Google Home Mini First Impressions
Posted on October 25, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
I had a Google Home Mini sent to the house while I was away and it was here for me when I came home. I was curious to try it out; I have a full-sized Google Home, which I like, but possibly not enough to spend $130 for another. I wanted to see if the $50 Mini would serve my purposes.
It turns out it does. I mostly use Google Home (and the Amazon Echo, which I also have) mostly to play music and to answer questions I’m too lazy to type into a search bar, and the Google Home Mini does that as well as the Google Home. The reviews of the Mini that I saw warned that the speaker in the Mini is not that impressive, and I suppose from a technical perspective that might be the case. But it’s plenty loud when it needs to be and is more than sufficient for listening to music at my desk or responding to my queries. It doesn’t have a lot of bass, but otherwise, it’s perfectly fine.
Functionally you can raise and lower music volume by touching either side of it, and you can keep the thing from listening to you by switching the microphone off in the back, and that’s it for functionality — there was the ability activate it or pause music by touching the top, but apparently in some Minis a bug caused it to endlessly listen (and send that data to Google), so Google disabled that function permanently. Since you can get it to pause music and/or respond to queries by saying “Hey, Google,” and that’s kind of why you get one of these things in the first place, I don’t think this is a huge loss.
Size-wise, the thing is the size of a hamburger bun or a donut and relatively unobtrusive. Mine is “Charcoal Gray” (effectively black) but there are other colors as well. I have mine placed next to my first-gen Amazon Echo on my desk, which makes for an amusing visual contrast: A squat, fabric-covered puck next to a tall metallic cylinder. I’ve found having both on the desk is actually kind of useful, since I can have one play music while I use the other one to answer questions. They both have different hailing phrases so they don’t get confused about to whom I am speaking (don’t, however, place your Mini on top of your Echo; doing so confuses the Echo’s microphones).
Now that I have Amazon and Google smart speakers, you might ask if I have thoughts to which company does a better job at the virtual assistant thing and which I would recommend over the other. My answer is that at this point it’s kind of a wash generally and a lot of it will depend on what you use the thing for, which electronic ecosystem you’re invested in and, bluntly, who you want to have all of your electronic information. I would give the edge to Amazon if you’ve got Kindles and Fires and a Prime subscription and want to buy things frictionlessly, and the edge to Google if you’re already neck deep into Gmail and Android and Chrome dongles and computers. I do find Google Assistant slightly smarter than Alexa, but both are plenty smart enough for most things and the distance between the two only shows on very picky queries. Google’s aesthetic is friendlier, but Amazon’s is hipper. Honestly, flip a coin. You’ll probably be fine either way.
That said, if you are well into the Google system and like these smart speakers and aren’t excessively paranoid about giving a massive multinational corporation a listening post in your home 24/7 (they say they’re not listening unless you tell them to listen, and I believe them, but they surely could listen all they wanted, that’s just a software update), the Mini does the trick and is pretty cheap at $50. I’m enjoying mine so far.
Wait, isn’t this a violation of your well known new technology philosophy of waiting until they kicks get worked out AND then buying the best latest iteration you can afford?
I mean, for $50 I won’t feel too put out if it doesn’t all come together. Also this is kind of the second gen for the Google Home, so.
A note of caution: At the moment, nobody seems to be taking security for the “internet of things” (IOT) seriously. (If you subscribe to PC Magazine’s newsletter, you’ve seen an ongoing litany of security problems with this category of devices for the past several years.) As a result, most of these devices are great big welcome mats that invite hackers from around the world to wipe their dirty feet on your device before opening the door to your home and browsing for things of interest.
The software is usually rushed to market, poorly designed and inadequately debugged*… witness the bug a few months ago that caused Amazon’s devices to respond to spoken commands from TV commercials. We’re not quite in Dilbert territory (http://dilbert.com/strip/1994-04-24), but closer than I’m comfortable with.
* For which I blame the marketing managers, not the programmers. When Marketing sees usability, safety, and user protection as priorities, they’ll give programmers time to do their jobs well.
Until that situation changes, you have to keep a close eye on software updates for all of your IOT devices, and update regularly. Which is a problem, because (see above), such updates aren’t always trouble-free. A recent Samsung update for its line of smart TVs bricked a whole bunch of TVs. I don’t yet have any IOT devices apart from a router, but should I invest in one, I plan to keep it unplugged whenever I’m not using it. Paranoid, yes, but a great many people out there really are out to get us, so a little paranoia is a survival trait these days.
