There’s a fight on for control of your home: in one corner of the ring is Amazon’s Alexa, already installed in the Echo and Echo Dot devices which sold by the bucket-load last Christmas. In the opposite corner is Google Home, now available in the UK.
Both devices make a similar promise: to connect with multiple apps (or ‘skills’ as Amazon calls them), bringing voice control to your home entertainment and online search, plus a range of home automation devices such as lighting and heating.
Amazon has had a head start, with around 1000 companies announcing Alexa integration into numerous devices at CES last January. Now Google has arrived, and is playing catch-up.
Google Home is smaller than the taller, cylindrical Amazon Echo, and looks a bit like a large white air freshener. It’s a minimalist design, with a touch-sensitive circle on the top for adjusting volume and pausing/playing music.
There are also a series of coloured lights that illuminate when the device is active, and a mute button if you want to turn the two microphones off. To personalise the device, you can add one of the optional coloured bases, either fabric (£18) or metal (£36).
However, the UK launch hasn’t quite gone to plan for Google. The company hit the headlines when Burger King ran a TV advertisement that caused any Google Home speaker in the vicinity of the TV to read out the Wikipedia entry for a Whopper by asking “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?”
Some irreverent editing of that Wikipedia entry caused Google a fair amount of embarrassment, but as the saying goes “all publicity is good publicity” – thanks to the ad, Google Home is certainly being talked about.
Set-up is straightforward: just plug in, download the Google Home app to your iOS or Android device and follow the simple instructions to connect Google Home to your wi-fi network. It won’t take you long.
Then it’s just a matter of connecting to your Google account and adding any compatible smart devices such as Nest thermostats or Philips Hue lights.
There’s support for Samsung SmartThings, IFTTT (If That Then This) and Wemo devices too. You can also link Google Home to Spotify, TuneIn Radio, BBC iPlayer, Google Play Music, Deezer, 7Digital Music and Musixmatch.
For UK buyers there’s a free three-month trial of Google Play Music (with its claimed catalogue of 30 million songs), after which you pay £10 a month subscription.
The ‘wake’ phrase is either ‘Hey Google’ or ‘OK Google’, neither of which sounds quite as natural as just saying ‘Alexa’. We prefer the sound of Alexa’s voice to that of Google Home which, although it has a British accent, sounds a bit mechanical.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Google Home doesn’t yet have anything like the number of compatible apps Amazon’s Echo does, at least not in the UK.
There’s no support for Hive heating systems, Uber, National Rail Enquiries or EDF Energy accounts, for example, all four of which we use regularly with Alexa. However, both Onkyo and Pioneer have just announced a firmware upgrade to bring compatability with Google Home voice control to a range of their AV receivers, home cinema systems and network speakers, along with Chromecast audio streaming.
Where Google Home scores over Amazon’s Echo is in its compatibility with Google Chromecast devices, both audio and video. This gives voice control of Chromecast-equipped audio systems, and also allows use of voice commands to Chromecast from YouTube and Netflix to your TV.
Asked to play a random video from YouTube, we are amused to see it immediately chose a showdown between Google Home and Amazon Echo! No prizes for guessing which came out on top.
If you have a Netflix subscription you can, say, ask Google to search for The Crown and start playing that – although you can’t command it to play a specific episode.
You can also stream music directly from your phone or tablet to the Home using Chromecast-compatible apps, of which there are plenty. Spotify Connect is part of the package.
MORE: Amazon Echo review
One other advantage Google Home has over the Echo is in its multi-room capability: you can link two Homes together in a room to make a stereo pair, or link multiple Home devices together around the house so they can all play the same music simultaneously.
Anything with a Chromecast attached can also be integrated into your Google Home network. Amazon Echo doesn’t do the multi-room thing, although it does have Bluetooth built in so you can connect it to another Bluetooth speaker (but only one at a time). Google Home doesn't yet have Bluetooth capability, but it's in the development pipeline.
Our one caveat with Google Home’s multi-room proposition (and when pairing speakers for stereo playback) is, while it’s easy to combine them, using voice control to activate them pushes them out of sync. Grouping seems to work effectively only if you chose the correct pairing (or rooms) through the relevant app.
Connecting Home to our Philips Hue lighting system is straightforward. Go to ‘Home control’ in the Google app menu, then ‘devices’ and click on ‘add your smart devices’.
Once it has found your Philips Hue hub (you need to press the button on the hub to complete the connection) it will then ask you to assign specific lights to specific rooms so you can ask Google Home to turn on, say, just the lights in the kitchen or living room.
But outside your four walls, the Google Home links you to the entire world of Google search, and this is where it comes into its own. You can ask it anything and it will tap into the vast resources of search, maps, translation and so on to provide the answer.
Want the latest news from the BBC, The Guardian or Daily Telegraph? No problem. The Telegraph has even launched a dedicated audio show, '5 by 5', specifically for Google Home. The daily ten-minute news show features five of its journalists discussing five hot topics of the day and is broadcast at 5pm.
Ask Google Home about the weather, traffic, sports or to set an alarm, and it will duly oblige. But we do find one oddity: it won’t connect to our Google calendar. After several attempts, all we get is “I can’t help you with that”.
A quick Google search (the irony) reveals we are far from alone in having this problem. It turns out Home can’t handle Google work accounts, only personal ones, which is rather annoying.
What’s more, the Home doesn’t integrate with Google’s other services such as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Voice. It can’t read out your latest emails for example, nor can you dictate a message, which seems a missed opportunity. But Google has just announced that you'll soon be able to make phone calls through Home.
Still, if you want a recipe for a cake, need to know where the nearest petrol station is or even want Google to tell you a joke, it will duly oblige. We set Spotify as our default music service and voice searches for a variety of artists and albums prove to be no problem.
Google says the Home “delivers crystal-clear highs and rich bass for hi-fi sound that streams over wi-fi”, but we’d take that claim with a pinch of salt.
This is not a hi-fi speaker in the traditional sense and, given its compact dimensions, it would be unrealistic to expect too much.
Inside the base of the unit is a 5cm speaker and a pair of 5cm passive radiators. There’s support for multiple audio formats, including AAC, MP3, Vorbis, WAV (LPCM), FLAC and Opus.
Playing Radio 2 on TuneIn dialogue is clear, and songs are delivered with a reasonable amount of energy, but don’t expect thunderous bass or room-filling volume.
Switch to Maybe by Emeli Sandé on Spotify and there’s a thin, bright edge to the treble and a disappointing woolliness to the bass. Don’t expect a huge amount in terms of detail, definition or dynamics.
We test Google Home against a Sonos Play:1, and while the latter is more expensive (£190) it has more depth and authority to its sound.
We try an £80 UE Roll Bluetooth speaker for a more realistic price comparison, and sonically that has the edge too, with a sweeter, less strident sound than the Home.
For background listening Google Home is fine, and you can at least combine two of them for proper stereo, but music replay isn’t really its primary forté.
Given how small and lightweight it is, its performance is reasonable but nothing special.
You probably shouldn’t buy Google Home as your primary music system, but fortunately there’s much more to it than that.
If you want a basic plug ’n’ play voice control assistant which takes charge of your smart home and doubles as a simple, affordable multi-room audio and video system, then it has its place.
Google says it is working on compatibility with a wider range of apps and services, but until then, Alexa has the edge.
Given that Sonos is working on full Alexa integration already, due for release later this year, and that the Amazon Echo has Bluetooth for streaming to better quality speakers (while retaining its voice control functionality), Amazon has, for the time being at least, stolen a march on Google.
See all our Google reviews