Google Assistant guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

Everything you wanted to know but were too embarrassed to… Google

Google Assistant: The missing manual
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Amazon's Alexa hogs a lot of the digital assistant limelight, but thanks to Google relentlessly pushing its Assistant, the tides have started to turn. Google Assistant has evolved into a worthy rival; if you have its voice tech in your home already you know how capable it is.

Google Assistant is a voice platform which powers both the tech on Android phones and a range of voice-controlled, Wi-Fi connected smart speakers with microphones. It’s 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 personalized calendars and music playlists.

Now that Nest has been folded into Google, the whole Google smart home division is being referred to as Google Nest, and you can expect future Google-built devices to come under the Nest name.

In this guide, 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 and reviews.

Jump to the information you need

Google Assistant guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

The best Google Assistant smart speakers

To start with, there are now five smart speakers made by Google. The original Google Home (which is effectively discontinued officially now) was launched in 2016, but Google has since expanded the lineup with the Home Max and the Home Mini, which now goes by the name Nest Mini. It also launched the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max – the first Google Home speakers to sport a display.

The Google Nest Mini (above) is the cheapest option on offer. It’s $49, so ideal for dipping a toe into the smart home waters. 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, even with the updates in the new Nest Mini, however you can hook it up to other speakers using Bluetooth.

The other great thing about the Mini is that Google is practically giving them away – there are a number of deals and bundles that'll get you one of these dinky speakers for a reduced price.

The Google Home Max is a high-end speaker that delivers much more of a sonic wallop than anything else in Google's first-party lineup. This beast has impressive, rich and powerful sound but does cost a pretty penny at $399.

Google Assistant guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

However, if sound is your priority, we'd recommend looking beyond Google's own range. There's a rich bounty of third-party speakers with the Google Assistant built in, many from major names in the audio space. Sonos is one of the biggest: the Sonos One, Sonos Move, Sonos Arc and Sonos Bea all offer Google Assistant (as well as Alexa, if you want to mix and match).

Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Polk, Marshall and LG are just a few others to consider. Go check out our list of the best Google Assistant speakers for more. But remember: some speakers can also work with the Google Assistant, they just have to be controlled by one that has the Assistant built in. This can be handy for multi-room setups like Sonos', where its older "non-smart" speakers can be controlled by a Google Home, or any of the newer Sonos models with Google built in.

Google Assistant guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

Google Assistant Smart Displays

The newest kids on the block are the Nest Hub and the Nest Hub Max, part of Google's Smart Display initiative. Initially, Google launched the smaller of these under the name Google Home Hub, but has since unified its home hardware division with Nest, and going forward we expect most, if not all, its speakers to arrive with the Nest branding.

But new names aside, the Nest Hub is exactly the same device it was before, while the Nest Hub Max adds a larger screen and a camera that can be used like other Nest cams, giving you the ability to remotely view your home and have it monitor for intruders.

Tested: Google Nest Hub review | Google Nest Hub Max review

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, before launching its own offerings.

And, well, the Nest Hub is an excellent Smart Display. Like the others it's getting updated all the time with features that take advantage of the screen. The Nest Hub Max does all the same stuff, just with more.

At their 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 (at least in an app; there's an awkward browser workaround). Smart Displays also have Home View, a top-down look at your smart home devices and an easy way to control them.

Most Google Smart Displays have cameras for video calling, but some, like the smaller Nest Hub and Lenovo Smart Clock, do not. There's a wide variety of options here, with more to come.

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, watch 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, Duo is still there, but limited to audio calls.

Best Google Assistant-compatible devices

Google Assistant-compatible devices

The list of smart home devices and appliances that work with Google Assistant is pretty comprehensive and includes Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Belkin and August. And now that Nest and Google are essentially one, you can expect future products to come with full Google Assistant functionality.

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 that's doing the controlling.

By Google's count Assistant now works with over 1,000 smart home brands and over 10,000 devices. Outside the realm of speakers, there are Insteon hubs, cars via Android Auto, TVs from Haier and Hisense, and Android TVs from LG and Xiaomi.

Google Assistant also works with the IFTTT platform, which lets you create applets between different bits of connected kit.

Check out our comprehensive list of Google Assistant compatible devices here.

Google Assistant commands

Music and media controller

So what can these Google Assistant speakers 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 and Max also have a touch interface on the top – tap to play or pause and move your finger in a circle to tweak volume.

