13 Things You Need to Know About Google Home

Google wants its Home to replace Amazon Echo as the smart assistant in your kitchen (or wherever).

By Melissa J. Perenson

Google Home wants to be the center of attention in your household. Powered by the "OK Google" artificial intelligence already included in recent Android phones, Home is Google's long-awaited play to become the defining center of your home's everyday activities. From mundane tasks like controlling the lights and temperature to playing music and assembling a calendar for the day, Google Home stands ready to respond to your every need.

Sound familiar? It should. Amazon Echo (which goes by the name Alexa) has been doing those things for two years now. So is Home worthy of a spot on your shelf? Here's everything we know about it right now.

1. It's Almost Here

Google Home is due out on November 4. You can preorder it for $129 (that's $50 less than the usual price for Amazon's Echo)—and if you do, Google will throw in a free six-month trial subscription to YouTube Red, Google's commercial-free YouTube service.

2. Surprise! The Design Is Kind of Stylish

Google says that it approached the design of Google Home with the aim of making it seem like a natural home furnishing, citing candles and wine glasses as design influences.

In that respect, it definitely succeeds: The Google Home is a squat, tapered cylindrical device that looks at home with other objects you’re likely to have on the shelf. It's a little more than half the height of the Amazon Echo.

3. It Has Soft Contours

And to some extent I mean “soft” literally. The device comes in six colors. All color options include a white upper half, but you have your choice of six base styles—three made of metal, and three made of soft fabric.

The finishes on all of them are smooth, with a design aesthetic that makes the Home look like a soft, squat friend, as opposed to a black monolith. (Sorry, Alexa. On a recent One Cool Thing podcast, editor Dave Johnson referred to his Amazon Echo as "Darth Vader's thermos.")

4. The Customizable Bases Are Easy to Swap In and Out

Home lets you swap out optional bases to achieve different looks.

If you like the idea of changing the gadget's look occasionally, you'll be happy to learn that attaching the base is stupid easy.

5. It Works With Voice and Touch

Google Home responds to plain English voice commands. (We don't know yet about support for other languages.) In addition, the entirety of the device’s gently angled top is a capacitive touch panel. The LEDs there have a gentle glow—the designers steer clear of harsh and bright. The four core LEDs that illuminate when you activate the panel are in the Google logo colors of red, green, yellow, and blue.

6. It's "OK Google" for Your House

Just as you would with your Android phone or the late Google Glass, simply say "OK, Google" to activate the Google Assistant on Google Home. (Phew. That's a lot of Googles for one sentence.) Alternatively, you can tap the surface to stop or pause playback—or tap on the surface to activate it.

Different gestures have different effects. Moving your finger in the shape of the upper arc of a circle changes the volume, for example. You can also give commands by voice (like “OK, Google, raise the volume”) or tell it to set the volume to a specific numeric level.

7. There's Only One Button

Google Home's one and only physical button is on its back, and controls whether the dual-microphone array is on (and listening) or shut off.

The microphones seemed surprisingly adept in the noisy demo environment. By contrast, Amazon’s Echo has seven microphones on its top surface, along with a button to disable the microphone.

8. It Can Play (Almost) All Your Music

Like Amazon Echo, Google Home can serve as a connected speaker, too. The speaker can play music from Google Music and YouTube Music. As with Amazon, you also get Spotify, TuneIn, and Pandora access.

Unsurprisingly, you can’t play your Amazon music collection via Google Home (which is unfortunate if you have a large Amazon library). And if you use Apple’s services, forget about using those. That said, if you use a service that isn’t available directly on Google Home but is on Chromecast, you can still access it that way.

Through Chromecast—any Chromecast, not just the latest 4K version, which Google announced alongside Google Home—you can cast images and video to your TV via the Google Home. Everything links up in the cloud, and you don’t have to do anything. For example, if your TV is registered via Chromecast, and you’ve already set up your services, you can tell Google Home to play video from Netflix, YouTube, or a GoPro Hero 5, and it will appear on your TV.

9. The Speaker Has Plenty of Oomph

The speaker, which the swappable base shields, seemed surprisingly powerful in our limited experience with it at the demo. In fact, it delivered better bass and clarity than the garden-variety bookshelf speakers did at the same demo when the presenters were showing how speakers connected to a Chromecast could be activated via voice using Google Home.

Google Home has a front-firing speaker driver and side-firing passive radiators, and this combination gets major credit for delivering the full-bodied sound and good bass we heard. Google Home also supports multiroom audio (Amazon’s Echo does not). If you have more than one Google Home in a room, you can get the same music from both speakers—though not a true stereo effect, as with some Bluetooth speakers.

10. It Sounds Surprisingly Human

Google says that its AI sounds so natural because the company recorded thousands of short phrases, which the software then pieces together to produce a voice with a decidedly natural tone. Sometimes the effect is a bit awkward (as its jokes fall flat). But the nameless Google Assistant still sounds more like a member of the family than, say, Amazon's Alexa does.

Google Assistant's flow of language was smooth and clear on Google Home. It can intuit the context of the conversation, which means that when you ask a question, Google Assistant can figure out who you’re talking about based on the interactions that preceded that comment. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see how Google Assistant would respond to natural interactions—an area where Alexa fails frequently. When we get a review unit of Google Home, we'll certainly spend some time on this aspect of the product.

11. It Can Figure Stuff Out Sort of the Way a Person Can

Don’t have all the information you need to issue a complete instruction to Google Home? It may not matter: Google Home can intuit a lot of things for you, and will help you figure the task out—and then do the job seamlessly. One example shown in the launch demo: Suppose that you want to hear a song but you don’t know its name. Just tell Google what you do know about it, like: "OK, Google, play that Shakira song from Zootopia." Google Home will figure out the request and begin playing "Try Everything."

12. Like Echo, Home Is the Center of Home Automation

No surprise here. Google Home will be a voice control for (some) home automation. At launch, it works with Nest, SmartThings, and Philips’s Hue lighting. In the demo, it successfully carried out a request to change the temperature on a Nest, and to change the color of a light bulb from normal to blue.

13. It Can Be Your Personal Concierge

Google Home is like the physical voice hub for your Google Assistant. Need to set an alarm to go running? No problem. Want to play a trivia game? Google Assistant can do that, too, complete with questions, lame jokes, and sound effects.

Curious about today's weather? Need to translate a foreign phrase? Want to know what’s on your calendar? Interested in configuring your own, customized morning executive summary to be delivered via voice every day? Just ask. Google Home is clearly intended to play nicely in the Google ecosystem, much as Amazon Echo is tightly integrated with Amazon’s content and shopping universe.

A Few Things We Don't Know

For all the pomp and splash around Google Home’s unveiling, Google did not discuss privacy, or say anything about what you may sacrifice with regard to privacy when you adopt Google Home. We have no rose-colored glasses here: Google is in the business of knowing as much as it can about you, and that, in part, is how it makes the magic of its AI and its predictive assistance come to life.

Just how much of you are you signing away in exchange for the data mining that Google Home will do? That remains to be seen, assuming that Google ever provides that information in a transparent way. (You might have similar concerns about Amazon’s Alexa. But Alexa doesn’t have access to the rest of your e-mail, photos, and more.)