Google Home: A beautiful object, an unhelpful assistant

No matter how you decorate, Google Home's smart, simple design will fit right into any room in your house.

No matter how you decorate, Google Home's smart, simple design will fit right into any room in your house. Photo: Getty

It’s 7:30pm and I’m elbow deep in pulled pork that hasn’t dried out enough.

It needs another 15 minutes in the oven, but I can’t reach into my pocket to set a timer on my phone without smearing gravy all over my clothes.

“Okay Google, set timer for 15 minutes.”

A few seconds later, the compact, stylish Google Home complies in a pleasant tone.

The exchange makes me feel very contemporary, but unfortunately it’s one of the few times using the assistant is so straightforward.

Let’s back up a little. Don’t know what a Google Home is exactly? You’re not alone.

The latest tech trend

The rise of the ‘smart speaker’, or voice-controlled personal assistant, has been incredibly rapid.

They function a bit like Siri – if she was way more domesticated.

The Amazon Echo was the first major smart speaker and, now, tech giants Google and Apple are vying for a slice of the market.

But after two weeks roadtesting Google’s offering, it’s clear the trend has evolved faster than the tech has.

I frequently found myself rewording the same sentence up to four times just to get Home to understand my request.

Even then, “I can’t do that yet” was a common response.

You’ll quickly discover what Google Home can do by verbally manoeuvring around the things it can’t.

One of Home’s biggest appeals is that it works as an on-request music player, but even here it stumbles.

The selection of streaming services on offer is extremely limited compared to other speakers on the market and my requests often returned bizarre versions of the songs I wanted.

The assistant is supposed to have been localised for Australian audiences, but if it seriously assumes I want to hear a karaoke version of You’re The Voice without Farnsy’s iconic hollering, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Want to find a Chinese restaurant near you? Home will give you a few addresses in a wide radius, inexplicably omitting some nearby locations.

But trying to find a selection with a high customer rating, or maybe even place an order, is completely beyond its abilities.

If you think saying “Okay, Google” to wake the speaker up is also a bit dorky, then you’re out of luck as there’s no option to change its name.

This means that it will wake up when you utter anything that sounds remotely like its trademark phrase, often disrupting conversation.

I had no idea I said “Okay, cool” so often until Home started chiming in with an “I didn’t quite get that” every second time I opened my mouth.

So where does Google Home shine?

Well, its translate function is fantastic. It speaks a huge range of languages with great pronunciation.

It’s one of those moments that feels like you’re dealing with Jetsons-esque technology.

Asking Home about the weather while getting ready in the morning quickly became routine, and hearing news headlines while I was poking around the kitchen is pretty cool.

hand touching Google Home

The volume and pause lights on top of the device will save you a lot of tedious chit-chat.

The speaker itself is also really good; you can crank up the volume with almost no distortion.

Another high point was showcasing the gimmickry on offer.

When demonstrating its use to friends, inquiries like “make a whale noise”, “who farted?” and “how’s the serenity?” garnered entertaining responses.

My favourite moment overall?

I asked Google Home how to suck eggs, and received a minute-long tutorial on the process of confirming one has the ability to suck.

But is the novelty worth $160? Absolutely not.

Cost is a key issue here. Google Home can’t do heaps on its own and without a Chromecast (Google’s television streaming device) and a couple of $80 ‘smart lights’ around the house, you just won’t get much out of it.

The bottom line

I really wanted to love Google Home.

But after two weeks of routinely fumbling basic commands, I fell back into the habit of using my phone to get tasks done quickly.

Home also requires a constant power source, meaning it’s not very portable.

This is a significant drawback when the device’s features seem evenly split between the lounge room and the kitchen.

Early adopters will be relieved to discover frequent software updates allow Home to understand more commands and offer more specifics as time goes on.

For instance, I initially couldn’t get Home to accurately tell me how long it would take me to get to work by foot, but it slowly came around to identifying who was asking and where they were trying to go.

But try to ask something like “What’s the best way to get to work by public transport if I want to arrive by 8am tomorrow?” and it’ll still be completely stumped.

These are the rare times a voice-activated assistant would be more convenient than typing your query, and these are the times when the AI consistently falls short.

The command updates may one day bring it much closer to being an indispensable appliance but until then, owners will frequently feel as though they’ve paid to be Google’s beta testers.

Topics: Google
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