Google Nest smart speakers
Image: Google

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 Nest line of smart speakers (formerly known as Google Home) have 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. The Google Nest smart speakers have plenty of unique characteristics that make the hardware worth buying to use at the office or home.

TechRepublic’s cheat sheet about the Google Nest smart speaker is an introduction to this smart home hub. We will update this article when there are new details about Google Nest. 

SEE: Internet of Things policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Executive summary

  • What are Google Nest devices? Google Nest is Google’s line of voice activated smart home products. Powered by Google Assistant, these smart speakers and screens can search the web and perform other functions added by third-party Actions.
  • Why does Google Nest matter? Google has been a proponent of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for a while. Google Nest represents what is likely to be the future of Google: On-demand access to personalized information. Google’s ecosystem is vast, and Google Nest smart speakers are yet another way to take advantage of it.
  • Who is the target audience for Google Nest? Google Nest may seem like a consumer product, but it’s usable by businesses as well. Consumers will use Google Nest smart speakers as an entertainment and information hub, while businesses can use various features to automate smart offices and to extend their market reach. Developers are still facing challenges that come with development for voice-activated digital assistants.
  • How can businesses use Google Nest smart speakers? There are myriad ways for businesses to use Google Nest, including making calls, scheduling calendar appointments, controlling smart devices, and more. The new Nest Wifi combination smart speaker and Wi-Fi router could even make Google Nest units the backbone of your office Wi-Fi networks.
  • When was Google Nest released? Google Home was announced in May 2016 and was available for purchase in November 2016. Since then, a number of new models under the Nest brand have been released, ultimately leading up to the retiring of the original Google Home and its replacement with the Nest Audio in September 2020. 
  • What are the main competitors to Google Nest smart speakers? Google Nest 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 Nest? You can purchase Google Nest smart speakers online or at major electronics retailers. A Google account isn’t required to use Nest smart speaker, but many of its features require signing in to the Google Home app with a Google account.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

What are Google Nest smart speakers?

Google’s Nest line of speakers are a Wi-Fi connected smart home hub and voice-activated digital assistants. The Nest Audio, the entry-level model, 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. The Nest Audio has two speakers, a 75mm woofer and 19mm tweeter, making it essentially equivalent to the newest generation of Amazon Echo, at least in terms of sound output.

The Google Nest Hub, with its built-in touchscreen, mimics the basic form and function of the Amazon Echo Show but lacks a fundamental feature that the Echo Show has: A camera. This may be good news for privacy-conscious consumers, but for businesses and individuals that want video calling on their devices, the Google Nest Hub isn’t going to help–you’ll need the Nest Hub Max, which does have a camera.

SEE: Google and Nest combine into a new smart home brand (CNET)

Google Nest devices are powered by 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.

What are Google Actions?

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 Assistant 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 100,000+ 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 Nest devices, with their 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 Nest matter?

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in October 2017 that Google believes the tech world is shifting from a “mobile-first to AI-first” focus. That alone is enough to see why Google Nest smart speakers matter: The devices are the first step in Google’s transition to life as an AI company.

Google Nest is the cornerstone of its AI 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 Nest line is one part of an AI assistant-driven ecosystem that, because it’s always with us, has the potential to become indispensable.

SEE: What is AI? Everything you need to know about artificial intelligence (ZDNet)

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. Amazon has also been gradually losing ground to Google, but still holds 53% of the smart speaker market.

Most importantly for developers and hardware makers is the Google Assistant SDK, which will allow Internet of Things (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. As of October 2020, there are a wide variety of third-party smart speakers that offer Alexa or Google Assistant, and some, Like the Sonos One, can even use both.

Who is the target audience for Google Nest?

Google Nest smart speakers may be thought of primarily as a consumer device, but they’re usable by anyone wishing to explore the growing smart home and office markets. Nest devices are designed as hubs 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 Nest speakers, but Google still reserves approval rights over each one.

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

From the user side, Google Nest devices affect anyone who uses Google’s various apps and platforms, which definitely includes business users. Assistant-powered Nest speakers 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, a Nest speaker would be the ideal choice for a smart home hub.

Developers may not be a target audience for the Nest line, but they might want 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 form of computer interaction.

Additional resources

How can I use Google Nest while I’m working?

