The intelligent speaker isn’t always smart.
Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.
Like many tech enthusiasts, I’ve been using a $180 Amazon Echo intelligent speaker at my home for a year or more. And while I love using it for some things — playing music and podcasts, setting timers, and re-ordering items from Amazon — I’ve come to realize that, like Apple’s Siri and all other virtual assistants, its Alexa voice-driven artificial intelligence system disappoints a lot.
So I was excited to test Google Home, the $129 Echo competitor that puts the search giant’s much-touted new Google Assistant intelligence technology inside a small, but powerful, Echo-like speaker and microphone unit. Surely, I thought, after collecting all that info about the world (and about me) for years and years, Google would crush Amazon in the home-intelligence race.
But after nearly a week of using two Google Home units in two different rooms, my conclusions are decidedly mixed. Google Home does beat Alexa and the Echo in some ways, but it’s remarkably dumb in others. It needs enough work that, if I were Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, I wouldn’t be losing any sleep about it — at least not yet.
Really? It looks so good!
In my opinion — and, more importantly, that of my wife (whose taste is much better than mine and whose tech addiction much less) — the Google Home looks a lot better than the Echo. While the Echo is a tall black metal cylinder, Google’s contender is a smaller, more stylish white plastic cylinder with an angled top and a mesh speaker base. You can get alternate bases in different colors. The top is touch-sensitive and has built-in lights that show when the Home is ready to accept a command. It snaps to attention when it hears the trigger phrases “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google.” (The Echo’s trigger phrase can be set to simply “Alexa,” “Echo” or “Amazon.”) You can change the volume and pause / resume play using voice commands or by tracing a circle on the top and gently tapping it.
I ran into some glitches with setup, which is performed using an Android or iOS app called Google Home. My first unit wouldn’t recognize my Wi-Fi network and I had to use a temporary workaround to get connected. Google said that might be because I was using an Eero router system. It says it has seen issues with Eero and is working to resolve them. The Echo, just a few inches away, had no problem with the Eero Wi-Fi, nor did the Google Pixel phone or iPhone I was using, also within inches of the Google Home.
In the case of both Google Home units, the app reported trouble completing an initial update of the device. Google says it believes this was a bug that it will fix.
It’s not okay, Google. There’s an election going on!
In my tests, it was often a toss-up as to whether the Google Assistant or Alexa would do better.
For instance, when I asked “Who’s running for president?” Home listed the two main third-party candidates as well as the major-party nominees; the Echo left out Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
But when I asked Google Home, in four different ways, to give me the latest election polls, it answered “Sorry, I can’t help with that yet, but my team’s helping me learn,” the device’s go-to excuse. The Echo piped right up with the latest average of polls from the respected site RealClearPolitics. Google says that by election day next week, Home will be able to say who’s won or who’s winning for president, via a variety of queries — but that seems a tad late.
Google Home knew the address of my office. The Echo told the address of the nearest post office; when I asked using the words “work address,” it said it couldn’t help. But, while Google Home couldn’t give me any info about my calendar (which is kept on Google Calendar, but via a different account), the Echo knew all about it. (Google Home currently only supports a single Google account. I chose my personal account, which contains most of my search data. Google says it’s working on enabling multiple accounts.)
Lincoln vs. Lipitor
When I asked “Where is the nearest pharmacy?” (a question suggested for reviewers by Google), Google Home was dumb. It listed three. One was the correct answer (a CVS), but with the wrong address. A second was the clinic inside the same drugstore, which isn’t a pharmacy. The third was a nearby supermarket that lacks a pharmacy. The Echo gave me the CVS and also the nearest Walgreens, plus two smaller ones.
Google Home couldn’t take a note or set a reminder, like the Echo can. Google says it’s working on adding that.
On the other hand, Google Home carried on a conversation with me about Abraham Lincoln, telling me first when he was born, then answering several other queries about him without requiring me to repeat his name. The Echo couldn’t do this. Home gave a detailed answer to the question of when Jimmy Fallon was in the cast of Saturday Night Live, while the Echo had no idea.
For playing music, Google mostly did well. Home supports Spotify and Pandora, but I set it to rely on Google’s own Google Play and YouTube services. It handled even my hand-crafted playlists fine. But it occasionally stopped playing a song for a few seconds and then resumed.
While the sound from Home was quite good, my wife and I preferred the Echo’s sound slightly, both for music and voices. The Echo’s speaker was crisper, the Home’s a tiny bit fuzzy, to our ears. Also, on at least one album (the “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack), Home repeatedly declined to play more than one song, while the Echo played them all.
Like the Echo, Google Home can control some third-party smart home devices, but I couldn’t test this, as I have decided not to help bring down the internet by owning such devices.
Video via voice
Home is much less versatile than Echo, because it lacks the thousands of third-party apps (or “skills”) that the latter boasts. But it has its own special trick: It can, via a voice command, allow you to cast streaming videos or programs to your TV, provided you have one of Google’s Chromecast devices. For now, these videos have to come from Google’s own YouTube service, but the company says Netflix and others are coming.
In my tests, I was able to get all the Saturday Night Live presidential debate parodies to play on my TV using just Google Home and a single voice command. I also used Home to cast rock star music videos, other TV clips and a random YouTube video of a person playing a guitar.
About that guitar video. I saw it due to the fact that the dual long-range mics on the Home simply couldn’t grasp the name of my colleague “Lauren Goode” despite repeated attempts (you should watch her YouTube videos anyway.) So I saw other people. I had a handful of other experiences in which the Google Home mics just couldn’t figure out what I was saying.
At other times. they seemed overly sensitive. For instance, if you have two Home units set up, as I did, only the one closest to you is supposed to respond to your voice. I found this generally to be true, but on two occasions, both units responded. Overall, the mics had very good range and accuracy, even several rooms away, but not quite as good as the 7-mic array on the Amazon product.
If you do spring for multiple Google Home speakers, you can set them up, via the app, to play the same music in multiple rooms. This worked fine for me. Speaking of the app, it works on both Android and iPhone, and I tested both successfully.
A lot of people might be suspicious about placing a constantly-listening Google device in their homes, since the company is famous for collecting personal information. I asked Google about this, and a person who worked on Google Home swore that it only collects what you say after it hears the trigger phrases. Further, he said, the data goes into the same data store as other information Google collects about you. And, like that information, you can tweak or even delete it at myactivity.google.com.
To paraphrase Google’s own CEO, Sundar Pichai, artificial intelligence is still in its very early days. And, in my opinion, Google Home shows that. I have no doubt it will improve. But I was surprised that Google Home arrived so rough around the edges, especially when it had an existing competitive product to learn from and an unmatched wealth of data to draw upon.
Like a dominating batter in a tight World Series game, you kind of expect Google to hit a game-winning homer. But it merely hit a double and the contest is still very much on.