One Week with Google Home

Rarely do I get an opportunity to buy something the day it is released. Usually, it takes some time to convince my wife of the benefits of a new piece of technology. This time I was stunned when she approached me and said, “I really want Google Home, can we get it?”

Being a stay-at-home mom, homeschooling our kids, and doing Doula work I can see why she wanted this piece of Google technology so readily and was happy to agree. This post will be a combination of her and my perspective after using Google Home for about a week.

A little about our Family

We are both in our mid-30’s. I work in IT 8-5 M-F, my wife stays at home with our 3.5 and 1.5-year-old boys. She plans our meals and does most of our shopping as well as executes the pre-school lessons we plan for our 3-year-old during the week. We are also leaders in our church, she does Doula work on the side and I have a startup I work on at odd hours with a few of my business partners. This, on top of playdates and activities for our kids, keeps us pretty busy throughout the week. I would say that we match the typical family with young kids and one stay-at-home parent fairly closely in terms of regular busyness in and out of the home. We also have a Nest Thermostat, a NestCam, and a Chromecast in the kitchen and in the basement.

Unboxing/Installation

google-home-unboxingGoogle Home arrived at our door on November 7th around 5PM via Fedex.

img_20161107_175830We opted to place it on our large 4×4 Ikea cube… organizer… thing (we just call it the “4 by 4”) which is in our living room and right next to the entrance to our kitchen. Our hope was to cover both rooms well and be able to use Google Home from anywhere within each of these rooms. Over the course of the week, we did notice that it still seemed to have more issues hearing us in the kitchen than when in the living room. In the living room it seemed to hear us about 90% of the time where it was closer to 75% of the time in the kitchen. Obviously, louder ambient noises did affect it, but not as much as we thought it would. It caught the ‘hey Google’ through the cloud of noise fairly well most of the time.

Setup

We had an issue where it would not connect when we used the “use the password for this wifi saved on this phone?” option. We had to manually put in the password. This is not a big deal overall and isn’t a reflection on Google Home, but the new process of Google suggesting to use a wifi password already saved. Other than that, it was seamless. We quickly connected Nest and, in the setup process, it asked if we wanted to get Betsy the 6-month free trial of Google Play Music (which includes Youtube Red), as we already pay for it for me, we signed her up.

Usage

It was dinner time after initial setup, so we started asking it some trivia questions over our meal. From our dining room table about 20 feet away it heard us even at almost a whisper. We were amazed that it could hear us so clearly even when we were not facing it. Over the week we played trivia games together, asked it to play some light dinner music, an artist playlist, etc.

My 3-year-old son has even figured out how to get what he wants out of Google Home, with a little coaching from dad:

We told Google Home to “play in the [chromecast location]” and it knew what we wanted and followed through. It isn’t 100% like talking to a person, sometimes you still have to phrase things a specific way, but wow…. we are close, people.

In the morning I now say “Hey Google, good morning” and it tells me the weather for the day and starts playing my curated list of news podcasts as I am making breakfast.

Betsy’s Perspective

Right now, my favorite thing about Google Home is that is a hands-free smart device. That is a MUST when you are caring for 2 little boys AND you want some information or entertainment. For example, if the boys are being whiny and I just want to get something done, I just ask Google Home to play music, or more specifically, “Hey Google, play What does the fox say.” They are instantly dancing around and I can finish folding the laundry (or just go to the bathroom in peace). I sometimes even ask Google Home to cast the video in the kitchen, so the boys are entertained while I cook. Another example – when I am rushing around, grabbing bags, and trying to head out the door, asking “Hey Google, should I take a coat?” is very useful.

I love to listening to podcasts on it while I’m working – it’s got a great speaker! Since it’s voice activated, it’s a breeze to play, or pause when time (or kids) demand it. Plus the microphone is awesome too – I’ve shouted at it from the top of the stairs, and from the far side of the adjoining room (the kitchen) and it’s picked up my commands just fine. So, I can continue moving while speaking or listening.

We had a moment the other day when our 1-year-old hurt himself and I needed to pause the show we were watching on the Chromecast in the kitchen. I couldn’t find my phone and the boys were screaming and I said, “Hey Google, pause kitchen” and, it worked!

Finally, I’ve used it a little bit while homeschooling Ain. I’m sure I’ll use it more and more as we go along, since I’m still getting used to using it. But I’ve asked it information about a certain animal we read about, or what sound that animal makes. Ain loves asking, “Hey Google, what does the fox say?” And Ebron loves hearing a real cow moo.

I’m excited to someday get a Chromecast Audio or two to work with it so we can travel from room to room and the sound is broadcasted across each space.

Caveats

No technology is perfect. Google Home is limited to what services it is connected to and, at launch, that isn’t much. For example, Youtube is the only service you can command for video casting to a Chromecast at the moment. It can pause anything that is already playing, but it cannot initiate playing any other services content by voice. But Google is already working with Netflix and others so that someday soon you can say “Hey Google, play episode 3 of Stranger Things in the Basement” and it will follow through. That is pretty cool.

