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Google Home Mini review: Taking aim at the Echo Dot

From Engadget - October 13, 2017

Hardware

Google describes the Home Mini hardware as a donut, and that's not a bad comparison. It's about the same size as my favorite pastry (though there's no hole in the middle). To me, it looks more like someone turned the original Google Home upside-down and flattened it. Instead of having a white top and a colored bottom, the Mini offers the opposite. But the top of the Mini is made of a new fabric that Google designed specifically for its pair of new smart speakers (the Mini and its giant brother the Home Max). The soft look of the light grey fabric and the Mini's rounded corners make this a much friendlier gadget than the Echo Dot, and one that be happy to put just about anywhere in my house.

The company says it designed the fabric to be both acoustically and visually transparent so you can see the Mini's four status lights when it's listening and "thinking." Those lights are much less gaudy than the Echo Dot's bright LED ring, but they are also not quite as good at showing you when the Home is in use. As for the fabric top, one potential downside is that it could get dirtier than a standard plastic shell and wo not be as easy to clean. There's also no way to change out the top, unlike the bigger Google Home, which has a swappable base.

That said, I do not think the Home Mini will get too grimy, because I rarely needed to touch it. Tapping the left and right sides of it turns the volume up or down, but it's just as easy to do that with a voice command. Until a few days ago, you could also tap and hold on the center of the Home Mini to activate the Google Assistant, but Google just permanently disabled this feature. A few Home Minis were suffering from a bug where their touch panels activated inadvertently -- this meant the device was able to record audio and transmit it to Google without a user's consent, a privacy nightmare in the making.

Google acted quickly in disabling the feature, and a review of all the voice commands the Home Mini sent showed no unusual activity for me. I believe that Google has fixed the issue, but it's still something to be aware of if you are on the fence about having a voice assistant in your house. For extra privacy, you can mute the device's microphone with a switch on the back. Once muted, the four lights on the top of the Home Mini light up in orange. It's a bit less elegant than the button found on the larger Google Home, but it does the job.

Setup

Setting up the Home Mini is identical to setting up the full-size Home. You plug it in, and the Google Home app walks you through the rest. Punch in your WiFi credentials, assign it to a room and you are ready to roll.

But to get the most out of a Google Home, you will want to to customize a few things. In the Home app, you can sign into various music and video services including Spotify (free or premium), Pandora, TuneIn or IHeartRadio so that you can tell the Home Mini to play your streaming library. If you use Google-owned services like Play Music and YouTube, they will be automatically set up. Supported video services include CBS, the CW (both added over the last year) and Netflix.

You can also customize "My Day," a daily briefing that tells you what's on your calendar, what your commute is like, what the weather in the area is like, all pulled from your Google account. It also can follow that up with a quick news program, so it's worth taking a minute to pick your favorite sources. Options include "traditional" news like Bloomberg, NPR and the Wall Street Journal, but you can also get programs focused on specific topics like technology and sports.

In use

Once you are all set up, you can start asking the Home Mini questions and the Google Assistant will answer based on the company's massive knowledge graph. You can also ask it to give you just about any info you have stored in your Google account, like calendar appointments, reminders and your commute, but there's a bit caveat. It only works with personal Google accounts; G Suite is not supported. That's crazy, particularly a year after the first Home arrived. Even Amazon supports G Suite calendars on the Echo! As someone who uses his work calendar much more than the personal one, I'd really like the Mini to work with G Suite accounts.

The Home Mini can stream audio, video or images from Google Photos to any Chromecast-enabled device (including another Google Home). Controlling audio and video was one of my favorite features with the original Google Home and that's still the case here. The speaker is too small for dedicated music playback (more on that later), but I used the Mini to cast music and video to various speakers and TVs in my house with no issues.

Additionally, there's a ton of other services you can talk to across categories like education, productivity, entertainment, games and trivia, news and more. They are similar to Alexa's skills, but you do not have to "enable" these. You can just say, "OK Google, talk to the Wall Street Journal" to get whatever info the publication has posted recently. The best place to see everything you can ask the Google Assistant is currently in the official Assistant app, not the Home app you use for setup. That was a little confusing, but once I had both installed it was pretty easy to learn more about what the Home Mini was currently capable of.

Other features include getting step-by-step recipe directions from the Food Network, Dominos pizza delivery, calling an Uber, making a reservation with OpenTable and more. Naturally, the Home Mini can connect to a variety of smart home devices, as well. Google says that Home supports 1,000 devices from "more than 100" home automation partners. And you can use IFTTT to build your own custom actions, as well. One of the nicer things about the Google Assistant is that you do not need to sign in or set up much before you start using these actions -- I asked the Mini to make me a reservation for dinner tonight and went through the process without having to go back to my phone, which is how it should be.

What's changed

The competition

Wrap up

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