Not 10 minutes after Amazon's surprise announcement of new Echo devices last week, I walked into a small meeting room in Google's Mountain View headquarters to hear about the new Google Home Mini and Google Home Max.
If there was ever a sign that Google had a big hill to climb to stay competitive in home speakers, this was it. But Rishi Chandra, Google’s GM of Home products, was characteristically relaxed about the whole thing, even joking about it. His take on Amazon's strategy of flooding the zone with so many different kinds of Echo speakers? "It only shows we're in the early stages of this area, let's just say that. There are different approaches."
Chandra is going to need to hang on to that sense of humor, because even though Google is expanding its lineup of smart speakers, Amazon has clearly captured consumers' imaginations in a way that the Google Home has not. Amazon is in the lead in this category, even though, in some ways, the Google Home and the Google Assistant are more technically advanced than what Amazon has been offering.
Part of Amazon's success has come because it's been able to offer lots of different kinds of Echos in more price categories. So Google is doing the obvious thing: offering different kinds of Google Homes in more price categories.
Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini can pretty much be summed up in one sentence: it's a smaller, cheaper Google Home designed to compete head-to-head with the Amazon Echo Dot. The Home Mini is $49, available for preorder today. That's ostensibly the same price as the Dot, but Amazon often marks its product down.
The Mini comes in three colors: “chalk,” “charcoal,” and “coral.” It's a much more attractive device than the Echo Dot. It looks like a big, fabric-covered skipping stone. It's about four inches in diameter and just over an inch and a half tall. It also sounds quite good for its size. You're not going to really want to use it to listen to music, but a podcast or a news update would be fine; it's more than capable of making itself heard in a medium-sized room. You can also stream Bluetooth audio to it, if you want.
Google Home, just smaller
It's also more than capable of hearing you in a medium-sized room. Google's wake word detection for "OK Google" or "Hey Google" is quite good, even when the speaker itself is playing something.
The controls on the Home Mini are simple, even though it has no visible buttons. You can tap on the top of it to pause it, and you tap on the left or right side to adjust the volume. There's a mute switch on the back (which makes more sense than a button), and four indicator lights under the fabric on top, which are visible only when lit up.
It charges with Micro USB, not USB-C, because a Micro USB is a cheaper part. Since you'll almost never unplug it, it's not a big deal. But I still find it amusingly antiquated. Each Mini has a brightly colored anti-skid foot on the bottom that looks like a little Easter egg.
It's a very simple, straightforward device, a little ovoid puck designed to get the Google Assistant into more rooms.
Google Home Max
The Google Home Max is the much more interesting — and much more expensive — device. It's a $399 stereo speaker that's designed to take on other speakers from Sonos, Bose, and Apple's upcoming HomePod.
It's substantial: a stereo speaker with two 4.5-inch woofers and a couple of tweeters flanking them. All of it is hidden behind a fabric speaker grille (which is glued on, but can be replaced if you need to), and it comes in two colors: black or white. It honestly looks a little like Apple’s 2006 vintage iPod Hi-Fi.
You can set the Max down either horizontally or vertically; there's a clever rubber "foot" that attaches via a magnet. There are touch controls across the top for volume, but really, you're meant to talk to it, because it's a smart speaker. You can buy two and set them up as a pair.
It will support Bluetooth, but you're more likely to use Google Cast to get audio on it (or just ask for music). If you must, there's a 3.5mm aux jack on the back next to a USB-C port that's primarily meant for an Ethernet adapter if you need a wired connection.
The demo time was pretty short, but it sounded great to my admittedly non-audiophilic ears. It achieved solid stereo separation, and there wasn't any distortion when the volume was cranked up, even as I felt the bass in my chest.
And you know what's coming next, because this is a Google product: machine learning. Like Apple's HomePod, the Home Max is designed to automatically adjust itself to create the optimum sound for the room it's in, and even for the position of the room that it's in. And like the HomePod, it does so in real time, unlike other speakers that ask you to wander around holding your phone up as they emit strange cheeps and chirps.
