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posted: 10/14/2017 7:23 AM

Review: Google Home Mini offers cheapest way to get into the smart home

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  • The Google Pixel 2 smartphone, from left, Home Mini, Daydream virtual reality headset, Pixel Buds headphones and Google Home Max device during a product launch in San Francisco on Oct. 4, 2017.

    The Google Pixel 2 smartphone, from left, Home Mini, Daydream virtual reality headset, Pixel Buds headphones and Google Home Max device during a product launch in San Francisco on Oct. 4, 2017.
    Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

  • The Google Home Mini, $49, has very few physical features.

    The Google Home Mini, $49, has very few physical features.
    Washington Post photo by Hayley Tsukayama

 
 

Not content with being dominant online, Google is pushing into your home -- with a line of smart devices and speakers that it hopes will grace your shelves and coffee tables very soon. The company handed out the smallest member of its speaker line, the Google Home Mini, to everyone who attended the launch event last week. These are my thoughts after a few days with it.

First things first: The main selling point for the Google Home Mini is its price. As the Google Home Mini itself will tell you -- if you ask -- it costs just $49. That's $10 less than Amazon's competing mini-hub, the Echo Dot. If you're looking for an easy way into the smart home, Google Home Mini is the cheapest way to do that.

(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

And yet it doesn't feel cheap. It feels like a total home hub in its own right -- though with a few compromises.

In truth, if you have a Google Home, you pretty much know how the Google Home Mini works. And, if you don't, it's easy enough to figure out. Once you download the app onto your phone, it basically sets itself up and teaches you how to use it to ask for information, set timers and control whatever other smart devices you may have about.

It's simple, and that's good. It keeps a low profile; it's much smaller than the Google Home, not even clearing the base of its older sibling. The Mini has just enough switches and indicators to function, and very little else.

Note to self: Stock up on doughnuts, for scale purposes.
Note to self: Stock up on doughnuts, for scale purposes. - Washington Post photo by Hayley Tsukayama

If you're looking to put multiple home hubs in your house -- maybe one in the kitchen and one on the nightstand -- that's when the Google Home Mini really comes into its own. Like the Echo Dot, the Home Mini is an appealing way to make your smart home features available in more rooms, particularly at that $50 price.

For example: I have a Google Home. It sits in my bedroom and has the main function of controlling my bedroom lights and playing podcasts or music to put me to sleep. But placing it at my bedside meant that I had to choose not to put it in my living room, where I wanted to use it to control my Chromecast and television. With the Mini as a sort of satellite hub in the living room, I can now do both.

As a stand-alone speaker, Google Home Mini is decent -- though certainly not something to recommend to an audiophile. It's best for background music while you work or do chores, not for serious music appreciation, such as when you really want to hear the warmth of the clarinets. To be honest, the Google Home isn't the world's best speaker, either, but the Mini is noticeably less full.

But the Home Mini can hear your commands, even when its volume is cranked high -- making it better than some smart speakers that can't always hear you over the noise they're generating.

If you have to adjust the volume by touching the speaker instead of using your voice, you can do so with easy taps on the speaker's ends.

And I can group the Google Home and Google Home Mini together, so that they can, for example, play the same song. That comes in handy if I'm moving from room to room while vacuuming or folding and putting away laundry. I never have to miss a note or word of a podcast, and I don't have to spend a lot on a smart speaker system to get that feature. It's a little creature comfort, but still a nice one.

Of course, adding a Mini -- either as a primary or secondary hub -- also means allowing Google more access into your home. The Mini, like the Google Home, is always listening for its trigger phrases, "Okay, Google" or "Hey, Google." And that, understandably, can be a bit disconcerting, particularly if you're putting these devices in your bedroom or the bathroom. So, just as with the Home, Mini has a mute function, which will shut off the microphone. If ever you want to, you can flip that mute switch.

Google Home Mini has all the new features coming to Google Home, as well, including the ability to make hands-free calls through the speaker, using your smartphone. So, if you're wrist-deep in bread dough and need to call your spouse for some extra ingredients, you can do that, and it can show up as a call from your own number. If you lose your phone, ask Google Home to call it for you -- on Android devices, it will even ring if your phone is muted. (It can't override a mute setting on the iPhone.)

You can also use Google Search as a sort of phone directory, to call the "nearest florist," etc. But I haven't found that feature too useful yet, if only because the nearest store isn't always the best one. Still, it's a promising feature, and shows off how Google is infusing its smarts into these devices.

And that's the broader take-away for anyone looking with interest at the Google Home Mini. Google knows this is a crowded space and is putting its software smarts front and center to stand out.

So, while Amazon may have a wider spread of products and Apple may pursue hardware excellence, Google's focus is on function. So far, it's working.

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