Best Google Assistant commands

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, 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. They also work as Bluetooth speakers, so each speaker can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth to play music.

Let’s 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. 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 guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

Google Assistant and TVs

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 has also announced that all of its 2020 smart TVs will come with the option of Google Assistant or Alexa.

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 and 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, which includes viewing security camera footage, for instance, or video doorbell feeds.

TV not got the Google love? You can just give it some with a Chromecast dongle, then link that dongle to your Google Home or Nest speakers for voice control.

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"

Google Assistant: What can it do?

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 have it 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, 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 Nest Hub to act as a translator. It'll translate entire conversations, though in our experience it needs a bit of work.

Google Assistant guide: The missing manual to your Google Home

Getting more practical, you can set a timer (a popular use case), an alarm (which you can now stop with just a simple "Stop") 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. It’s worth noting here that you can now give Assistant two commands at once e.g. “Hey Google play pop music and what’s the weather?” and it will handle both.

Last year, Google also rolled out something called 'Picks for you', which offers personalized suggestions for recipes, events and podcasts. Say it notices you often searching for the same cuisine – it will then start giving you recipe ideas tailored to your tastebuds. It will also use contextual tells, like the time of day, to know whether you'd prefer a breakfast or dinner recipe.

Google Home Actions are how Google Assistant is able to interact with existing apps. These 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 > More Settings > Services.

Outside of the smart home, there are third-party Actions for 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. You can even set multiple Actions, allowing you to group multiple tasks into one command.

Better yet, later this year Google will roll out Scheduled Actions, which will let you tell the Assistant to activate compatible devices at your time of choosing. So you could say, "Hey Google, turn the heating off at 10pm," or "Hey Google, start the Roomba at 4pm."

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?"

How to control your home with Google Assistant

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 setup. In the app you can set up devices by going to ‘Home Control’ and selecting the brand/device, for example Philips Hue. It’s all pretty simple, and there's no QR code nonsense, as with Apple HomeKit. Better yet, Google is going to make this setup process easier in 2020.

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. Assistant is improving all the time and Google will soon allow smart home tech and appliance manufacturers to create their own custom voice control commands.

Another useful thing is Routines, which let you set up these type of automated scenes with Google Assistant. If you’re more interested in this side of things, you can always pair it with a system like Wink, Hive or iHome but we'd recommend trying Google's own Routines first.

Here are 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?"

Google Assistant tips and tricks

Google tips and tricks

To get started with Google Assistant, here are a few more things to try out.

How to set up Voice Match

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 recognize your voices and then deliver personalized info, although this is still limited to just a few different requests.

How to set your music streaming service

Another useful, if less 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.

How to make voice calls on Google Home

Free Wi-Fi voice calls are available on Google Home speakers in both the US and UK. To read out a number or the name of a business, you can simply say "Hey Google, call [name]". 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.

How to voice control your Chromecast

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". Once the Chromecast and your Google Assistant speaker are on the same network, they will both show up in the Google Home app – you may just need to link your services in the app.

How to pair Google Home with Bluetooth speakers

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.

How to set up multi-room audio

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.

How to change the Google Assistant voice

If you're not a fan of Assistant's default voice, you can change this in the app. There are several on offer, including John Legend (yes, really). You can also change the Google Assistant's accent to British or Australian.

How to delete Google Assistant recordings

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 personalized 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.

Brilliant Google Assistant Easter Eggs

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"

Google Assistant: Privacy

One of the reasons people might be scared of getting a smart speaker, especially one from a company that already knows so much about our online lives, is privacy.

If you want to read through Google’s policy on Home, you can do so here. With the company recently unifying Home and Nest under one roof, it's also published a bunch more privacy promises, which you can find here. Here are some of the key policies from Google:

  • Google Home devices aren't recording all the time, only when they hear the wake words "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 (such as Uber). With some third-party companies Google will also share the audio, but only where you've given it explicit permission to do so.
  • You can delete your conversation history, which removes it from your Google Account. But it isn’t 100% clear if Google still stores the data on its servers in its data centers even after a user has ‘deleted’ it. Google says it keeps “service-related information” about your account.

For more information on what Google and the other big smart home companies are doing with your data, check out our full deep dive.

TAGGED    google    smart home

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