It also currently can only link to one Google account. Being a device purposefully meant for multiple users this is a big deal. But Google made the public aware of this as soon as it launched and has already stated that they are working on multi-user support. Many are guessing that it will be by voice recognition. Whichever voice says “Hey Google” will be directly associated with a Google account attached to that voice.

Is it perfect? No, but at this point, it is a good investment and the Google Home ecosystem will only continue to grow. At the $129.99 price point, this family recommends Google Home.

What the Pixel Phone launch Means for Google and Us

Tuesday, 10/4/16, Google announced some new hardware that, well, frankly, I want. But there are some very important things to notice about the phone they announced and how it impacts Google, and us.

If you want to see all the products they launched check it all out at madeby.google.com I, personally, am pretty excited for many of them.

Introducing: Pixel

The new Google phone is called the Pixel. This is the first time that Google has not released a new Nexus phone in years (six years, to be specific) and it is intentional. They are changing the way they produce and market these phones and I see it as a positive step for Google in the phone marketplace, but not necessarily one for us, the end users.

The Pixel is the first phone 100% built by Google

All their previous phones were built by third party manufacturers. LG, Huawei, Samsung, HTC, Asus, and Motorola all have built a Nexus phone or tablet and even though Google had a heavy hand on the design and specs of these devices, they did not have control over everything, especially in the beginning. And as the Nexus line has grown Google has grown in their understanding as well.

A Brief History of Android

When Google first purchased the Android operating system they wanted to build phone software that was open source. Anyone could use it and tweak it to their liking. This is why so many Android phones look and function so differently and why you can find hundreds of modified OS’s created by coders online that you can download and install on your phone if you know how. Each manufacturer can also tweak Android to their liking so the software works better for their hardware. They also have created their own ecosystems (looking at you, Samsung) that tie a person to Samsung but not necessarily to Google. This way we will go back to Samsung time and time again for our phones instead of being comfortable with any Android phone. Granted, they are a company and they want to keep their customers, so, I get it, I do.

This has positive and negative effects for Google and the Android team. We hear constantly about the fragmentation of Android (updates available for some phones but not others) because of how much these third-parties have tweaked Android. When an update is released by Google third parties have to tweak it to match their other tweaks. This can take months to do and, let’s face it, they have newer phones to worry about. It also pushes the Android team to better their own product as they see third parties adding functionality that was not available in the pure Android software.

Android’s Future

Google has been fighting for years to maintain control over Android and create a streamlined operating system to battle fragmentation and their competitors Operating Systems but, for obvious reasons, manufacturers are against this. They want their personal tweaks to stay to benefit their company. As Android is open source anyone can use it for any device and only has to pay Google when they want that device to have access to the Google Play Store. Samsung has been wanting to move away from Android for a long time for this reason and if Samsung left Android… Google would take a hard hit. Can you name the latest phone from HTC? What about LG, Sony? Motorola? Asus? But I bet you can name the latest phone from Samsung.

So, Google had to do something to save Android’s future.

The new Pixel phone is the first phone that Google built the hardware and software all in-house. There is only one other company in the world that does this that anyone has ever heard of. Apple.

Even the look of the Pixel phone is meant to be a challenge to the look of the iPhone. This is very good news for Google and for us, as it means these phones will always work the best when it comes to running Android and Google apps and now Customer Service directly from Google is actually built directly into the phones.

There is something else these phones are copying from Apple, however, that does not bode well for Nexus owners – price.

This is NOT a Nexus

The Pixel phone starts at $649. There are two variants, a smaller and a larger, but this time around phone size is the only difference. They are built with the exact same hardware in every other regard. The price climbs when you go with the larger screen, or the larger storage capacity, etc. You can see all the price options on Google’s product page.

So, if you want Google’s iPhone, as I do, I have no doubt you will get a great phone. They have put years of time and energy coming to this point to offer a true iPhone competitor that can save Android and, if anyone can compete with a new phone model on the front line, Google can. But those of us that have been used to solid phones at a great price that would receive the latest versions and security updates, those days are gone.

What do you think about Google’s move to provide a phone that can directly compete with the iPhone as well as Samsung?

Featured image from Google’s Blog on the new Pixel

Google Allo – Google baked into your conversations

Finally.

I have to say, I have been chomping at the bit since May about this one.

A little backstory:

Google Hangouts was released to be the ‘ultimate communications app’ and…. it has been struggling. It hasn’t kept up with the other chat services new functions and abilities and with SO MANY (really awesome) features, many users were confused on how it was used and were not utilizing everything. (Did you know you could start a video call right within a hangout conversation? Most didn’t.)

Google has decided to focus more on their business customers when it comes to Hangouts and, while it has not been officially announced, will eventually only provide the app for their Google Apps for Work subscribers. They realized that having one app do everything was too confusing for the average user and thus announced Duo and Allo this past May. (Read here for my Duo review.)

