I started writing about Google Assistant before I’d even fully unpacked. The company had posted up a week-long residency with a profile to rival any in Vegas that first week of January.
Celine Dion at Caesar’s, David Copperfield at the MGM Grand, Google at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The company wallpapered the Vegas monorail and plastered the words “Hey Google” on every rentable screen in town. Take that, Donny and Marie.
That crazy booth in the Convention Center parking lot seemed like a terrible idea on Tuesday when the rains opened up and swallowed it whole — but a day later, when the lights went out on CES for a few hours, everyone came running to Google and its free donuts. Our own booth at the Sands, meanwhile, where a number of us were posted up for much of the week, was way too close to the giant Google gumball machine.
Every ten or so minutes, cheers erupted from the crowd as another eager tech industry type won a Home Mini, after dutifully waiting in line for an hour or so. And then, on my last night, when I thought I’d escaped the company’s presence for long enough to enjoy that Run The Jewels corporate gig, I walked out on the balcony of Brooklyn Bowl and spotted the same machine down below. The damn thing was everywhere.
Google’s CES 2018 presence was an act of sheer brute force — a consumer electronics blitzkrieg that some how managed to standout among the bright lights of America’s most stupidly garish city. The fact of the matter is that, even if the company hadn’t followed through on that promise, it would still have managed to capture plenty of headlines.
But Google delivered. After having virtually no presence at the show in past years, the company went from zero to 60. Practically no press conference or news release went by without some mention of Assistant. The company played its hand well at the show. There was no big Google press conference, and it didn’t release a single piece of its own hardware.
Instead, it harnessed the platforms of its highest profile tech partners — Sony, LG, Lenovo, Huawei and the like. At the latter’s press conference, an executive even came out on stage to run down the specifics of Assistant — though to be fair, perhaps Huawei was simply filling time in the wake of some last minute adjustments.
Assistant made it onto virtually every manner of hardware at the show, from TVs to refrigerators to electric bike wheels. And while the company went into the last holiday season with no direct competitor to the Echo Show, suddenly it had several, letting its hardware partners do all of the heavy lifting. From the looks of it, Amazon’s got something to be concerned about on that front — especially given the fact that the company went with the nuclear option a few months back, pulling YouTube from Amazon’s offering.
Amazon had a good show, too, albeit with a decidedly more subdued presence. There was no giant gumball machine or armies of employees in matching outfits screaming until the voices went hoarse, but the company handily sent along a list of Alexa announcements at the end of each show day. And the list is a solid one, particularly with the planned launch of Alexa on several Windows 10 PC — effectively eating into Cortana’s one stronghold.
Both companies’ respective assistants had a successful CES, but Google’s list of devices go a long way toward shrinking the gap between the two players — and take it even closer to its dream of device ubiquity. That positioning, coupled with the years of backend development that have coalesced behind Assistant should leave Amazon more than a little concerned about holding onto its place at the top of the heap.
Add this the ever growing list of stuff getting Google Assistant functionality at this year’s CES. After bringing Alexa voice control to its services back in May, Dish announced today that it will be doing the same with Google’s AI offering.
The feature is arriving on the company’s Hopper, Joey and Wally devices at some unspecified time in the first half of this year. That means that users will be able to control their HD receivers with voice controls, once they’re paired to an Assistant-enable device like Google Home speakers, Android handsets and the ever-growing army of third-party devices with the offering baked-in.
The controls are pretty much what you’d expect — you can request specific channel names or numbers, find shows and movies by name or actor, fast forward, pause, resume and the like. Notably, the offering also marks the first time the systems can be controlled in both English and Spanish.
The new integration comes a few months after the company began shipping its new voice control remote with all of its Hopper DVRs.
Google’s here, and it’s planning something big. The company’s presence is impossible to miss as you drive down Paradise Road toward the Las Vegas Convention Center. Like much the rest of the show, the company’s parking lot booth is still under construction today, but the giant, black and white “Hey Google” sign is already hanging above it, visible from blocks away.
It’s a slightly altered reconstruction of the whimsical invite the company sent out ahead of the show, right down to the neon blue looping slide connected to the side of the temporary structure.
Then, just as you’re wondering how the company could have pumped more into the event, two trains barreling in opposite directions pass one another on the Las Vegas monorail track out front, each baring the words, “Hey Google,” in bold, impossible to miss letters.