In one demo, a Google engineer picked up the speaker and moved it to the corner of the room. As you'd expect, the sound profile changed dramatically as the sound waves started echoing weirdly on the suddenly adjacent walls. Then, about 10 seconds later, it sounded completely normal and good again.
Google is using AI to adjust the sound profile in real time
I was more impressed with something that Google's engineers weren't even intentionally trying to show me, though. The music was playing really loudly as I was asking a question. Chandra muttered, "OK Google, stop," nearly under his breath. I barely heard him myself, but the Home Max heard him just fine, despite the loud music. Its four lights lit up immediately when he said "Google," and then it paused the music.
I asked about actually trying to use it as a soundbar, noting that syncing the audio on the Home Max with a video playing on a TV with Chromecast would probably be devilishly complicated. The response: a long pause as the engineers in the room looked at each other with wry grins on their faces. So Google's thinking about that, too.
Bottom line, though: you shouldn't think of the Home Max as a soundbar replacement or as something you'll integrate into whatever your current setup is. It's a standalone speaker, though it can work with a multi-room system if you have more than one.
Think of it more like a 2017 version of the iPod Hi-Fi: a big-ass speaker that costs 400 bucks and is designed to work with your portable device. We’ll see if Google can have more success with that idea than Apple did.
We will have to actually test the audio quality of these devices up against Amazon's latest offerings before we can say if they're better. But it sort of doesn't matter. At least with the main Home product, and especially with the Google Home Mini, good enough is good enough.
Where Google believes it has a significant advantage — one that isn't really getting the attention it deserves now that Echo has established itself as the Kleenex of smart speakers — is in the capabilities of the Google Assistant. It might not have the raw tonnage of "skills" that Alexa has, but it's often smarter and more natural to talk to. (Except, of course, how awful it feels to say "OK Google" compared to a nicer word like "Alexa.”)
The Google Assistant is getting quite advanced, even though nobody seems to notice
Google wants to fix that attention deficit. To start, it's putting a name to the feature it launched earlier this year. It's called "Voice Match" now: the Home's ability to recognize multiple voices automatically and provide answers based on that person's Google account. You can tell, talking to Google's engineers, that they think it's a significant advantage over the Echo that few are giving them enough credit for.
I also heard from both Chandra and hardware boss Rick Osterloh that in the year since the Home was launched, it has learned "100 million" more answers. I'm not totally sure what it means, but expect that number to be repeated a bunch in the coming months.
The Google Assistant is getting a few new features across every device that can run it. First and foremost, it's getting a second voice option to go along with the first one, though only in the US to start. The new voice sounds just as natural as the old one, for whatever that's worth. Kudos to Google for calling them "Voice I" and "Voice II," instead of "female" and "male."
You'll be able ask the Google Assistant to "broadcast" a message to all the Google Home devices in your house like they're a household PA system. Since Voice Match knows who you are, Home can do things like set reminders on your actual Google account, and have them go off based on your location. There's a new find my phone feature (which again only works because the Home can identify your voice and knows which phone is yours). Google is also adding "Routines" to the Assistant; it lets you chain together multiple actions under a single command like "OK Google, I'm home."
Because I live a strange life, one of my hobbies is needling Google employees about the phrase "It's early days," which is a go-to whenever the company has released a new product into a category where it's definitely not the market leader. That's absolutely the case with smart speakers, where Amazon is ahead. So "early days" comes up a few times.
It's a shorthand for saying that Google is trying to take the long view, and it doesn't believe that the first company to go to market is necessarily the company that's going to win in the end. It's a reminder that even though it feels like we're looking at an established market, it's actually quite nascent. Or so Google contends, anyway.
"These products are just being introduced in different parts of the US, in different channels in the US — and even more so internationally," says Osterloh. "It's very early days for everyone in those places," he adds. "We believe we're in a good position given our capabilities and technologies. … So kudos to Amazon for taking an early lead in this space, but it is very much just the beginning."
More from Google's huge hardware announcement
Sup. Producer: Sophie Erickson
Director: Vjeran Pavic, Tyler Pina
Editor: Christian Mazza
Camera: Ben Williams
Photo: James Bareham
Audio Mix: Andru Marino