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Google Home speaker a fun toy in Canada – so far

It works for the most part despite not being officially available outside the United States.

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Google Home in Canada:

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Of all the gadgets or services that have yet to find their way into Canada, voice-controlled intelligent-assistant speakers have to be the most puzzling.

Amazon’s Echo – the first of the bunch – went on sale in the United States more than two years ago and has since become available in the United Kingdom and Germany. Amazon has also released several new models, but none are officially available in Canada, still.

With the Echo’s runaway success – the company has sold an estimated 11 million – Google has opted to join the fray. The Google Home went on sale in the United States in the fall, but again, no Canada.

Google’s hesitance is understandable – the company is new to the speaker game and likely still in the process of ramping up production. But Amazon’s avoidance is tough to take. What’s the holdup?

Neither company is saying, but in both cases it may very well be because neither speaker works with the French language so far.

Fortunately, both the Echo and the Home can be had – and they work in English Canada – if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops.

Amazon’s speakers are tougher to get, since they have to be purchased online and shipped to a U.S. address. There are middle-man services that can help with that, but it’s a hassle and can get expensive.

The Google Home is easier. Available at major retailers such as Target and Best Buy, getting one only requires a quick hop over the border.

Curious about how these speakers perform in Canada, I picked up a Google Home on a recent trip to California. With the current, brutal state of the exchange rate, it ran to just about $200.

The speaker itself is smaller than you might think. It’s shaped like a scented candle and not much bigger.

Its top surface is a touch pad and it has a microphone mute button on its rear. Otherwise, it’s a minimalist product devoid of other features. It’s almost… Apple-esque in its design.

Setting it up is easy. You download the Google Home app, if you don’t already have it, sign in with a Google account and enter your voice print by saying “Okay Google” three times. A few button taps and you’re done.

From there, you can customize the speaker by selecting from a number of different services and options, which range from music and video streaming apps to audio news and schedules.

One of the more popular functions of Google Home is asking it to brief you on your upcoming day, at which point the Google Assistant tells you about the weather and any appointments you have in your calendar. It finishes up with audio reports from the news services you’ve selected.

There are quite a few of these available, including politics, entertainment, technology and sports news from the likes of The New York Times, National Public Radio, Fox News and BBC News. There aren’t any Canadian sources available as of yet, though. (Correction: as a reader points out, CBC Radio’s World Report is available.)

Trivia and simple utilities are also marquee features of the Google Home. I’ve got mine set up in my basement, where I don’t have a clock, so I often ask it the time.

It can also do simple math – what’s 365 divided by 12? – and answer general questions. Apropos of nothing, I asked how old professional wrestler Kurt Angle is and quickly got an answer (he’s 48).

The Google Home also tells some decent jokes, which provides my wife with no end of amusement. One particular joke I liked – Q: What’s Forrest Gump’s password? A: 1Forrest1.

spotify

Home Automation

Where Google Home shines is in its ability to link with media services and other gadgets.

Netflix and Spotify both work with the speaker, and if you’ve got Chromecast or Chromecast Audio devices hooked up to your TV and sound system, Google Home can do some pretty cool things.

You can tell it to start playing a show – say Iron Fist, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and it automatically fires up the next episode on Netflix through the Chromecast. You can tell it to skip episodes, fast forward, rewind or pause as well.

My wife and I have taken to controlling the TV solely with our voices as a result. The remote is starting to look like an anachronism.

The same goes for Spotify. Tell the Google Home to play a certain artist, album or song and it will immediately do so. Tell it to beam to a specific Chromecast and it also obliges. Controlling Spotify through the app on my phone or tablet now seems really dated.

Google Home also works brilliantly with Phillips Hue smart bulbs. Once you’ve got your rooms set up, you can ask the speaker to turn your various bulbs on or off, and change their colour and intensity.

It’s an honestly fantastic feature that I completely love. I realize it’s the epitome of a first-world complaint, but I now find myself annoyed when I can’t control a home appliance – say, the dishwasher or the vacuum – with my voice.

