I have always maintained that AI platforms become slightly dumber in India. Yet, if we were to compare the level of intelligence these platforms are capable of, the Google Assistant would almost always come out shining, just ahead of Amazon’s Alexa and followed by Microsoft’s Cortana.
Yeah, let's not even talk about Siri here.
In India, smart assistants are still learning. If these were real people, the Indian versions of these assistants would be the equivalent of school children, while global/US versions feel more intelligent, like college kids. It's a long way to adulthood either way.
And on that note, let's talk about the Google Home. A smart home product, that, like the Amazon Echo, has been talked about in some detail. So much so that you may even be expecting the one speaker to rule them all here.
Alas! Amazon couldn't do it and neither can Google. I'll skip over the bits about design here since my global colleagues have written about it already.
Using the Google Home in India
Like the Echo before it, the Home is very much an early adopter’s product in India. The primary difference is that unlike other such products, it's not big riddled and gives you the full experience of what you can expect.
That said, there's work to be done as far as app support etc. are concerned. The Home plays music from Play Music only right now. So, when you ask for a song, it will search through Google's catalogues and find the best match. Often, that isn't close to being right. A tad too often to be honest.
I asked the Home to play ‘New York, New York’ by Frank Sinatra. It played ‘One For My Baby’ by the same artist. Google’s My Activity page shows what the Home heard: “Play up the road by Frank Sinatra”. So, it found the closest match.
The My Activity page also tells me that I asked it to “play tennis” once. I surely didn't. However, it was up to the task when I asked it to “play some Michael Buble” or “play Havana”. The margin for error here is the same as the Echo, and having used the Echo for just over six odd months now, I'm pretty accustomed to it.
In hindsight, the Echo started off similarly, before getting used to my accent and pronunciation. And it still misses at times. I'm hoping Google's AI copes better and learns faster.
What I don't like though is how often the Home just doesn't register a command. I've had to modulate my voice quite often with the Home. That's especially frustrating when you wake up in the middle of the night and ask for something.
The Home just sat there often, while I screamed - “Hey Google”, “Ok, Google”, “Oii! Google” and more. To be clear, only the first two commands would and should have woken the speaker up. The Home seems to go into a slumber at times and refuses to wake up.
When it does listen, I can ask for reminders to be set, jokes to be told, time, travel info and more. Pretty much anything that the Google Assistant can do, the Home can do, too.
I had a lone Philips Hue Ambiance bulb to test the Home with. The Hue’s smart home Bridge needs to be set up before the Google Home can control it. The Home and Hue Bridge have to be on the same WiFi network for this to work.
You can toggle the intensity of the Hue Ambiance or turn it on/off using the Home. Once set up, you can control it from anywhere using the Google Assistant, as long as you're connected. I had the Home and Echo dot placed side-by-side on the same network, and the lag time between command and activity are the same on both.
Setting up the Hue is obscenely easy. The Home app by Google has a "Home Control" section. You head over here, tap on the "+" icon and add devices. Done. The Home asks for your Philips Hue account and automatically connects the Hue Bridge you set up earlier.
The Hue Ambiance is rather limited in what it can do, but the Home can control the full suite of things other Hue bulbs can do.
Controlling smart homes though is a niche utility in India, to say the least. The Hue Ambiance, which is the cheapest in Philips' portfolio, is priced at just over Rs 2,000 here. Other Hue bulbs often touch upwards of Rs 10,000. If you're already invested in IoT products, the Home might be a good idea.
What remains to be seen is whether the ecosystem develops around this. Google boasts extensive support for smart home products, though most of the brands aren't doing business in India just yet. Like Amazon, the company will have to push for these brands to start selling here.
Amazon boasts over 10,000 skills for Alexa in India, so Google needs to catch up. That said, the Assistant already has a bunch of usable skills in the country.
Yet, the Home lacks app support. It has support for Gaana and Saavn at the moment and Google says it wants to add more. However, apps like Uber and all others need to be added.
The brightside is that support for Google Cast covers a lot of your media requirements. Apps like Pocket Casts, Wynk and some others can stream to the Home directly via Google Cast.
The Home and Echo aren't meant to be audio products. Yet, if you do buy a speaker, the audio experience is worth noting. What I can confirm here is that the Home sounds decidedly better than the Echo. Michael Buble's baritone voice sounds better and more detailed on the Home when compared to the Echo. The music experience, in general, is richer too.
As a standalone speaker, the Home is more versatile than the Echo. It's loud enough to fill a room or two - though that would really depend on the size of your rooms. I have 10x10 rooms in my house, which are well served.
It's been just four days with the Home, so I can't quite pass a weighty verdict yet. But, as I said before, the Google Home is an early adopter's product. If you're buying this, you're either gifting it to a geek or a geek yourself.
It doesn't have real usage that will change your life. It's not a product you NEED, it's a product you really, really want. For those who do buy it, the novelty will wear off in a few weeks, after which we'll have to wait till India catches up with the global standards in smart homes.
If Google is to sell this to the general public, it will have to have offline stores to show the Home. It’s an experiential product. One that you want only after you’ve...umm...spoken to it.
Price and offers
The Google Home is priced at Rs 9,999 in India, while the Home Mini will sell for Rs 4,499. Both products are available on Flipkart and retail stores like Croma, Reliance Digital, Vijay Sales and more.
Google is also bundling a JioFi router and “streaming music subscriptions” with the Home. If you buy the product at Reliance Digital stores, you will get a JioFi router with 100GB 4G data, while Croma outlets will bundle the Philips Hue with the Home and Home Mini.