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The Google Home Mini: Great, right up until you want to smash it in fury
One step forward, two steps back
Review At first, it wasn't entirely clear whether it would be worthwhile doing a review of the new Google Home Mini.
The new, cut-down version of the digital assistant could probably have been summed up in a tweet. Something like: "Home Mini: smaller, cheaper, sound worse but still fine."
But then, and it's not entirely clear how or in response to what, the little puck-like device implied that it could call a mobile phone. This actually sounded pretty useful: you could be in the kitchen and say something like "call my wife" and have a conversation without having to find your phone or tap any buttons.
So let's do exactly that; let's test just how smart this AI technology that Sundar Pichai keeps swooning over really is. "Call my wife."
Nothing happens, of course, because you have to say "OK Google" every damn time. OK Google, what's the time? OK Google, set a timer. OK Google. OK Google. OK Google. Aaarrrrrgh. You wish the wake word could be literally anything else: "Hey Janice..." Anything.
Anyway, "OK Google, call my wife."
Here we go, here comes the brave new world. This machine is going to understand "call", it's going to know from my voice it is me (a new feature, you can "train" it by saying, you guessed it, "OK Google" multiple times), and then take the words "my wife" to carry out some incredible Google AI to make the connection between me and my spouse.
Then it will fish into my contacts, identify the right person's mobile phone and connect me – all in less than a second. I'm going to ignore the privacy implications and just enjoy its awesomeness.
And the little puck flashes some white spots. And decides it can't be bothered. It doesn't even reply.
I try again: "OK Google, call my wife."
More lights. Silence. Then after a pause, it decides not to be rude and ignore me again but says: "I'm sorry I don't know what to do about that." (Or something similar.)
A different tack. "OK Google, I would like to call someone."
"You can use Google Voice to call..." Great, we're building an understanding here.
"OK Google, I would like to use Google Voice to call my wife."
"I'm sorry, I don't know anyone of that name. Perhaps you can say their first or last name."
"McCarthy." Nothing. Have to say "OK Google", of course. "OK Google, I would like to use Google Voice to call my wife, last name McCarthy."
"You can use Google Voice..."
"Yes, I know..." The Mini is starting to lose me here. But we get back to the last name option and I say "McCarthy" again. "I have one McCarthy: Kieren McCarthy. Calling..." And soon after, my mobile starts ringing.
To boil down the next 10 minutes, I go into two separate apps (Google Home and Google Voice) and make sure my wife's number is in the system, and that Google Home is connected to the same Voice account, and try it all over again.
The end result? My mobile phone starts ringing and I give up on this wonderful new feature.
Let's see if the smart home features have got any better. Our house has a range of smart home devices: Nest and Ecobee thermostats, August smart locks, Ring doorbells, several smart cameras, and smart power sockets and light switches and so on.
The Google Home app offers me just the Nest thermostat. With a little exclamation sign next to it. Tap. "You need to relink your (Upgrade!) Nest account." Not sure what this means, but I tap the "relink account" link and my phone bounces me to a Nest webpage, where I logged into my Nest account, and then to a page where you "Accept" a connection (lots of terms and conditions) and then bounces to a Google assistant webpage (not the app but a webpage) and... stalls. Nothing.
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Hit refresh on the blank page. Nothing. Back to the Google Home app. You need to relink your (Upgrade!) Nest account. Zero for two.
And this is the big problem with digital assistants. They have ended up doing some things really well: playing music, telling you the weather, setting a timer. Google's Home and Mini even does a pretty good job telling you what's happening that day by combining what's in your (Google) calendar and news snippets.
But the next-level stuff: the phone calls and the smart home and basically anything that requires a connection to some other system is a royal pain in the arse.
I'm sure it is possible to get them to talk to one another if I am willing to log out of everything, reinstall apps, and log back into everything in the right order. But I'm not going to because it's just not worth the hassle.
Get it, or pass?
So should you get a Google Home Mini anyway?
Sure, if you want. It is a terrifically small size. Considering its size, the speakers are pretty good. It's not good sound quality – playing music can be a little grating compared to the larger Home, or Amazon's Echo, or, you know, an actual sound system. But it is good enough.
If you have a Home or Echo and like the ability to ask it questions and you find yourself walking to wherever the device is in order to ask questions, then maybe having a second device in a different part of your home is a useful thing.
Some people clearly like this: hence Amazon's cut-down Dot that Google is blatantly copying with this Home Mini. At $49 (and £49 because in the tech world the dollar and pound have 1:1 parity), it's not that expensive. Could be a nice birthday or holiday gift.
Should you just buy the Mini over the pricier $129 Google Home? For this reviewer at least, it wouldn't be worth it, mostly because the most common usage for these devices is playing music. If you want one, save up and get the larger Home.
Unless you have a large house, or two floors, the Home will also hear and understand your request if you shout it. The critical test, as ever, is: does the Mini stay in place once the testing is done?
And the answer is: no. It was unplugged and the Echo regained its rightful position in the kitchen.
Now, the next question is: so where do we plug in the Google Mini – which room does it go in? My wife and I run through the options. Lounge? No, don't need it (the lounge is next to the kitchen.)
The bedroom? A raised eyebrow that means "don't even think about it." The bathroom? "Why? So I can ask what the weather is while showering?" The kids room? "Not in a million years." The office? Maybe. But not now.
So there you have it: the Google Home Mini. Sort of useful so long as you don't try to do too much with it. ®