Like the trains that bare its name, the company’s gone from 0 to 50 at the show with seemingly no ramp up. Outside of third parties building on top of its software solutions, Google’s never really had much of a presence at the event. All of the sudden, it seems, it’s everywhere. There’s some precedence for this, of course. At Mobile World Congress last year, the company put on a massive showing, complete with smoothies and Android sand sculptures.
Of course, a strictly mobile show made sense for the Android maker. CES is a much bigger and broader beast. But the through line is the same. At MWC, Google’s presence was all about Assistant on the phone. In this past year, the company has made a much more aggressive push to compete with Alexa in its quest to control the smart home. In 2017, it launched a family of Home products, brought a new pair of smart earbuds and began seeding Assistant onto smart speakers from third-party manufacturers.
That last bit, it seems, is a key to the show. It’s tough to say if the company is going to launch additional first-party products at the show, bucking its trend of launching at its own events like I/O. But CES is the perfect showcase to go next level with those partnerships. All of its major hardware partners are here — Sony, HTC, Lenovo, LG and the like.
Samsung may not have the most incentive to join up, assuming its planning to build out Bixby, but everyone else has a lot to gain from helping build out the Google ecosystem. Following Alexa’s path by moving off the smart speaker and on to other household items seems like a no-brainer at a show like this.
And for Google, it’s the perfect opportunity step out from Alexa’s shadows and assert its in the smart home space once and for all.
The days of buying devices or smart assistants will be over soon enough. Amazon and Google have both made clear their intention to make their respective AI device agnostic, so the days of the standalone Google Home or Amazon Echo might well be numbered.
Assistant and Alexa are already being built into everything from thermostats to lamps. In order for smart speakers to continue to have a spot in the home, they’re going to have to be speakers first, smart second. Proprietary products are already competing with offerings from big-name audio brands like Sonos, Sony and JBL. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve seen Amazon, Apple and Google all head in that direction in recent months.
The new Echo kind of, sort of, edges in that direction with improved audio, but the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod offer up similar visions for a future in which smart assistants are a nice bonus on a device focused on delivering high-quality, floor-rumbling, room-filling audio. And with prices approaching $400 a piece, it had better be.
The Google Home Max isn’t effing around here. It’s big and it’s heavy. The thing weighs 12 pounds. I am painfully aware of this fact because I stupidly had Google deliver it to our office, and I then threw it in a backpack to take home to test. I am currently investigating our company’s worker’s comp policies for the strained muscle in my back.
I’m a weird outlier, of course (in many ways, but let’s focus on this one for now). The Home Max is very much not a portable speaker. In fact, if aesthetics dictate purpose in this case, it’s practically a piece of furniture, with a fabric-covered front inline with the rest of the Google Home offerings.
The Home Max isn’t a flashy speaker from a design perspective. Like the rest of the Home line, the Max is designed to blend in with its surroundings. It’s a boxy design that comes in black or white (charcoal or chalk, if you will). The Max is a minimalist, exchanging buttons for a simple touch panel on top, and interacting with a quartet of LED dots that shine beneath the fabric front. It’s a nice-looking device; understated, really.
The touch panel on top controls volume and turns the system on an off — though on occasion I had trouble getting it to work just right. Also of note is a switch on the back of the device that disables the microphone — a key privacy feature, though it would have been nice if the company had made it a bit more prominent the way Amazon does with the Echo line.
Back to the wall
What’s perhaps most interesting from the design perspective is that Google shied away from 360-degree audio here. Pretty much every standalone smart home speaker is built that way, ditto for the HomePod. The idea here, however, is that most people don’t actually plop their speakers in the middle of the room. That’s certainly the case with me. I brought the Max home and found a wall to place it up against.
Like the HomePod, the Max promises a customized audio footprint based on its surroundings. But instead of attempting to create some full audio picture of its surroundings, the system bases its audio fingerprint on the back wall, because much of what you’re hearing is that sound reflected back at you.
Google has deemed the feature “Smart Sound,” adjusting audio equalization based on the wall. The system utilizes on-board microphones to listen to the bass as it bounces against the wall, adjusting the sound settings accordingly. According to Google, the whole process only takes a few seconds, but the system draws this out to 30 seconds in order to gradually ease into a new sound.
