In the past year, it’s no longer unusual to see a virtual assistant in someone’s house, whether it be a Google Home, Amazon Alexa or Apple Homepod, but when someone hears that I have 4 I’m always met with shock and surprise. “But what do you actually do with them?“. I have an insanely busy life, and my Google Home(s) help to take care of the things that I shouldn’t really have to worry about (or really don’t want to). Whether it be while cooking in the kitchen, running around getting ready, working or just chilling on the couch, Google is usually able to take care of something for me (even if it can’t do my washing for me yet 😔).
In my house I have a Google Home in my office and 3 Google Home Minis in the living room, kitchen and bedroom. To complete the set I also have a Chromecast connected to my TV and a Chromecast Audio connected to a set of speakers in the living room and kitchen.
I’ll be honest, most of the use in my lounge area is about me being lazy. When I walk in the door in the evening, I can ask Google
Hey Google, ask Harmony to turn on Foxtel
I have a Logitech Harmony Hub set up with my TV and through that can set up various different activities like:
Foxtel: Turn on TV, switch source to Foxtel, turn on Foxtel
Watch News: Turn on TV, switch source to Foxtel, turn on Foxtel, switch channel to ABC News 24
Chromecast: Turn on TV, switch source to Chromecast
You can link your Harmony device to your Google account and it gives you full access to turning and controlling the activities you have there. Some fancier TVs can even be controlled by Google directly.
I’ve already said that most of this helps me be lazy, but it’s nice to be able to turn the TV on when I walk in so it’s already doing what I want when I sit down, or to turn the news on while I’m making breakfast. This also allows me to turn things off as I’m throwing things in my bag and running out the door.
Hey Google, ask Harmony to turn off the news
Google also works with streaming services like Netflix and Stan, so once I’ve switched to Chromecast I can say
Hey Google, play Stranger Things
Sometimes it throws a hissy fit because I don’t specify the device, but most of the time it knows my default (the only capable video streaming device in my house) and it now even picks up my Netflix profile (there was a short period where I was watching things on someone else’s profile and completely throwing off their metrics). This also gives you the controls you need, and you can play, pause, and
Hey Google, stop Netflix
There are times where you need to be a little more specific (is this from Netflix, YouTube or Spotify), but for the most part it works well.
The kitchen is where I love the hands-free nature of the Google Home, and use it almost constantly when I’m cooking.
Hey Google, what’s 1 ounce of flour in grams?
I haven’t used Google’s recipe functionality before, but I use it regularly with my own. The ability to convert units of measurement or do a tricky calculation when multiplying a batch is already useful, and I don’t have to wash my hands and get my phone out to do it. When I do my Christmas cooking each year (I spend 2 days baking, it’s a huge ordeal), having a Google Home in the kitchen was invaluable, especially when baking my gingerbread army
Hey Google, set a timer for 15 minutes
Every time a tray went in the oven, a timer got set. When a timer went off, the top tray came out, the bottom tray moved to the top and a new tray went in with another timer set. Through the entire process I didn’t have to wash and dry my hands, fiddle with my phone and didn’t burn a single gingerbread man.
I also have a fantastic ability to remember things that I need to buy at inopportune moments, and by the time I’ve gotten to my shopping list I’ve forgotten what I need. Now I can be in the middle of washing dishes and suddenly remember what I’m running out of
Hey Google, can you put eggs, milk and beans on the list?
As I’ve already said, I have Google Homes around my house, and now I can add something to the shopping list no matter where I am. This works with Google’s shopping list, and while you can integrate with different apps the ease with which I can add items or even multiple items at once meant that I’ve just switched to using Google’s. Now there are a few things that don’t work quite as well as I’d like (mints, mince or mint) and it didn’t quite know what I meant when I said
Hey Google, can you add scourers to the list?
Thankfully I was pretty sure I wasn’t meant to buy cowards.
When I’m heading out the door, I’ll often also check traffic conditions, travel time and get directions if I’m going somewhere new
Hey Google, how long will it take to get to the international airport?
Google will give me travel times based on current traffic conditions and then send the directions to my phone. This way when I get in the car I only need to tap the notification and the directions are all good to go.