Well, Due came out last month (as the response to video chat apps), and, finally, Allo is here.

Then came Allo

Allo was released this morning (9/21) on Android and iOS and I could easily go into EVERYTHING that it can do, but this article would be incredibly long and the point of this blog is to give you the brief, easy to understand explanation.

Allo was released as a messaging service as a direct response to apps like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatApp, and all the others like these out there, but it has one thing going for it that those others just don’t: Google.

Why is Allo Different?

When you are having a conversation with someone and start talking about getting a bite to eat Google will automatically add a list of nearby restaurants to the conversation. Want to see a movie? Google will pop up the latest movies and their nearby showtimes. What about trivia? Ask Google a question by putting @google before your text so that it knows you are asking the search assistant and it will do it’s darndest to get you an answer. And, everyone in the chat can see the results, so you no longer have to copy and paste information across services into a chat.

You can also resize your texts (instead of using caps to shout), you can add stickers, emoji’s of course are still there, and, predictive text. Over time it learns what you like to say in response to things. Like if you are more of a ‘haha’ person vs a ‘lol’ person. It also has an incognito mode which encrypts your conversations by default and once deleted, always deleted. (The Google Assistant is also not a part of those conversations, for obvious reasons.)

All this is demonstrated incredibly well on Google’s page, so, if this has you interested, I would go check out the incredibly well-designed app on this equally well-designed website to see it in action and get the download links for Android and iOS (yep, once again, cross-platform!)

And when you do download it, give me a quick, ‘Allo!’

https://allo.google.com/

Like my first post, ask me questions! Either in the comments or on Facebook. I will add them to this post.

Edit: Questions and Clarifications:

  • Allo currently only works on one device at a time. If you log in on a different device your initial device will deactivate.
  • Like iMessage, you will have to deregister your phone number before you register a new one.
  • Allo does not send standard SMS when someone else does not have Allo but instead sends them a notification from Google that you sent them a message and to install the app to reply.
  • Most reviews are pretty mixed, and for good reason, Google has some more work to do before this will become the SMS replacement they want it to be:
    • It is one more messaging app in a sea of messaging apps, and it comes late to the game.
    • The features that separate this app from the pack are not quite impressive enough (yet) to draw people away from other apps.
    • It will not send standard SMS to non-Allo users.
    • It cannot be used on tablets or web-browsers (yet) while almost all the other messaging apps have this already (including Google’s own Hangouts).

Google Duo – the Facetime-like app that works across platforms

What is Facetime?

Facetime is an Apple iOS exclusive app that allows you to quickly start a video chat with anyone else that has an iOS device. iPhone, iPad, etc.

The obvious problem is that not all of us own iOS devices, and there have been many other apps (Skype and Google Hangouts are the most well known competitors) that have tried to compete with Facetime since it’s launch in 2013.

The first problem that Google wanted to tackle was that these alternative apps (including their own Hangouts app) were too confusing and complicated because they were chalk full of so many (useful!) functions that the average just didn’t use. If you didn’t have an on-call techie in your pocket you easily got lost.

The second problem they found was that most users don’t want to setup a new service or account. While Google’s Hangouts was connected to your Gmail, it still was convoluted enough that it turned people away.

Thus came Duo. Built by Google to do just one thing VERY well: video chat on your phone across Android and iOS.

  • Duo is connected to your phone number. So no account needed for setup.
  • Duo is available in both Google Play and the iOS App Store
  • Duo connects with your phone’s contacts and shows you who already has Duo and lets you invite those that haven’t.
  • Duo is end-to-end encrypted. Meaning that the Government (or anyone else) can’t spy on your video chats.
  • Duo is not a data hog. Google spend a lot of time on the back end to give you great video even on networks that are not so great.

Duo also has one unique feature that Google calls “Knock, Knock.” Knock, Knock allows someone receiving the video call to see the callers video before they answer. So when your phone starts ringing with the call you can look down and see not only who is calling, but what they are wanting to show you. (Don’t worry, only people in your contacts can call you, you won’t receive video calls from strangers)

It launched on August 16th, 2016, so it is still fairly new to the scene, but it has been downloaded over 5 million times, which, if you don’t know, is a lot for a new app. Is it the Facetime killer? Time will tell, but I believe it could be since it allows friends and families that don’t all own iOS devices to still connect in a simple, straightforward way.

Check out Google’s video showing off Duo in action:

Do you have any additional questions about Duo?

Reader questions answered:

1: Since Duo is connected to your phone number there is no other sign up needed. It will send you a verification code to verify your number and that’s it! 

2: Both parties will need the app. Unlike FaceTime which comes pre-installed on iOS. There is a rumor that Duo will become a pre-installed app for Android down the road along with Allo (another app I will breakdown when it releases here soon) but it is unsubstantiated.