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Google Home on Shelf

A Month with Google Home

When google home was first teased during I/O this year I was super excited. As someone who already had Alexa in his life, but was an android user and deeply vested in the google ecosystem I was excited mostly for one really silly reason. Google Play Music.

A few years ago I ditched CDs for mp3s, and initially that was almost entirely through amazon's digital CDs. Specifically I would look forward to the new batch of $5 CDs each month so I actually have a pretty decent collection in amazon, and as a prime member I get access to their prime stations as well... but there's not a ton of music on prime. Then about a year ago I started to move everything over to google's music service. This was before their monthly service was announced. I uploaded all my digital CDs from amazon, and all the rips from my physical CD collection (still not an insubstantial 200). This mostly worked well. Google uses a matching system when you upload. To save space, instead of storing 1000000 copies of Thriller they store just the one and everyone with a verified copy gets to link to it. I had a decent collection of rap from the late 90's and early aughts, several of my "Parental Advisory" tracks ended up getting matched to the clean version. Not ideal, but at least all my music was in one place now. I set up my CD ripper to write to a drive that would automatically sync with google music, and setup my amazon music client to download new purchases to the same folder. Now no matter where I got my music it would all end up in google.

This continued for a few months until google announced their "unlimited" streaming plan. I had been using a paid pandora plan for my digital radio fix. Initially I was on the fence about going with a subscription model. I knew spotify had been around for awhile, but a whole separate service, to be able to listen to anything at any time (as apposed to the random nature of pandora) just wasn't enough to win me over. Flash forward though and I've got all my music in google already, and for the same $9.99/mo I can get the same service, but still access all my own music (nobody seems to have all the Kumbia Kings CDs, for example) it was too tempting to pass up. Plus, you could click a button and add practically any CD to your personal library and the CDs that were part of the unlimited plan would show up alongside all my purchased music, it was perfect. These days I don't even think about buying individual tracks/CDs. The biggest hesitation I had originally (and it's still a valid concern) is that while the value is a net gain for me ($9.99/mo for unlimited vs average $20-$50/mo for purchased CDs) as soon as I stop paying for the service I loose access to what's now hundreds of albums in my library. 

This long digression is all to illustrate just how big of a deal google play music is to my life. My echo was primarily a voice activated music player, and as that was the primary function, not having access to all my music was very frustrating. Now the echo lives in the kitchen where it controls most of the lighting on the lower level of the house, provides timers while cooking and of course music. She'll even answer the odd query, but that's more a novelty and more often is asked just to see if she can answer (more often than not, no). 

The other exciting prospect was the ability to use multiple google home devices without the annoying problem of activating both an echo and dot (that has since been resolved, but wasn't when I made my pre-order) when using the command phrase. Plus they work as cast devices, so you can do the whole group thing. I pre-ordered 2 as soon as the page went live. My office is actually quite large and (currently) includes 9 rooms (it used to be a dental office).

Just like with the echo there's a ton of things that google home can do. I really like the touch top. I have one on my primary desk, and it's great to be able to just tap the top to pause my music before answering the phone or joining a meeting. The touch sensitive top also lets you control the volume, but in this respect I have to give it to the echo. The top wheel is just much easier to use. 

In solving my primary reason for purchase google home does a... decent job. It wasn't even a very high bar, play google play music. The voice control is generally pretty good, but occasionally the music "either isn't available or can't be played right now" as with my latest query to, "Play the latest deadmau5 CD". The speaker itself is... OK. I find the speaker on the echo was much better, but my biggest issue is that it has a tendency to just stop playing. You'll be listening and all of a sudden silence. Typically I can get it going again with a simple "Hey google, skip" and it'll go to the next song no problem. This seems to happen because the device looses connection to the wireless AP, just randomly, and it reconnects within what appears to be seconds. If I'm casting from my computer, for example, when the song/show/whatever stops playing clicking on the cast icon will reveal that the specific device I was casting to has disappeared as an option. This typically happens at least once a day, some days it will happen a dozen times or more. Hopefully a firmware update will be able to fix this connectivity issue. It's not just when I'm listening to music either. It can just be sitting there doing nothing and I try to query something simple like the weather and get told it's not connected to the network. 

The second major gripe I have with google home is reminders. During the day I'll often remember something and instead of loosing focus I'll set a reminder for later. I thought, this will be great with google home now. I have an android wear watch and the voice recognition has always been sub-par, when it even bothers to hear me at all. At this point if I can't respond to a text with one of the canned responses I just take out my phone instead of trying 8 times to get the watch to work. Now with google home that should solve that problem, right? Wrong. First time I tried to set a reminder I got this lovely message: "Sorry, create reminders is not yet supported." What?! Really? How difficult could that really be? Google home can create a timer, and she parrots back all your requests... all you need to do is tie the two together. Now that I have google home setting reminders is actually slightly more difficult. If I now take out my phone to set the reminder I have to remember not to just do a full voice dictation. I have to tap the little microphone to let the phone know I really want it to answer and not google home, because if you say "ok google, remind me..." Even though it pops up google and you can watch the live voice-to-text thing like normal, once it finishes it will then say "Answering on another device", where you get the notice that it can't set a reminder. 

My two main uses for google home are less than perfect, to say the least. I have the last gen chrome cast (not the new ultra, but not the old stick), but it's still in a box somewhere from our move so I haven't been able to test that out yet. From what I hear though it's a bit of a mixed bag. I think it's extremely odd that it only works with youtube right now. I can see not integrating with other parties at launch. So, yes, while it would be great if it worked with netflix/hulu/etc I get that those are 3rd party systems, and integration is probably a matter of time. The real head scratcher, for me, is that it doesn't work with google movies & TV. Watching youtube shows/clips on your main TV, for me, has always been a bit of novelty. I've done it... maybe twice. To have a device connected to the TV, that can play google movies & TV is you use the home app, can't use home to cast your own 1st party service designed for the TV. That just makes no sense to me.

Lastly, as far as the interactions with the google assistant for general queries, it seems to have a better grasp of questions and provide more detailed/relevant answers. I also really like the conversational nature. I'm a person that will go down the rabbit whole, and it's nice having the assistant keep up. I do wish you didn't have to keep using the trigger phrase, but I'm sure we'll get there eventually.

As far as my primary uses goes, it fell short in every respect, but I'm an early adopter and used to these kind of failures. Doesn't make them any more easy to deal with though. Bottom line I don't think I can really recommend the product in its current form. I'll certainly keep using it, and helping google collect the data it needs to make it better, but unless you really want a semi-decent voice activated google play music speaker, it's probably a wait for version 2 device. 

Overall: 5/10