Google Nest and similar devices are marketed as consumer products–capabilities include playing music, starting a video stream to a smart TV, and getting the weather forecast. However, Google Nest smart speakers also have a place in offices, particularly smart offices.

This list of basic Nest functions makes its business uses obvious:

  • Nest devices 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. Nest speakers are 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.

With the addition of the Nest Hub to Google’s smart speaker lineup, businesses now have a way to add a visual element to smart office controls, which may make investing in smart tech with Google an even better bet.

Google’s October 2019 additions to the Home line, the second-generation Nest Mini and the Nest Wifi router, make Google Home even more easily integrated into office environments. The new iteration of the Nest Mini adds a wall mount, making it great for sticking in places smart speakers couldn’t otherwise go, and Nest Wifi units can be strategically placed to make Wi-Fi networks more accessible and provide Google Assistant functions.

Additional resources

When was Google Home released, and when did it become Google Nest?

Google Home was announced at Google I/O in May 2016, and it went on sale in the US in November 2016. This was two years after Google had acquired Nest, but the company waited until 2018 to integrate the Google Home and Nest teams, rebranding its newer smart speakers, screens, and related smart devices with the Nest name. 

Since then, Google has added two versions: The Google Home Mini (which is similar in size to the Echo Dot and is now called the Nest Mini) 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, like hands-free calling, proactive notifications, and tighter integration with other Google devices and services.

  • 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 announced the release of the Nest Hub, its smart speaker with a touchscreen, in October 2018, and added the larger Nest Hub Max in September 2019. Like the Amazon Echo Show and Facebook’s Alexa-powered Portal, Google’s Nest Hub is a control center for other smart home and smart office devices. The hub acts as a Google Home (with the built-in Google Assistant able to respond to commands) and adds a visual element that can make often-forgotten digital assistant skills more likely to be used.

In October 2019 Google added two new units to its product lineup: Nest Wifi and the second generation of the Nest Home Mini. Nest Wifi looks a lot like a fatter version of the Google Home, and that’s what it essentially is, with the added functionality of being a Wi-Fi router. Nest Wifi setups come with two components: The Wi-Fi router that plugs into a home or office router, and Points, which are Wi-Fi signal boosters and Google Assistant-powered smart speakers. Paired together, the router and point units can be used to construct a wide-ranging network that Google said can give “coverage in every corner.” The Nest Mini is still the same tiny puck it was before, but with improved sound quality and an added wall mount to make hanging it in an out-of-the-way place as easy as hammering in a nail.

In September 2020, Google put the final nail in the coffin of the Google Home line by discontinuing the basic Google Home smart speaker in favor of the new Nest Audio device. Nest Audio serves as the new entry-level Google Assistant-powered smart speaker and is priced at $100.

Additional resources

What are the main competitors to Google Nest?

Nest smart speakers aren’t alone in the digital assistant-powered smart speaker market; Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echos and Apple’s HomePod are also vying for space in users’ homes and offices.

Apple’s HomePod has largely been a flop, and since its initial release, CNET said, Apple has made little progress in the smart home worldAmazon continues to maintain its lead in the market despite increased competition, but Alexa and the Echo line lack something that could make Google Nest a leader sooner than later: Integration.

Nest devices are 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.

SEE: IoT security: A guide for IT leaders (TechRepublic Premium)

By connecting Google Assistant tightly to Android and Google Nest 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 Siri 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 Nest Audio.

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.

How do I buy and start using Google Home?

Availability of Google Nest devices is continually expanding, so be sure to check regularly if you don’t see your country listed.

The Google Nest Audio ($99.99 in the US) will go on sale Oct. 15, 2020, and will be available in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK, and US (except Puerto Rico). Availability of Google Nest devices is continually expanding, so be sure to check regularly if you don’t see your country listed. 

The Google Nest Mini ($49.99 in the US) is available in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK, and US (except Puerto Rico).

The Google Home Mini ($39.99 in the US) is available in: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the US (except Puerto Rico).

SEE: 5 Internet of Things (IoT) innovations (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The Google Home Max ($299 in the US) is available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK, the US (except Puerto Rico).

The Google Nest Hub ($89.99 in the US) is available in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and US (except Puerto Rico).

The Google Nest Hub Max ($229 in the US) is available in: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, United Kingdom, United States (except Puerto Rico).

Google Nest products can all be purchased online from the Google Store and at many popular electronics retailers.

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

Additional resources

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