Nic Healey road-tests the smartest speaker in the house and previews two more high-tech “ears”.
Google Home is the first of the smart speakers to become available in Australia – and it does a lot more than play music.
From its perch on a desk, shelf or bedside table, Google Home is ready to respond to your every spoken command. Using the same voice-activated technology as Google Assistant, it can set an alarm, check traffic reports, relay the weather forecast, play a game of trivia, do a Google search or even tell a joke – albeit of the dad variety.
The speaker syncs with your Google account at set-up via the Google Home app so it can announce your calendar appointments if you ask it to. It will run a shopping list, adding items as you request them. And, of course, it can play music from your streaming service, even taking genre requests like “music to work to”.
It also ties in with smart-home devices such as voice-operated Philips Hue smart bulbs. With a Google Chromecast device plugged into your TV, you can ask Google Home to stream Netflix, Stan and even YouTube videos directly to your big screen.
Its capacity to understand language is impressive. Getting a news update, for example, is as simple as saying “Hey, Google, what’s the news?” You could also try “Play the news”, “Give me the latest news” or even “I need the news!” But it’s still possible to trip it up. Utter Aussie slang such as “Hey, Google, bung on some music, wouldya?” and it will answer: “I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”
Highly sensitive built-in microphones are capable of telling different voices apart, meaning it can give all family members personalised responses. While it won’t read your appointments to just anyone, you may end up in a shouting match over what TV show is screened.
Some of Google Home’s features feel like a novelty – do you really need it to imitate animal noises on request? – but the overall experience is seamless and you’ll constantly find new ways for Google Home to help around the house.
The Echo speaker, along with its Echo Dot and Tap stablemates, is similar to Google Home but uses the Alexa assistant instead. It also ties in to Amazon’s direct-to-door shopping experience, letting you order straight from your speaker. The company isn’t answering questions on Echo’s Australian launch but it is available online.
$US180 (about $240) amazon.com
This speaker brings Siri into your lounge room. HomePod will use Apple’s own smart-home platform, HomeKit (previously locked to iOS devices), and may allow Android users to get in on the action. Arriving early in 2018, HomePod works with an Apple Music subscription and can automatically sense its position in a room, adjusting music and audio playback for the best sound.
$US349 (about $465) apple.com
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Photography credit: Guy Bailey