One other cool feature is Google Home’s ability to verbally create grocery lists. Tell it to add onions or bacon to your list and the items automatically pop up in the Google Keep app on your phone. The speaker can also tell you what time the nearest grocery store is open till.

Oh, and Google Home is pretty good at translation. I’ve asked it translate phrases into French, German, Polish and Mandarin and the results have been impressive.

It’s also impressive hardware-wise. Its microphone is sensitive and able to pick up voices from anywhere in my basement, even when music is playing.

The sound quality of the speaker itself is nothing to get excited about, but it’s about what you’d expect for such a small and relatively inexpensive device.

I continue to be blown away with how quickly the Google Home responds to queries, which actually makes me a bit nervous.

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Privacy Issues

There’s no getting around the privacy issue with these speakers.

Their always-on microphones means they’re goldmines of eavesdropping potential, which is why most consumers are so far distrustful of them in surveys. It doesn’t help that U.S. authorities are already trying to wring Echo user data from Amazon.

Google Home does have some safeguards built in. There’s the microphone mute button and you can go online to see all of your interactions with it. From there, you have the option of deleting any or all of them.

Google also says the speaker is only ever listening for its activation phrase, but again, the speed with which it responds makes me wonder about that. I can’t say I totally trust it despite the assurances.

I’m also not exactly sure whether the Google Home can be set to respond to only a single voice. Mine is currently linked to my personal Google account, yet my wife can use it. There’s probably a way to limit her access, but the settings app isn’t exactly easy to navigate.

The privacy and security situation is obviously one where time will tell. Google has a big interest in ensuring its users’ privacy and security, so early adopters of these speakers are going to have to give the company the benefit of the doubt.

That trust may not be as much of a slam dunk as expected, though. Just last week, Google angered many Home users – myself included – with news that it had introduced ads into the speaker’s capabilities.

The company quickly reversed course, but it was an unwelcome development that will bear further scrutiny going forward. For me, at least, mandatory audio ads would be a deal breaker with any of these speakers.

All told, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with what Google Home can do – and I’m certain to fall behind its abilities dramatically.

Amazon’s Echo, driven by its Alexa assistant, is up to 10,000 “skills” as of last count, with its abilities literally growing exponentially. Google Home’s abilities are currently in the hundreds, but that exponential growth is also going to apply.

“Viewing it as a number will probably go by the wayside really soon,” Scott Huffman, vice-president of engineering on Google Assistant, told me in a recent interview. “That quickly gives way to, ‘What do you have that’s useful?’”

That said, there are a lot of things Google Home can’t do, either because it doesn’t yet have the overall ability, or they’re not yet available in Canada.

I’ve asked it to read and send emails, to give directions and add events to my calendars, only to get apologetic responses that it can’t do those things yet. The speaker’s limitations with such seemingly basic tasks is surprising giving Google’s aptitude with them otherwise.

Needless to say, Google Home also doesn’t have links with any Canadian media services – it can’t control CraveTV, for example. That’s frustrating once you get used to controlling Netflix with your voice.

Presumably, some of those capabilities will also come sooner or later, when the Google Home eventually – and officially – comes to Canada.

At this point, the Google Home speaker isn’t a must-have for anyone, let alone Canadians, but it’s already proving to be a nifty toy that makes some regular tasks around the house easier.

I’m a fan and am quickly buying into the notion of controlling everything around me, and getting information, with my voice. I’m looking forward to more capabilities being added and possibly even picking up another speaker on my next trip down south.

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2 Comments on Google Home speaker a fun toy in Canada – so far

  1. There is one Canadian media provider: I’m able to get CBC Radio’s World Report as part of my morning news summary (it stops updating after 11am).

    Biggest drawback for me is how it accesses your Google calendar. I have a personal G-Suite gmail address, and it won’t work with that. It only seems to want to access calendars associated with @gmail.com addresses.

    • Peter Nowak // March 22, 2017 at 11:12 pm // Reply

      Just double checked and you are right! Corrected above, thanks for the heads up. Good on CBC for getting in there proactively.

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