My Google Assistant is many things, but it’s mostly a meteorologist. I work 40 miles from my apartment, and the Bay Area’s many microclimates mean I’ll experience several weathers between my door and my desk. The questions come in the same order every morning: Hey Google, what’s the weather in San Jose? Hey Google, what about in San Francisco? Hey Google, what about tonight?
The new Google Home Mini suits this use perfectly. Google’s latest smart speaker emphasizes smart over speaker: it’s a small pebble of a thing, about the size of a crosswise slice of a softball. Unlike, say, the Home Max, which Google built to sound great, the Mini’s just supposed to be so small, so cheap, and so simply designed that you’ll put it somewhere and never notice it again. Google imagines you’ll maybe place one in every home, ensuring there’s always a mic close by to hear you ask for the weather, set timers, or control your smart home. Sure, it plays music, but you won’t like how it sounds. In short, this is a Google-made replica of Amazon’s Echo Dot.
After using the Home Mini for a few days, I think I get the use case. This is a complementary device: to a good speaker, so you can control Spotify with your voice; to a Chromecast, so you can demand the internet find you something good to watch; to a Home Max or even regular Home, so you can extend the range of your Google Assistant. Alone, it’s adorable and compromised. As a $50 add-on, like a repeater for your router or a universal remote for your TV, it’s excellent.
Can’t beat the price: at $49, the Home Mini becomes a killer holiday gift for anyone you even kind of like. To my eyes, at least, Google has successfully pulled off exactly the right kind of boring design. (Except for the coral model, which you can’t help but notice.) Sure, it looks like a futuristic metal donut, but you’ll set it up and never notice it again. It’s much more attractive and home-y than the Echo Dot. It only takes about two minutes to get up and running, and setup’s even easier thanks to a recent update to the Google Home app. Like any Home, the Mini does all the Google Assistant things, and does them all just as well as the original Home.
For such a small speaker, it’s pretty loud—you can hear it easily from across the room. You mostly won’t interact with the Mini itself, but its controls are handy. Tap on either side to turn the volume up or down; tap quickly in the middle to pause or play, or press and hold to get Assistant.
Most of what’s great about the Mini holds for all Google Home devices: the Assistant is impressively helpful, and getting better all the time. Using the Mini as a speakerphone works really well, and it’s a pretty handy remote control for my Chromecast-enabled TV watching. Voice Match works well (if not perfectly), and as far as I’m concerned multi-user support should be smart speaker table stakes. It does smart-home controls well, and the upcoming Routines feature—which lets you do a bunch of things with a single command—should make them even better. Even the new app makes finding stuff to do or watch better.
It may be loud, but the Home Mini sounds like crap. Absolutely no bass, clipped highs, just crummy sound quality all around. That doesn’t matter when it’s just the Assistant telling you traffic conditions, but listening to music on the Home Mini is barely better than listening through your phone’s speakers. Since there’s no AUX port, the only way to connect the Mini to a better speaker is through Chromecast, which certainly doesn’t work as well as a 3.5mm cable. You can’t even Bluetooth out to another speaker, which is odd given you can use the Home Mini as a Bluetooth speaker for your phone or laptop. Which, don’t.
You can’t really see the four LEDs on top of the Mini, so it’s hard to know whether the speaker heard you say “Hey Google.” I wound up turning on the audio alerts, which you can find in the accessibility section but should probably be on by default for the Mini. Also, Google needs to figure out how to better arbitrate devices, so I don’t get so many phones and speakers responding every time I ask a question.
The big debate is between the Echo Dot and the Home Mini. There’s not a clear winner. The Home Mini’s better-looking, but the Dot has a line-out jack. Google Assistant’s better at answering questions and making phone calls, but Alexa’s better for smart-home and music stuff. It’s an ecosystem question, really: If you already have a Pixel and drive with Android Auto, go with the Home Mini, and maybe buy a Max or Home as well. If you’re looking for killer music, buy a Dot, plug it into a real speaker, and enjoy. Neither’s perfect, but both are worth the $50.
7/10: A solid accessory, but not the centerpiece of your smarter home.
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