The adjustment is subtle and fairly hard to detect. And, honestly, you probably won’t be running up against this too often, given what a pain in the ass (and lower back) the system is to move.
Maximum rock and roll
The Max sounds good. But is it $399 good? In a word, no. Given the way the smart speaker market has been playing out, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a price drop soon after the holidays — but as it stands, the Max doesn’t really live up to the expectations of such a pricey system.
But it does sound good enough that many users will be perfectly happy. The audio is loud and clear, and the bass bumps like a mofo, courtesy of a pair of 4.5-inch woofers. The audio quality is solid enough the company doesn’t have to sweeten things up with added bass, but the lows are pretty intense. Thankfully, you can tweak those settings to your liking through the Google Home app.
The whole “room filling” experience isn’t a problem, either. Granted, I’ve got a New York City apartment, so my space isn’t the most… demanding, but the single Max more than did the trick and continued to sound great, even at high volumes, much to the chagrin of my poor neighbors (but those jerks knew what they were signing up for when they moved in next door to a tech writer).
For those who need more than Max firepower, buying two will turn them into stereo speakers, enhancing the experience — and driving the price up to around $800, of course.
A helping hand
The Max is an audio-first device, but Assistant is where the system shines. In a way, it’s not surprising. Assistant isn’t just a platform for the company. It’s the culmination of much of what the company has been working on over the past decade and a half. It’s contextual search, AI and machine learning all rolled up into one. All of that helps Assistant with contextual search — using other information to grab the right results, rather than taking a shot in the dark.
It’s got that leg up on Alexa, though it’s still not perfect. My biggest annoyance with the system came when I was attempting to test its lyric feature. It’s a cool addition to Assistant’s music functionality, where you can say “play me the song that goes ‘I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham’ ” and it will play Up the Junction by Squeeze.
Or, as happened to me multiple times, it will play “Play that Song” by Train and you’ll want to toss the Max out a window, because Train is a terrible band that no one should listen to. Thankfully, it costs $399 and weights 12 pounds, so you leave it be and move on.
That said, the system’s voice recognition is solid, and I was impressed by its ability to recognize the “OK Google” and “Hey Google” commands, even when it was playing music at loud volumes. Also, kudos to Google for letting you set up a third-party music service as a default. Too often these devices are about locking users into a particular ecosystem. Here, I was able to set up Spotify out of the box (you also can use YouTube music and Pandora). So you don’t have to specify that you want to play a song on a given service.
If you want to play back audio from YouTube, on the other hand, you’ll need a YouTube Red account. Thankfully, the speaker ships with a free 12-month plan. The least Google could do with a $399 speaker.
That $399 price tag will be pretty hard for many to stomach, especially as more and more third parties come out with their own smart Assistant speakers. It says a lot that it’s $50 more than Apple’s premium speaker. Though the Home Max has some decided advantages over the HomePod, not the least of which is that it’s actually on the market right now. Apple’s offering, meanwhile, is slated for some time early next year.
On the whole, it’s a solid offering. Google Assistant is tough to beat and the hardware mostly stands on its own. It’s not the most stellar piece of audio equipment at its price point, but Google’s engineered something that works right out of the box, while Smart Sound means you won’t have to do any EQ fiddling in the off-chance that you end up moving it from its current position.
If you want to further customize it, that’s possible, too. The Google Assistant app is much more robust than Alexa. But plug-and-play capabilities will likely appeal to many users simply looking for a nice-sounding system that also can help get them ready for work in the morning.
Google’s smart speaker got a little smarter this week, with the addition of a multitasking feature. The new capability make it possible for the device to accomplish two different missions at the same time. It was rolled out with little fanfare and first noted by CNET. We’ve since confirmed the addition with Google.
It’s a bit surprising that the company rolled it out to Home units with no mention. It’s a handy addition to what’s essentially been a single-minded device. The company has been promising to add Routines since the Pixel 2 event a few months back, essentially creating pre-determined scenes that let tie a bunch of actions to a command (something that’s been supported by both Siri and Alexa for a while). This is something else, though.
Rather than having to preload all of that via an app, you can simply ask it to perform two job simultaneously. Only two, though. Not three or four — that would be flying a little too close to the sun. You also have to separate tasks into individual commands, as the device won’t understand two tasks crammed into the same sentence. Even though it’s limited, the silently-released feature is arguably more handy than the forthcoming Routines since it can be accomplished on the fly.
