Internet of Things

Google Home: A cheat sheet

If you are trying to decide which smart home hub to buy, read our comprehensive guide about Google Home to learn about one of the biggest names in this market.

PC vs. Mac and iPhone vs. Android are giving way to an all-out battle between smart home hubs, with Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo Wi-Fi speaker dominating the market. The Google Assistant-powered Google Home has an uphill battle to exceed the sales of Amazon's Echo smart speakers.

Amazon's dominance—and the dominance of its third-party Alexa partners—doesn't mean there isn't room for Google in this market. Google Home has plenty of unique characteristics that make it worth buying to use at the office or home.

TechRepublic's cheat sheet about Google Home is an introduction to this smart home hub. We will update this article periodically as new hardware and software are released.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and 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. Google Home 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 represents what is likely to be the future of Google: On-demand access to personalized information. Google's ecosystem is vast, and Google Home smart speakers are yet another way to take advantage of it.
  • Who is the target audience for Google Home? Google Home may seem like a consumer product, but it's usable by businesses as well.. Consumers will use Google Homes as an entertainment and information hub, while businesses can use various features to automate smart offices and to extend their market reach. Developers may not be a target audience, but will still face challenges that come with development for voice-activated digital assistants.
  • How can businesses use Google Home? Consumer uses of Google Home are hardly the limit of the device's usefulness. There are myriad ways for businesses to use Google Home, including making calls, scheduling calendar appointments, controlling smart devices, and more.
  • When was Google Home released? Google Home was announced in May 2016 and was available for purchase in November 2016. It's now available online and in many electronics retail stores.
  • What are the main competitors to Google Home? Google Home faces competition from Amazon's Echo and Apple's HomePod. Each product offers a unique ecosystem largely isolated from the others, making the choice of which to purchase largely dependent on which other products an individual or business owns.
  • How do I buy and start using Google Home? You can purchase Google Home online or at major electronics retailers. A Google account isn't required to use Google Home, but many of its features require signing in to the Google Home app with a Google account.

What is Google Home, and what are Google Actions?

Google Home, like Amazon's Echo, is a Wi-Fi connected smart home hub and voice-activated digital assistant. Google Home is a small Wi-Fi 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 one speaker in Google Home, as compared to the two speakers 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 Google Assistant, Google's answer to Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. Google Assistant is available on all Android devices running Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or newer, and can also be accessed on iOS devices and non-compatible Android phones through the Google Assistant app.

Google Assistant can perform most of the same voice command tasks as Siri and Alexa, which includes searching the internet, checking the weather, and playing music. It is expanded through third-party Actions (similar to Alexa Skills), which can be accessed on all Google Assistant-compatible devices or via the Google Assistant app.

Unlike Alexa Skills, which have to be manually added, many Google Home Actions are 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.

While many Actions are pre-installed, some (especially third-party Actions) have to be manually added to Google Assistant. Prior to January 2018 Google only hosted a bare-bones list of Actions, but it has since created a Google Assistant Actions site that sorts Actions by category. The Assistant Actions website looks and functions a lot like Amazon's Alexa Skills site—users can browse, install, and discover Actions.

Google claims there are more than one million Actions available for Google Assistant, dwarfing the estimated 30,000 skills available for Amazon Alexa. It's clear that developers are adopting Google's Assistant platform, and who can blame them? Amazon may have market dominance, but it's entirely possible that Google Home, with its access to Google's massive stores of data and near monopolistic control over internet search, will soon surpass Alexa's capabilities.

Additional resources

Why does Google Home matter?

Google unveiled its latest smartphones in October 2017, 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-hosting smart speaker that learns about us, helps us control our environment, and is available from our smartphones for use on the go. The Google Home is one part of an AI assistant-driven ecosystem that, because it's always with us, has the potential to become indispensable.

Despite needing to play catch-up, Google is pushing hard against Amazon in the smart home hub game, and the scales may soon tip in Google's favor given the ubiquity of Google Assistant in new versions of Android.

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 possible 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.

Additional resources

Who is the target audience for Google Home?

