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Google Home: The smart person's guide

Have you been trying to decide between one of several smart home hubs on the market? Let our comprehensive guide to Google Home simplify your choice.

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There's always a new tech product that leads to a battle between products. There has been PC vs. Mac, iPhone vs. Android, and now it's an all out battle for smart home hubs. Google has an uphill battle in its fight against Amazon's Alexa.

TechRepublic's smart person's guide about Google Home is a quick introduction to this smart home hub, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically as new hardware and software are released.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides.

Executive summary

  • What is Google Home? Google Home is Google's entry into the smart home hub field. It is a small speaker tower that is activated via voice commands, can search the web, and perform other functions added by third-party Actions.
  • Why does Google Home matter? Google has been a proponent of AI and machine learning for a while. Google Home is the first part of what is likely to be the future of Google: On-demand access to personalized information.
  • Who does Google Home affect? Google home affects anyone who wishes to invest in the growing smart home market, especially if they are already heavily invested in Google's ecosystem.
  • When is Google Home happening? Google Home was announced in May 2016 and was available for purchase in November. It's now available online and in many electronics retail stores.
  • How do I start using Google Home? You can purchase Google Home online or at major electronics retailers. Using one doesn't require a Google account, but having one is the only way to gain access to many of the features.

What is Google Home?

Google Home, like Amazon Alexa, is a Wi-Fi connected smart home hub and digital assistant. Home is a small speaker tower that contains far-field microphones designed to pick up speech at a distance as well as touch controls, a microphone mute button, and lights that let you know when it's listening.

There's only a single speaker in Google Home, as compared to the two in the Amazon Echo, which can have an effect on how well noises at both the high and low ends of the spectrum sound. Google Home isn't going to replace a high-end Bluetooth speaker, but it works fine for everything else.

Google Home is a host for Assistant, Google's answer to Siri and Alexa. Unlike Siri, which is available on all currently supported iOS devices, Google Assistant is only available in Google Home, the Pixel phone, and inside the Google Allo app.

Google Assistant is able to perform most of the same tasks as Siri and Alexa, like checking the weather, searching the internet, and playing music, and is expanded through third-party Actions (similar to Alexa Skills).

Unlike Alexa Skills, which have to be manually added, Google Home Actions are all available right out of the box. There's nothing to install, and as long as you know the Action's key word you can use it right away.

There is one catch, however--there aren't very many Actions available right now. So few, in fact, that the list of them in the Google Home app is just that: An A to Z list without categories or any way to search it. Google Home Actions are open to developers though, making it just a matter of time before the offerings expand.

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Why does Google Home matter?

Google unveiled its latest smartphone in October 2016, and at the event Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Google believes the tech world is shifting from a "mobile-first to AI-first" focus. That alone is enough to see why Google Home matters: It's the first step in Google's transition to life as an AI company.

If Google is correct in its assessment that we're moving into an AI-driven world Google Home is the cornerstone of its future: A smart, easy-to-use, always available digital assistant that learns about us, helps us control our environment, and is always in our pockets.

Google Home has a lot of catching up to do in the smart home hub race, however: Amazon Alexa had a year to make improvements before Google Home launched. Google's future AI efforts will be shaped by its success or failure with Home and Assistant. Both have only been available since the end of 2016, making it far too early to draw conclusions yet.

Despite needing to play catch-up Google is pushing hard against Amazon in the smarthome game. Google I/O 2017 brought a number of announcements pertaining to Google Home and Google Assistant, the voice-powered AI Home runs on.

Most importantly for developers and hardware makers is the new Google Assistant SDK, which will allow IoT device manufacturers to include Google Assistant in third-party products. It's entirely possible that this will cut into Amazon's Alexa dominance on third-party devices, provided Google can shove Amazon aside and find partners in major hardware manufacturers.

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Who does Google Home affect?

Google Home affects anyone wishing to explore the growing smart home market. Home is designed as a hub for IoT and media devices, giving Google a lot of leverage since it can choose who it partners with. Third-party Actions are a democratizing way to ensure every product can work with Google Home, but Google still reserves approval rights over each one.

From the user side of things Google Home affects anyone who uses Google's various apps and platforms. Home can read off your calendar, play music from Google Play, and do other things tied to an associated Google account. If you're heavily invested in Google's ecosystem Home is the ideal choice for a smart home hub.

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When is Google Home happening?

Google announced Home at Google I/O in May 2016 and it went on sale in the US in November. It's still in its first iteration and there's no news about upcoming hardware changes to Google Home in the near future.

Several new Google Home features were announced at I/O 2017 that promise to make it even more useable as a smarthome hub.

  • Google Home can be used to make hands-free calls to any US or Canadian phone number. One of the best features? It's totally free.
  • Proactive notifications provide time-sensitive information without you needing to prompt your Home unit. When a calendar event is coming up you'll just be told.
  • Home will also integrate more closely with other Google devices in order to provide a continuous series of notifications on multiple devices. You can now call up your calendar on a Chromecast-enabled TV, get directions you asked about sent to your phone, or as what's hot on YouTube and watch it pop up on the nearest screen.

Google home is available in the US and UK, with plans to release it in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Japan this summer.

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How do I start using Google Home?

Anyone interested in Google Home can pick one up online from the Google Store or can find them at many popular electronics retailers.

Setting up a Google Home is simple: You just need a home Wi-Fi network and a smartphone. You don't have to have a Google account to use Home, but without one many of its more useful features will be unavailable.

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