Google Home was announced a year ago as an Alexa competitor that would serve as the foothold for the company’s new ambient search experience. The Home seemed likely to be a powerful competitor for Amazon Echo given the resources at Google’s disposal.
That didn’t happen. When the Home launched, it was indeed stylish and produced well-rounded sound. But we at PCMag were confounded by its seemingly obvious shortcomings. It could stream music from a variety of sources, but it didn’t work as a standalone Bluetooth speaker. Its coolest tricks required not only a commitment to Google’s media platforms, but Google hardware like the Chromecast. Arguing its merits to iPhone users or Echo devotees was a tall order.
Oddly, Home’s shortcomings extended to its use of the Google platform. You could not, for example, tell Google Home to set a reminder, which made it hard to recommend, Sascha Segan said in his review.
We hoped for a slow arc of improvement with Google Home, and new features like 200+ new third-party actions helped enormously to make it an actual Echo competitor. Adding the ability to detect multiple users on a single Home device was critically important. But all this would have been too little too late, had Google not raised the bar this week for its noble, conical device.
At Google I/O, one of the Home’s major missteps was quietly rectified: Google Home will, going forward, work as a Bluetooth speaker. This simple act frees the Home from being bound to Google media services, and could attract those in the market for a simple speaker.
Home will also now work with screens; ask it questions and see results on the TV.
The biggest coup for Home, though, was Google’s announcement of hands-free calling, without the need for a phone. Using multi-user detection, Home can determine who you want to call by voice command, and place the call using a private number. You can opt to add a phone number to your account, but it’s completely optional. Calling with the Home will work for any number in the US and Canada, for free, with more countries to follow soon.
With the flood of new features and capabilities coming to Google Home, it suddenly feels infinitely more competitive than before. That said, we still have to bring it to PC Labs and see if it lives up to the hype.