I often also like to listen to music when I’m cooking or cleaning, and Google helps me with
Hey Google, play my Discover Weekly playlist from Spotify
I have a default audio device set up, that is actually a group of my Chromecast Audio (one speaker is in the living room and another in the kitchen) and the Google Home I have in my office. This means that I can hear it no matter when I am in the house. Technically I’m meant to be able to do this without specifying Spotify and that it’s a playlist I’m wanting, but I’ve had a few issues where it just searches for things and plays them instead so I prefer to err on the side of specificity.
How often have you almost gotten to sleep then remembered something. You have to get your phone out to write it down, and there’s a bright light and now you’ll probably never get back to sleep. I set a lot of obscure reminders for myself in bed
Hey Google, remind me to get the bolts tomorrow at 8am
but the key thing with this functionality is I don’t have to get my phone, I don’t have to turn the light on and I don’t even have to open my eyes. I’ve been trying to limit screen time in the last hour to half hour before I go to sleep and this has been great for those last minute late night realisations.
Hey Google, set an alarm for 6.30
Alarms are also kind of a no brainer, and I can set a recurring or once off alarm easily (and trust me there is no sleeping through this one). It also does a fantastic job in picking up whether the alarm should be AM or PM, and pretty much removes the common issue or setting an alarm for 6.30pm and being late.
Honestly I don’t use the one in my bedroom very much, but the voice commands on it are really useful to stop me having to get my phone out when I’m almost asleep. I occasionally use
Hey Google, tell me about my day
but I have multiple different calendars and it doesn’t give information about all of them, only my default calendar (and I have 3 main calendars). Hopefully this is changed soon as it would be really good to get a reminder about what I have on each morning. Thankfully it can still give me information about the weather for the day and news headlines so I can get a bit of information from it.
I have the Google Home in my office as it has a much better speaker, so can be used for as a speaker in there (the minis do have speakers, but the audio quality isn’t great if you’re trying to listen to music). Often I’ll have music or a podcast playing on here (again this is linked to my Chromecast audio so I can still hear it when I go to the kitchen). They don’t support controlling Pocketcasts yet (my preferred podcast player), but as they’re chromecast enabled devices I can cast my audio easily.
I’ve tried making meetings in my calendar a couple of times, but again this limits you in which calendars you can use so I can only create events on my personal calendar (as opposed to those for each of my jobs). I also ran into an issue when trying to create an event for
Hey Google, schedule Meeting with Humaan at 3pm on Monday
While I figured that it probably wouldn’t be able to spell Humaan right (I knew what I meant though), it was a little funny when I ended up with a calendar event for Mating with Human.
I’ve found the reminder functionality is much better for me
Hey Google, remind me I have to leave at 2.30pm on Monday
It’s a little shorter, and gives a reminder on the Google Home device and on my phone.
Out and About
After I got slammed with a fine for using my phone in the car last year (I was stationary at traffic lights that I knew weren’t changing for at least several minutes), I’ve started trying to use the voice functionality on my phone more as well. This often results in me getting into an argument and swearing at Google, but it does do some things well.
Hey Google, directions to Subway Cooroy
I can usually get directions sorted on the fly, and can then get my music started without having to touch my phone
Hey Google, open Spotify
I can also use it to initiate phone calls, and was impressed when
Hey Google, call Mum
prompted me to confirm which contact on my phone was my Mum and then saved it for later. Lately my phone has done a hijack on my contacts and saved things under their full names so it was really nice to have this option.
Just For Fun
My favourite experience with my Google Home was when I took it home last Christmas to show my family. My mum had heard me talking about my Google Home so I thought that it would be cool to show them how it works (or doesn’t). After the Christmas insanity was over, I set it up on the kitchen bench but hadn’t had a chance to do anything with it yet.
One day we were sitting out on the lawn eating lunch, I mentioned that it was there and my sisters rushed inside to see what they could get it to do (surprising though, they don’t really like technology). Immediately my sister proceed to tell Google
Hey Google, remind Amy that she’s a tosser
multiple times, so for the next couple of hours I had reminders popping up on my phone.