Google Home may be thought of primarily as a consumer device, but it's usable by anyone wishing to explore the growing smart home and office markets. Google Home is designed as a hub for IoT and media devices, giving Google a lot of leverage since it can choose its partners. 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, which definitely includes business users. Google 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, Google Home is the ideal choice for a smart home hub.

Developers may not be a target audience for the Google Home itself, but may find themselves wanting to develop Skills for Google Assistant, which means learning how to code for voice commands.

Whether working on an independent project or assigned a project to create a skill for business use, developers should take the time to learn how to code for this new form of computer interaction.

Additional resources

How can businesses use Google Home?

Google Home and similar devices are marketed as consumer products; Google Home's capabilities include playing music, starting a video stream to a smart TV, and getting the weather forecast. However, Google Home also has a place in offices, particularly smart offices.

This list of basic Google Home functions makes its business uses obvious:

  • Google Home can make phone calls via a connected Google account.
  • Smart office devices can be controlled via Google Assistant, so you can control your office before you even arrive.
  • Schedule appointments, invite attendees, and send them notifications all via voice command.
  • Schedule airline flights and check on their status.
  • Ask, and get answers to, quick questions like measurement conversions, calculations, and other info.
  • Get on-the-fly translation.
  • Build custom Google Assistant Actions for in-office and customer use.

That last bullet point is an essential one for organizations that want to leverage Google's ecosystem to grow their business. Google Home is just one way that businesses can use Google Assistant to interact with your company, whether via a support app that connects users to a representative, an app that allows users to order products with their voice, or other ways of connecting to a business.

When was Google Home released?

Google Home was announced at Google I/O in May 2016 and it went on sale in the US in November 2016. Since then Google has added two versions: The Google Home Mini (which is similar in size to the Echo Dot) and the Google Home Max (which is a larger, better-sounding stereo speaker designed for improved music playback).

Several new Google Home features were announced at I/O 2017 that promise to make it even more usable as a smart home 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 Google Home unit—when a calendar event is coming up, you'll just be told.
  • Google Home will 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 ask what's hot on YouTube and watch it pop up on the nearest screen.

There wasn't much Google Home news from Google I/O 2018, with most of the Home-related news centered on improvements to Google Assistant. Features like Google Duplex, which will call businesses to schedule appointments on your behalf, and Continued Conversation, which will allow for users to have a back-and-forth conversation with Assistant without having to say "Hey, Google" repeatedly, aren't specific to Google Home. Google Home units are powered by Google Assistant, which means those improvements will be available on the company's smart speakers as well.

Google has partnered with third-party hardware manufacturers including LG, JBL, Sony, and Lenovo to produce Google Smart Displays, which are essentially Google Homes with a touchscreen, similar to the Echo Show. These products are due out in Summer 2018.

Additional resources

What are the main competitors to Google Home?

Google Home isn't alone in the digital assistant-powered smart speaker market; Amazon's Alexa-powered Echoes and Apple's HomePod are also vying for space in users' homes and offices.

Apple's HomePod has largely been a flop. Amazon continues to maintain its lead in the market despite increased competition, but Alexa and the Echo line lack something that could make Google Home a leader sooner than later: Integration.

Google Home is designed to be an extension of Google's ecosystem; the device fits in with Google's other AI-powered products to create a Google-powered world that acts the same regardless of whether its users are at home, at the office, or on the go.

By connecting Google Assistant tightly to Android and Google Home units, Google is making its smart speakers an integrated part of the user experience; Amazon can't duplicate this strategy because Alexa is not native on any mobile devices. The HomePod may have Apple's Alexa behind it, but it exists in Apple's ecosystem, not Google's, so it's unlikely Google users will jump ship and purchase a HomePod instead of a Google Home.

As the aforementioned platform war moves from smartphone operating systems to AI-powered digital assistants, it's likely that Apple and Google users will continue to exist in their own preferred worlds, buying smart speakers from the company with which they've invested time, money, and data.

Additional resources

How do I buy and start using Google Home?

Google Home is available in these countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, United States (except Puerto Rico).

The Google Home Mini is available in the same countries as the standard Google Home, with the exception of Singapore. The Google Home Max is only available in the US (except Puerto Rico) and Canada.

Google Home can be purchased online from the Google Store and at many popular electronics retailers.

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

Additional resources


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Image: Google

About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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