In spite of letting Alexa get a pretty massive head start, Google’s done a pretty solid job playing catch up to the Echo’s existing skill set. The new one comes as the company readies Home Max, a premium addition to the Home line due out sometime next month.
The Pixel Buds are an inevitability. The headphones were born out of necessity when Google embraced the smartphone zeitgeist and dropped the headphone jack with the Pixel 2.
The company’s first Bluetooth headphones are a $159 attempt to ease that transition, and another chance to get Assistant out into the world currently dominated by Alexa. It would be a nice bit of consumer electronics alchemy if Google could pull it off perfectly, but the end result is much more of a mixed big.
Pixel Buds are a valiant effort to stand out while embracing a trend adopted by just about every name in the field, resulting in a product that’s sometimes inspiring, sometimes baffling and mostly just okay. They’re the kind of product you really want to like — but they’re just not there yet.
The Pixel Buds’ case is as good an indication as any of a company looking to put a unique spin on the familiar. If the AirPods case looks like a Glide dental floss dispenser, Google’s is something approaching a fast food hamburger container. It’s a clamshell made from a much softer material than Apple or Samsung’s offerings. It’s also noticeably larger. It’ll fit in your pocket just fine, but it’s going to leave a much bigger bulge.
Like the competition, the case does double duty here, both protecting the buds and keeping them in one place, while providing some battery backup. Google rates the Pixel Buds’ battery at right around the same spot as the AirPods, with five hours on board and an additional four charges in the case. All told, it should get you through the day, as long as you remember to slot them back in.
The exterior is covered in gray fabric — a nice touch that keeps it aesthetically consistent with the rest of the Google Home line. It’s also nice and soft to the touch, unlike the cold plastic of the competition. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the case is a bit flimsy. It’s easy to imagine things getting worn out over time or the thin plastic hinge that holds the top and bottom together tearing after repeated opening and closing.
Also, this is kind of a small quibble, I admit, but it’s a bit tough to get the thing open. I usually end up having to slide a finger nail in the thin gap in the front to pry the top and bottom apart. There are two small holes inside where the buds slot in for charging. This, too, is a bit of a tight squeeze. Unlike the AirPods, which slot in magnetically, or the IconX, which have room to breathe, I found myself having to maneuver the Pixel Buds in with a twist in order to get the charging notification to light up.
And then there’s the matter of the cord.
I go back and forth on whether I like the fact that there’s a cord connecting the buds. At the very least, it’s a differentiator from many of the other Bluetooth buds popping up these days. How about some pros first?
They’ll sit on your neck when not in use
They’re harder to lose
The extra slack provides loops at the top that help keep them in place in your ears
So far, so good, right? As for the downsides, one’s pretty clear right off the bat: It’s a pain to get the things back into the case. I mean, you’ll get the hang of it, don’t worry about that, but it will take some doing. In fact, Google sent along an animated GIF to show the right way to get the cords, buds and everything into the case.
I’ve included it here, because it’s handy. And there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. Trust me. And even when you do it correctly, you’ll still find there’s a bit of cable spillage over the sides from time to time, making it impossible to fully close. There’s a much more pressing issue with the hardware than that sometimes pesky cord, though. I had the damnedest time getting the things to fit.
Like the AirPods, the Pixel Buds are made of a hard plastic, with no soft, squishy silicone tip. That means they’re unforgiving — if they don’t fit, they don’t fit. And for me, at least, the Pixel Buds didn’t really fit. Results will vary, from ear to ear, of course, but I haven’t had much trouble with the AirPods. As with getting them into the case, the Pixel Buds take some maneuvering to get a good fit.
Once you’ve done it a couple of times, you’ll get the hang of it. But the first few tries, the things kept falling out of my ears. And the lack of silicone tips like you find on the IconX means you won’t get a tight seal. The Pixel Buds are going to let some ambient noise in — a good thing, perhaps, when you’re on a busy city street, but hardly the ideal listening experience in the comfort of your own home.
The awkward fit ultimately does a disservice to what’s actually pretty good audio, as far as Bluetooth earbuds are concerned. This is one key spot where the company outpaces Apple — and it’s certainly an important one. I’ve tried plenty of better wired headphones in my day, but Google’s done a good job striking a balance between convenience and sound — it’s just a bummer that it’s bogged down by so much bad stuff.