They then decided to give the music a shot and perhaps get the chance to annoy me, so from the lawn my parents and I heard
Hey Google, play One Direction
(they know I can’t stand One Direction). However they didn’t realise that you can also control the Google Home with your phone, and while they were giving their own commands, I was switching it to start playing The Gambler (my sister can’t stand that song). Instead of playing One Direction, the speaker started to play Kenny Rogers and while they kept saying
Hey Google, stop
I overwrote every pause and turned the volume up higher. This ended with my sisters getting annoyed and leaving the kitchen, and my parents and I laughing out on the lawn listening to the entire situation unfold.
While this technology is useful for being lazy or to make my life easier, it’s also great for entertainment (or making it seem like you’re capable of magic).
One of the biggest concerns that people have is that Google is going to watch them, record them and sell stuff about them. I have a similar response to when people tell me that someone is going to steal my credit card information because I pay with my phone - ”Joke’s on them, there’s no money in it”. Google take their security really seriously, and don’t keep any audio that isn’t a command (the commands are saved in your history, great to see what you’ve used it for). And even if they were listening, what are they going to get? Me singing (badly) in the kitchen? Me talking to my dog, pretending like he has a clue what I’m talking about? They’re limited to an audio recording, so there isn’t really any value to something that they could hear (although my Dad still wants me to walk around the house saying “Theodolite” to see what happens).
Google also uses voice recognition, and only allows certain functionality to voices it recognises (ie. people in the house). You can also choose whether or not you want to turn on Guest Mode to allow other people to control the Google Home. Even if you have Guest Most turned on, it still needs to be a recognised person to access or edit information in your account (like your calendar and reminders). And it will only allow that person (eg. your housemate can’t make changes to your calendar, they can only access their own).
Would be Nice
While the Google Home is a great device and has done so well, there are still a lot of areas where it could use some improvement or things that would also be good.
There are times when I get frustrated and start swearing at Google, like when
“Hey Google, play music with Spotify”
“There’s nothing playing right now”
happens While I don’t condone bad language, it would be great if it could pick up when I start swearing at it, and send the conversation through as an error report. Is this something that happens to multiple people? Is there a bug and it’s not working properly? Is there a particular pronunciation you don’t have yet?
I also get annoyed at having to continually restart conversations
“Hey Google, can you turn on Foxtel?”
“I don’t know how to do this just yet”
“Hey Google, can you ask Harmony to turn on Foxtel?”
If a command wasn’t successful, I’d like the ability to try again. Most of the time I need to say it slightly differently or more clearly and it understands me so having to go through the whole “Hey Google” bit again is a pain. I think this is functionality that is now available (Continued Conversation), but on devices that use US English only (don’t ask me why that makes a difference).
There’s also been a lot said about making the Google Home enforce manners (please and thank you) and I’ve been caught out with this too.
“Hey Google, can you please set a timer for 1 minute”
“I don’t know what to do with this”
“Hey Google, set a timer for 1 minute”
“Timer set for 1 minute”
A lot of kids have started using these (and some people have even found that it’s helping autistic kids develop their conversation skills because it doesn’t get annoyed when they continually ask the same question), and parents are saying it would be good if you could enforce manners (eg. don’t work unless they say please). This does have a cultural concern as some cultures believe that saying please is rude, but it would be a great option to have that could be enabled if you want.
While I can get good driving directions, I often want to know when the next train to the city is leaving from my station. This is information available from Google (I can check it in Google Maps), but I can’t seem to ask the Google Home when the next train is leaving my station. This would be super useful to be able to check what time the next train to Perth (or next 3 trains) are leaving so I know how much I need to hurry.
This is a little thing, but I would love to be able to change the command so instead of “Hey Google”, you could give it a name. I work at home by myself and it’s nice to pretend like I actually have my own assistant (maybe one day). It’d be nice if when I needed something, I could go “Hey Patricia, when’s my next meeting?“. This is one little bonus the Alexa has over the Google Home in that it has a more human name.
While a lot of people are still sceptical, I’m so glad I decided to get a Google Home, it’s made my life much easier and I no longer have to worry about things I don’t want to. I use it on a daily basis, and even managed to convince my Mum to get one, and that was only on the shopping list functionality. There is still a way to go, and it definitely works better when you have various things connected together (Chromecast, Harmony, Netflix, Spotify, etc) but the different options you have available are endless.