Holy Cow! Hamburger buns and donuts are about the same size!
Great point @Geoff Hart. I’m only teasing our host but even though I can afford Echo and Google Home (and their minions) I’m gonna wait until the features become a little more robust and the security issues are sorted out.
On the other hand, the first one who comes up with a device that will allow Grandma to turn on a desired show on the TV without having to explain 6 different remotes will win the market, features and security be damned!
I’m a firm believer in UNPLUG FOR SAFETY. If I was having a top level meeting with the leaders of one of the various Universal Domination organizations we all belong to, I’d power down and unplug (note the cable in the photo, or remove batteries if no cable connection).
Meanwhile, what Icarus said about TV remotes and Grandma (or in my case, Mom).
Fortunately Mr. J and I are in sync on the “Oh hell no!” side of the “let a listening device into your home” question.
We’re both pretty geeky so our friends usually assume we’d be into the newest whatever, but we actually prefer to put in extra effort to find non-smart TVs and such. No trust for corporate behavior in our house.
@Icarus: Have you looked into the Logitech Harmony Hub? Connects to Alexa and Google Home and allows you to control your devices by voice…
Three laws safe?
Or Orwellian Rules?
I have a full sized Home that my wife got as a bit of schwag at some conference. I like it enough as a music device. The internal speaker is really good, but Google is pretty dumb otherwise.
“Google, stream the World Series” is something it should be able to figure out.
I’ve also had arguments with it on whether or not the NSA was listening. :D
In the end, I’d never pay for one.
p3t3rp, no but you are the second to mention it so I will start my research.
at the risk of thread jacking….Logitech Harmony Hub: It looks like this will turn on the TV and the Roku in one step but not necessarily find the right channel/app and movie? I should have been clearer in my grandma post. I’ll keep researching
Icarus, I believe you can set it up to at least start the correct app. You need to use IFTTT or Stringify to do it. I just got one on sale from Amazon and am planning on setting it up this weekend, if I get home.
It won’t find a particular show, but it will change channels.
What I really want to hear about is the Google Home Max. Thinking about one for my kitchen.
Fair Warning: Your cats will master this technology, if they haven’t already.
I *like* the idea of a Mini and an Echo sitting next to another, trading stories, whiling away the long night (or day) when “that voice” is gone. Listening in would be fun!
Wonder if you could put two side by side, and get them in an infinite loop talking to each other.
Greg, Someone did that with the Echo and Home when the Home was first launched. There should be a YouTube video of it.
If for some strange reason I decided to let an always on listening device into my home (unplug it! yeah, sure, they didn’t think of that…) and I couldn’t make “Hey shithead” the operating phrase I would be very disappointed.
Ah, those subtle, ocean wide differences:
“the thing is the size of a hamburger bun or a donut”
“a wifi-connected smart speaker that looks like a small fabric-covered pin cushion”
I really would be OK with the security aspects of getting one of these, and I’m generally a gadget freak, and I’ve been watching them with interest and kind of want to play with one, but…I still can’t imagine what I’d use one for. Maybe it’s because I’m already on a computer so much of the time that the utility of having a device specifically for when I’m not is pretty small.
@Crystal Shepard I see what you did there…
Crystal Shepard – I know, it can’t be a coincidence, right? Surely by now someone has cut a doughnut and wrapped it around a cheeseburger! Of course to complete the experience it should then be dipped in beer batter and deep fried, dipped in chocolate glaze and maple-bacon crunchy bits before being served on a grilled cheese lattice ‘bowl’ alongside a scoop of liquid Nitrogen ice cream!
Meet the Luther Burger:
Your donuts must be bigger than my donuts. Hmmm.
Or your hamburgers are smaller.
This sort of thing is often the first sign of falling into an alternate universe.
My Echo Dot can frequently be heard saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that” to the radio (which doesn’t respond, so far). Today she started a playlist without being asked. Annoyingly, when she and the radio are both playing you have to shout really loud to get her to stop. Or get up and go closer to her, which rather defeats the object.
I find it interesting to look through the voice history from each service. They both store all audio interactions with their service in your user profile.