Including the whole matter of actually getting the headphones up and running.
Judging from some early online feedback, I’m not alone on this one. The Fast Pairing that was supposed to be one of the hallmarks of the new buds (and, by extension, Android), still has some kinks to work out. Like others, I found myself having to manually pair the Pixel Buds with the Pixel 2 by holding down a button on the inside of the case and going through the Bluetooth settings.
Not the end of the world, but when you’re positioning this selling point as something that can compete against Apple’s W2 chip, it’s a pretty big bummer when you have to fall back on something more inline with the standard pairing. Again, results may very, but this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident. When it works well (as it did when I paired a set of Libratone headphones to the Pixel 2), it’s a nice and simple on-boarding process. When it works well.
Home away from home
Google Assistant is one of the product’s saving graces. As with the Pixel 2, the hardware builds on much of the work the company’s been putting into contextual search and AI, delivering it in a convenient package. The right earbud doubles as a touch panel. Touching and holding secret service-style fires up assistant. Double-tapping triggers notifications. There’s nothing there that you’re not already getting on the phone, but it’s an easier way to interact with a voice interface than speaking directly into the phone.
And then, of course, there’s translation, that killer feature that blew us all away back in October. It is, indeed, really, really cool — not this-is-going-to-eliminate-mankind’s-language-barrier cool, but cool nonetheless. I spotted a few reports of issues folks were having making it work. I didn’t have that problem, but the implementation is still kind of wonky here. It’s not the real-life Babel Fish we thought we were being promised last month. For starters, it requires a Pixel phone, for the time being. No huge surprise there; Google does want to save a few cool tricks for its own products. You also need to download the Google Translate app to your phone and enable the languages you want to translate (from a list of 40).
You then need to hold down on the right earbud, give Assistant the command and the Pixel Buds will listen for speech and translate accordingly. The functionality is still limited — but it works. There’s a slight lag in translation, naturally, and it really only works with shorter phrases. It also runs into the usual set of issues with attempting to recognize speech in a noisy environment, but it’s an impressive trick, nonetheless.
It could ease some of the trouble of traveling abroad and will no doubt continue to get better in future iterations. Translation has the potential to be a truly killer app, but much like the rest of the buds, it feels more like a hint of what’s to come
The Pixel Buds have many of the trappings of a first-generation product. There are software issues and strange hardware choices. They’re a disappointing showing from what may be Google’s most eagerly anticipated hardware product this year, a slew of interesting ideas and valiant attempts wrapped up in a product that just doesn’t deliver.
As recently as a couple of years ago, they would have been a contender for most the compelling Bluetooth headphones on the market. But given the strides much of the competition has made, they mostly land with a dull thud. Hopefully their lukewarm reception doesn’t dissuade Google from further development, because the seeds of a great product are here. But as it currently stands, there are better places to spend your $159.
In order for Google Assistant to be a real contender against the likes of Alexa, it needs third party app support. In order to get more developers on-board, the company needs to add a lot more features to incentivize development, even as Amazon’s home AI continues to dominate marketshare. This morning Google took a key step toward making Assistant a more compelling experience, announcing a boatload of new features for app developers, including a new push notifications, daily updates and additional language support.
One of the more interesting new features on board is speaker-to-phone transfer, a new API that makes it possible to start an action on a Google Home speaker and complete it on the phone. So users can, say, order food through the speaker and get the receipt on a screen. That addition is keeping on Google’s push to grow Assistant beyond just a simple voice interface.
It could also, perhaps, lay the foundation for the Echo Show competitor we’ve all been waiting for from the company.
Push notifications are a biggie too, for obvious reasons. That new API means that apps can send important updates to users on the phone, with Google Home spoken functionality coming down the road. Also new here is the addition of a For Families badge, designating which apps are okay for the little ones and support for additional languages, including Spanish, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese.
The ability to link accounts in the app has been improved as well — in the earlier build, users could only do it before engaging with the app. Now it can be accomplished whenever is most convenient. Oh, and the updated version of the Cancel command lets the app send a user a polite farewell before logging off, because courtesy is important, even for smart assistants.
The new features come roughly a month after Google added a number of new additions to its Home family of smart speakers, along with the Pixel Buds, which have recently started shipping. The new additions will, hopefully, give developers enough time to ramp up their app experiences ahead of the holidays.