What we're buying: A pair of Google Home Mini speakers

One editor struggles with Google's voice assistant.

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Timothy J. Seppala
Timothy J. Seppala

This week's hardware IRL is timely, as Google is about to showcase what's coming next at its annual developer conference. It's the perfect occasion to hear Timothy J. Seppala's thoughts on the Google Home Mini, the company's entry-level smart speaker. He ended up buying two, but they haven't quite delivered on everything he was hoping for.


Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Reporter

My relationship with a pair of Google Home Mini speakers started out great. I bought them during the holidays as cheap Christmas gifts to myself, hoping to eventually place one in every room of my apartment. I have a first-gen Chromecast connected to my home theater and a Chromecast Audio hooked up to the Klipsch speaker towers in my living room, and I use Gmail, Google Photos and the rest of G Suite on a daily basis. I am all in on Google and was primed for success, or so I thought.

Primarily, I was going to use the Minis to control my Google Play Music (GPM) streams on the Chromecast Audio. My stereo is on more often than my TV, and being able to control my music from any room in my apartment, by voice, was too good to pass up. I loved Google Now on my Nexus 4, and when I switched from Android to the iPhone three years ago, it's what I missed most. The Home Minis were going to bridge the gap: full Assistant functionality -- not the hampered version for iOS -- without having to buy a new handset. I thought they'd help break my phone addiction too.

I put a gray Mini on the printer cart near my desk so I could give my laptop's cooling fans a break and not have to cast Google Music from it anymore. The other Mini, in coral, sat on an end table in my living room for easy access from my kitchen and couch. Simple commands worked well. I could pause a song, skip to the next or turn the volume up pretty easily, assuming the music from my stereo wasn't too loud. In dead silence I could even whisper, "Hey Google" from across the room and, impressively, I'd see the status lights illuminate. Saying, "Hey Google, play some jazz" worked as well as it did with Google Now on my old phone. A more complicated request was another story entirely, however.

"Hey Google, what's Rage Against the Machine's second album?" I asked, knowing the answer. Assistant read back a Wikipedia entry, saying it was Evil Empire, released April 16th, 1996, on Epic Records, four years after the band's debut album.

"Hey Google, play that," I commanded, hoping Assistant would recognize the context of the previous question. You know, the kind of contextual intelligence Google loves crowing about during each I/O keynote. Nope.

"OK, playing Rage Against the Machine from Google Play Music." And then, incorrectly, "Bombtrack" from the band's debut album led off a single-artist playlist.

Speaking of playlists, requesting one by name is hit or miss too. If you have one named after a specific artist or with a title that sounds like an artist (which I have done), chances are you aren't going hear what you want the first time. Or even the seventh.

The final straw was when I woke up early to get a head start on work. I use Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' film scores for background music when I'm writing, and I was on deadline. The pair's recently released soundtrack for Ken Burns' The Vietnam War documentary is a great return to form, but asking Assistant to play it was an exercise in frustration.

"Hey Google, play The Vietnam War soundtrack."

"OK, playing Trent Reznor from Google Play Music."

And then "Immigrant Song" from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo score, also by Reznor and Ross, started looping.

What bothered me was that Assistant knew that Reznor co-composed the score, but instead of playing the score itself (which I have in my Google Play Music collection), it picked a playlist from Reznor instead. I tried again: "Hey Google, play The Vietnam War score by Trent Reznor."

"OK, playing Trent Reznor, a playlist from Google Play Music," Assistant replied. Not what I wanted.

Once, Assistant even started a playlist of the soundtrack from YouTube, which didn't sound as good as a Play Music stream. It's especially onerous when I have Play Music set as my default music provider within the Google Home app. To sidestep YouTube, I have to specifically ask to play the soundtrack from GPM. I varied the structure of my request a few more ways before finally giving up and reverting to Google Music inside Chrome on my laptop. It worked the first time.

The same week, I went to a friend's house one night and discovered how well her Home Mini speaker worked with Spotify, accurately picking up her playlist and album requests. It even resumed from where she'd paused a playlist the previous night.

My Trent Reznor issues were back in January, and my Minis have sat mostly dormant since.

Instead of simply asking my Minis to play music for me, I use my phone or laptop instead. Why? Because I know I'll get the result I want the first time, without any of the frustration. Until Assistant gets a major update, my Minis will sit lonely, listening, waiting for someone to talk to them.

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