Google Home Mini review

Ok Google, are you better than the Echo Dot?

Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini needs little introduction - it's a smaller version of the regular Google Home we already know. It has all the Google Assistant brains and features of the bigger smart speaker, but costs less than half the price and, we reckon, looks better too.

At $49 it's the same price as the Echo Dot, Amazon's own tiny smart speaker. That's no coincidence: both Google and Amazon are in a fight to own our smart home, and down to updates like making phone calls and multi-user support, both are continuously matching each other feature-to-feature. Which is good for users of both.

But for most people, one ecosystem is enough for their house. So how does Google's new small speaker shape up against its bigger sibling and its number one challenger? We've been living with it for a week - here's what we reckon.

Google Home Mini: Design

Google Home Mini review

Google's really into fabric these days, and it's completely covered the top of the Home Mini in it. Like a giant woven pebble, the Mini manages to avoid looking like a chunk of tech without compromising the sound coming out of it. It also comes in three colors: black, gray, and what Google calls 'Coral'. We call it orangey-pink.

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Place it next to the Echo Dot and Google's answer is remarkably better looking; the Echo Dot makes no effort to hide its buttons or speaker grille. The new Amazon Echo changes that with a fabric exterior, so it's possible we'll see the next Echo Dot match it, but for now Google easily wins in the looks department.

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Not only is the Mini less conspicuous than its bigger brother, its size makes it easier to hide it away around the house. Google expects you might have a few of these - perhaps one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom, even the bathroom. Because it looks less like a gadget than the Echo Dot, I prefer having it on show, and other than the wire coming out the back the only giveaway is the four dotted lights that ignite whenever I ask it something. I've also come to highly appreciate that 'coral' color; it's nice to have a bit of smart home kit that isn't black, white or gray.

Google Home Mini review

On the back of the Home is a switch that will mute the Home's microphone, although you can also do this by voice. There's not much else to see on the speaker itself. The Home Mini is powered by micro USB, not USB-C like some of Google's other products, which might seem like an odd disconnect, but means you can use one of your existing, longer power cords if the one in the Mini box doesn't do the job. Also, if you lose the cable, chances are it's easier for you to find a quick replacement. I don't know about you, but I have approximately seven trillion micro USB cables in my cupboard, maybe three USB-C.

Google Home Mini: Features

Google Home Mini review

Smart speakers are funny things. They don't do an awful lot at the moment, but using our voice to control technology is so cool that I think we forgive a lack of features. Even asking something as simple as a traffic update can feel a little magical, when it works.

The Google Home Mini has all the same features of its bigger brother. You can ask it things like "What's the weather going to be like this afternoon?" or "How long will it take to walk to X?". As I'll get onto shortly though, the Mini isn't quite so good for playing music, but thankfully the platform is getting more skilled with every software update, making it not just about your tunes.

For example it's getting better at controlling smart home devices such as lights, thermostats and even locks (I have mine working with Philips Hue). Alexa still pairs with more names, but comparing the two, Google Assistant just feels a little more... personal. One of my favorite things about Google's platforms is the 'shortcuts' that let me simplify commands, so interactions feel a little less robotic. Saying "Good night" rather than "Turn of all the lights" is a nice touch.

It can also now make calls to phone numbers, and (finally) can take reminders. Home has come a long way in the past year thanks to continual updates from Google, but only if you find the post-music features mentioned above useful will the Home Mini be worth investing in. That said, at $50 it's an affordable gateway drug into the smart home, and into Google's ecosystem.

Google Home Mini review

Sadly, when the Google Home Mini arrives on 19 October it will be one feature short. When we started testing it, the Home Mini had a touch-sensitive top that let you long-press to activate Google Assistant or single tap to play/pause music. But after a discovery from Android Police, Google acknowledged that a small number of defective touch pads were waking Assistant all through the day and causing it to listen in. Google has now disabled the touch functionality entirely, and says this change is permanent.

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You can still touch the sides to raise or lower the volume, but otherwise all commands will have to be done by voice. Which is sort of the point of this, yes, but it's still a small convenience you no longer have.

Google Home Mini: Sound and mic quality

Google Home Mini review

But like me, I know a lot of people use their smart speakers for music, and that's where a smaller device like the Google Home Mini are going to fall down. While it packs a punch for the size, reaching the higher volumes with little distortion, it doesn't match the regular Google Home and we certainly wouldn't recommend it as your go-to speaker. For a bit of music in the bathroom, maybe even the kitchen (size depending) it's serviceable, but the Mini has just one 40mm driver. It can go loud, sure, and it's perfectly good enough for hearing Assistant read out directions or weather info, even find for podcasts, but for music it doesn't sound amazing.

That said, the sound is noticeably better than the Echo Dot. I took turns playing the same songs on each, and the Echo Dot was much tinnier and distorted at higher volumes. But if music is your thing, at the very least the Mini serves as a complement to the full Google Home, more ideally paired to a better speaker. To do this though you'll need to buy a Chromecast Audio ($35) to transmit between the two, because frustratingly the Home Mini doesn't have an auxiliary port, nor will it let you connect its to another speaker by Bluetooth. Yup, remember when Google mocked Apple for removing the headphone jack on the iPhone? And then went and did the same on the Pixel? Well it also doesn't see much future for it in the smart home either, though this means you can't simply hook it up with an existing speaker without a Chromecast. The Echo Dot has the 3.5mm, so advantage Alexa here.

As for the mic quality, the Home Mini has been good at picking up my voice from across the living room, sometimes even when I call to it from the kitchen, but accuracy definitely decreases with distance. I tried asking Google to play a few songs by just quoting the lyrics, a trick Google always likes to show off in demos. From afar it made more mistakes and often picked the wrong tracks, but doing the same test up close it had a much higher accuracy rate. Though for checking, say, the latest news headlines, even from far away the Home Mini managed to work out what I wanted.

Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini is a handsome little smart speaker that packs a punch for its size, and with Google's platform getting better by the day it's come at a good time. But if music is your thing, the Mini isn't going to deliver. Instead, see it more as a complement to the Home proper, one that's compromised in a few places. But just $49, those drawbacks may not be such a big deal.
  • Cheap entry to Google’s ecosystem
  • A design that blends in
  • Platform is always improving
  • Sound quality still lacking
  • No 3.5mm jack
  • Alexa better for smart home devices

TAGGED   google   speakers
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