Google Home, a stereo speaker/virtual assistant competitor to Amazon Echo, shows promise in its capability to pick up on the context of questions and deliver helpful answers. But CIO.com blogger James A. Martin experienced too many setup headaches to recommend Google's new smart home gadget.
I wish I could be upbeat about Google Home. I’ve read mostly positive reviews of the now $129 smart home device. It definitely shows promise. And my frustrations with it may be a fluke. But based on my experiences, I’d go with Amazon Echo ($180) or Echo Dot ($50) if you’re in the mood for a stereo speaker/virtual assistant.
Problems from the get-go setting up Google Home
I ran into problems setting up Google Home almost immediately.
During setup, the Google Home iOS app on my iPhone 7 Plus recognized the Google Home device. (There’s an Android Google Home app, too, of course.) But I couldn’t get the app to connect Google Home to my home router’s 2.4-GHz or 5-GHz networks.
(FYI: I positioned Google Home within about five feet of my new Comcast Xfinity dual-band router, in the same room, and in a direct line with one another.)
After multiple attempts, in which I rebooted the router, rebooted my iPhone and rebooted Google Home more than once, I finally got Google Home connected to my 2.4-GHz network. I peppered the device with plenty of questions, and everything seemed OK.
The next day, however, I couldn’t get the Google Home app to communicate again with the speaker. This is necessary in order to change settings or enable features such as smart home device connections.
After rebooting my iPhone and Google Home multiple times, I got nowhere. I tapped a link for help in the Google Home iOS app. The link took me to a website help page about … Google Chromecast.
I tried Google’s online support chat, but it took forever to get answers from the support person. And basically, all I got was the suggestion to reboot my router.
Google Home phone support was great, but…
Next, I called the Google Store support phone line. I ended up speaking to a Nexus support representative, who then transferred me to a Google Home rep. (For future reference, the rep gave me the direct phone number for Google Home support: 855-971-9121.)
At the rep’s instruction, I rebooted the router and Google Home, closed and reopened the Google Home app, and so on. Eventually, the rep determined that some settings in my router needed to be changed, in order for Google Home to communicate successfully with the iOS app on the same Wi-Fi network.
When I asked which settings, the rep said he’d email them to me. Check out the screenshot below.
To the Google Home rep’s credit, he connected me with a Comcast tech support rep, who in turn handed me off to another rep.
The second Comcast rep had no idea what Google Home was and wasn’t familiar with the majority of the router settings Google wanted me to change. I’d already spent nearly 90 minutes on the phone by then. And not exactly filled with confidence about the Comcast rep’s ability to help, I decided to bail.
Bottom line: I went through a lot to get Google Home working. And though I had some luck here and there, I’m not convinced it will work properly on a consistent basis. Nor am I interested in changing router settings, especially since Google wants me to disable VPNs. So the Google Home I bought is going back to the store.
In better news: Google Home is great at answering context-related questions — as long as it knows where you live
I tested Google Home along with Amazon Echo in several ways.
Like Echo, Google Home connects to various streaming music services such as Spotify, so that you can ask it to play a specific song, album or artist. Both devices do a great job with this.
When it comes to seeking answers to questions, Google Home can be more concise and therefore helpful than Echo. Example: When asked “how many calories are in a banana?,” Google Home succinctly replied “105 calories are in one medium banana.” Echo rattled on and on about the caloric content of different types of bananas. Too much information.
Google Home particularly shines at follow-up questions, thanks to the fact that it’s powered by Google’s giant, increasingly intuitive brain. For example, I asked, “OK Google, what are some nearby pharmacies?” Google Home told me the names of three pharmacies. I followed up by asking, “When does the first one close?” Google Home repeated the name of the first pharmacy it told me, and that it closed at 9 p.m. Then I simply asked, “What is their phone number?,” and Google Home gave me the first pharmacy’s number.
By comparison, Echo gave me names of nearby pharmacies but couldn’t follow through about hours and phone numbers the way Google Home did.
However, asking this question exposed another Google Home glitch. For whatever reason, the device, which is in my home office in San Francisco, thinks it’s located on Eucalyptus Street in San Francisco. I don’t even know where that street is. And I specifically set up my home address in the Google Home app so the device would know my location. As a result, the “nearby” pharmacies Google Home gave me were not, in fact, nearby.
Get an Echo or wait
Again, it’s possible my Google Home is a faulty unit. If I have the opportunity to test another one and have a noticeably improved experience, I’ll update this post to reflect that.
Meanwhile, I can’t recommend Google Home. It has the potential to be a formidable competitor to Amazon Echo and may even surpass it. But Echo’s been out now for about two years, is constantly acquiring new ‘skills,’ and in my experience, is easy to set up and use.
(Disclosure: The author currently consults for a company that has Amazon as a client.)
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.