Google, how do you say shut up in French?"
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 âHome Controlâ and selecting the brand/device, e.g. Philips Hue. Itâs 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 â it includes smart thermostats, security cameras, lights, robot vacs, plugs, locks, fans and more. The latest additions are that you can control LG and Panasonic TVs and Roku streaming sticks and set-top boxes from Home View on Smart Displays.
Some have Assistant controls built-in, others are existing speakers which require the now-discontinued Chromecast Audio add-on. Assistant is improving all the time and we found out that Google will soon allow smart home tech and appliance manufacturers to create their own custom voice control commands.
So far there's been 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.
Another useful thing is Routines, which let you set up these type of automated scenes with Google Assistant. If youâre more interested in this side of things, you can always pair it with a system like Wink, Hive or iHome but we'd simply wait to see how useful Google's own Routines are first.
Here's some Google Assistant commands to get going with your smart home:
- "Hey Google, turn the living room lights to blue"
- "Hey Google, turn on bedroom light"
- "Hey Google, dim the living room lights"
- "Hey Google, turn on all the switches"
- "Hey Google, set the heating to 22 degrees"
- "Hey Google, raise the temperature three degrees"
- "Hey Google, what's the temperature?"
To get started with Google Assistant, here are a few more 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 â 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.
How to set your music streaming service
Another useful, if not exciting, place to start is the Settings in the app â 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.
It's been around for a while in the US and now the UK gets free Wi-Fi voice calls on Google Home speakers too. To read out a number or the name of a business, you can simply say "Hey Google, call xxx". The only setting up you might need to do is to check your Google Contacts are synced if you want to say the name of a person to call. What's nifty is that it doesn't even need your phone - it's not acting as a speakerphone, the call is made by the speaker itself.
If you have a Chromecast, itâs definitely worth renaming it to something easy to say out loud like âTVâ so you can then say âOK Google, Play Rick And Morty from Netflix on my TVâ. Once the Chromecast and your Google Assistant speaker are on the same network, they will both show up in the Google Home app - you just may need to link your services in the app.
This feature puts Google (almost) on a par with Echo devices. It's as easy as going to the Home app, finding your smart speaker in Devices then pairing it with your Bluetooth speaker. You can also set up groups for multi-room audio. Or you can do it the Wi-Fi way, as below..
Setting up multi-room audio with Google Assistant and Chromecast is pretty straightforward - you can set up audio groups and then control individual speakers, groups or everything at once with your voice.
If you're not a fan of Assistant's default voice, you can change this in the app. Google recently rolled out six new options, bringing the grand total up to eight. You can also change the Google Assistant's accent to British or Australian.
If you start chatting to Google Assistant all day, you might be interested to find out how you can access and delete these recordings and transcripts. It's fairly straightforward via Google's My Activity log - just be aware, we have no confirmation that deleting them from your account deletes personalised info from Google's own servers.
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 fun Easter Eggs, jokes, references 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
- Hey Google, is the cake a lie?
- Hey Google, party on Wayne
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 being fused into Google's home division after CEO Marwan Fawaz stepped down, expect much more Assistant functionality, too.
Weâve pointed out the few big names that arenât compatible below in the âwhat canât Google Home do?â 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 canât talk to the individual third party gear â 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 canât Google Assistant do?
Obviously this is all subject to change, but there are a few things that Google Home canât do that 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, thereâs no Apple Music or Amazon Music controls, as per its rivalry with each ecosystem. When we get to Chromecast TV controls, the list of services that arenât compatible is longer â notably Googleâs 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 2019 and for now we'd suggest trying Yonomi routines for now. When it comes to music, thereâs also no support for controlling Samsungâs multi-room speaker system, though there's a small glimmer of hope that might change now that Google Assistant is on Samsung TVs.
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 nine languages right now: English (American and British), French and Canadian French, Spanish, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese. More recently, Google added Danish, Dutch, Hindi, Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Thai, plus a cool, new multi-lingual ability that lets you switch between English, French and German (though not in the same command).
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 isnât 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 ânot able to do that yetâ.
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 Googleâs policy on Home, you can do so here. Here are the main points, though, so you donât 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 ârelevantâ and âusefulâ ads but it doesnât actually sell personal data to anyone. Ads, not hardware, are still Googleâs 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 My Activity dashboard which removes them from your Google Account. But it isnât 100% clear if Google still stores the data on its servers in its data centres even after a user has âdeletedâ it. Google says it keeps âservice-related informationâ about your account.