There’s no question Google Home is a nifty bit of technology. The microphone works from a distance, the speech recognition is excellent, the speakers are seriously good. The industrial design means it fits into a room and the unobtrusive lights are jaunty and useful. It just works out of the box, from the trivially simple set-up to recongising four members of the family as individuals. It is all good.
The key question, though, is what to do with it once it’s set up so beautifully. The first couple of hours are spent asking the unit questions, but there’re are only so many questions you need the answer to. There’s a nice feature which has the unit summarising your day; but I have a dashboard that does that at a glance rather than listening to someone read out the information. That is an issue – I’d generally prefer to have information displayed than read out to me; that may be a personal issue though, and I haven’t yet used Home with Chromecast which is one of its core features.
This issue is exemplified in the recent advertising which appears to show someone copying out by hand the diary entries that Google Home is reading out to them. Even Google doesn’t appear to have a clear picture of how a device without a screen works everyday,
There are times when talking is best though. Standing in the kitchen with flour on your hands and telling Google Home to add an item to the family shopping list is cool and actually far more efficient than writing on the whiteboard that is our old family shopping list. Telling Home to set a timer for 20 minutes to time the cooking is again an excellent lurk. The jury is out on whether those two things are worth the purchase price, but there’s no question we like them and are using them daily.
And there are times when a verbal response is best too. So asking what the outside temperature is while putting on my shoes, and getting a verbal response, works really well. This sort of thing even works with generalised questions like “Do I need an umbrella today?”.
Google Home will integrate with a bunch of internet of things devices, usually through IFTTT. I was surprised, though, to find that the link is one way – you can trigger other devices or apps from Home but you can’t have Home triggered by them. So I can get Home to turn on a light, but I can’t get it to tell me when a light has been turned on (or more usefully, for example, when my wife has left work so I can put the dinner on).
The other major inflexibility is having to say ‘OK Google” or “Hey Google” (the latter is useful because it doesn’t trigger Google Assistant on the Android phones we have lying about). It would be nice to be able to customise the trigger phrase to a name or something that works for the family rather than always referring to Google. Maybe constant repetition is seen as good marketing by Google, but for me it’s going to quickly become an annoying negative.
Google, the company, has announced a range of upgrades coming to Home and some of those will certainly make it more useful. Right now it’s fun to have, but it doesn’t have the depth that would make it a truly useful digital assistant. I have a feeling that in a few years when deeply useful digital assistants are the norm I’ll be telling my grand-children I had one of the first Google Homes and they’ll be amazed at how basic it was. That said, while there’s clearly more to come, Home is about as good as it gets today.
I’m not going to say that I’d recommend everyone run out and buy one today. But if you have the inclination, and the money, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Home develops – because these sort of assistants are clearly going to become the lynch-pins for a connected home in the future.