Hope me Google Home?
December 27, 2017 12:38 PM   Subscribe

So my partner got a Google Home Mini in the family holiday gift swap. I am... not a fan of home assistants, to put it mildly, but my partner is as thrilled as a giddy child, so I'm reluctantly letting this thing into our lives. Two questions I have: a) What do we do with it? b) Can you convince me not to force it to live in a Faraday cage when it's not in active use?

I know the Minis, specifically, already had an always-on-and-listening issue. Partner tends to be cavalier about this sort of thing; I am the type to physically disable microphones. Assuming I can get over my anxiety, how can this thing be useful and fun? Are there helpful sites / app lists I can peruse for ideas?

We do not have a Google ecosystem at home; both of us have rather elderly MBPs, partner has an iPhone SE, and I have an (admittedly rickety) iPhone 4S. I think I have a circa-2012 Chromebook lying around somewhere? But that's about it.

We don't currently keep online calendars, but might be interested in starting. We don't have cable or watch much TV. We have a moribund home entertainment setup: non-smart TV, speakers, Playstation 3 for Netflix/DVDs (although the PS3 is on its last legs so we often just watch on a laptop, or occasionally we hook up a laptop to the TV via HDMI). We have no subscriptions to streaming music services; I'm given to understand we'll probably want/need to subscribe to Google Play Music? Can we use that on phones as well? Can we share one?

I've already discovered that this thing won't link up to bluetooth speakers without Chromecast, which is irksome. We don't have smart lights, and we're on radiator heat so thermostats aren't really a thing. We're travelling currently, so I'm not able to set the thing up and test it myself, but I'd like to have a plan of attack to avoid frustration, and I'd like to know what we'll need to download or (potentially) plan to purchase/acquire.
posted by halation to Technology (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
We've had the full sized Google Home for about a year now. While we do use it for voice control for our lights, it gets the most use out of being there to set timers and answer questions that come up in conversation. The Mini is about $29 so you don't have to use it a ton before you get your value out of it.
posted by mmascolino at 12:53 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

As far as privacy: you can always just unplug the dang thing when you don't want it listening. It shouldn't be necessary, but it's not a battery-powered device so that might help you feel better.

As far as music: you probably want some sort of cloud-based music service so that you can control music with your voice; this can be but doesn't have to be google play music. spotify is the biggest competitor. You can get dirt-cheap/free trials - the google home mini should probably come with a few offers for particularly long trials - so you can feel out which one you like. Google play music is sort of two things: it's a no-added-cost music service where you can play owned or purchased music, and it's a subscription service where you can play any music from a wide library that you don't own. The former costs only as much as the individual song (or you can upload the music you already own using this, which I highly recommend) and the latter incurs a subscription fee. You can absolutely access google play music from your phone too, but I don't believe you can share a subscription. Instead, you might prefer something like Spotify for Family which allows several separate users from the same household for $15/month.

If you enjoy controlling the music with your voice, you might eventually want to consider something like a chromecast audio to broadcast that same music into your existing speaker setup. It doesn't add any other microphones or anything to your house, it's just a dongle that can send a variety of music-from-the-internet to your speakers. [note: oops, I see you're already aware of that. Nonetheless, it's good to be aware of, I guess.]

Other than that? Yeah, try using a calendar, if you're intrigued by that. Ask it about facts and the weather. Set alarms (and timers, especially if it's in/near the kitchen! it's the best!). Keep lists like shopping and to-do lists. Honestly I don't use my voice assistant for that many things, I just use it for the same things over and over again. Really, the use is for things where you want to be able to do one thing (like set a timer) without interrupting something else you're doing (like cooking). That's the thing these devices do particularly well.
posted by mosst at 12:55 PM on December 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've recently gone all-in on Google Home with 3 minis (despite Apple being my first love, but here they cannot compete). I'm still getting things setup though.

First thing I did - setup my name, address, work address, and preferred news partners. When i get up I just say "Good morning Google" and it tells me the time, weather, commute time and news before I'm even really awake. I love this.

The mini is also a passable bluetooth speaker on it's own. I didn't know this, so this was a happy surprise. Hence any audio can play though google home, not just things that support Chromecasting. Although my podcast app of choice doesn't do Chromecast, bluetooth works just fine. It connects pretty well (for bluetooth) and i find it fun to tell google to stop/pause/play or turn the volume up or down.

Mine's hooked up to spotify, so it's "hey google play [artist/playlist]" and off it goes. It also does radio with TuneInRadio, but i've found that only works with some channels. Don't know why.

If you have more than one device, you can tell it to broadcast a message to all speakers. "Hey google tell everyone [whatever]". There's unlimited possibilities there ;)

In the kitchen: "Hey google set a timer for 12 minutes" or "Hey google how many millitres in 3 ounces?" or other random conversion.

I will hook it up to other smart stuff in my home eventually, but i need to rejig everything first (it's a bit disorganized and random due to my own laziness) so i haven't done it yet.

I've also been told I need to get a Harmony hub so I can be all like "Hey google play [whatever] on netflix" and then it will just start. And if i do it right it can also dim the lights as well. I will probably do this as well eventually.

The biggest disappointment I've had is that the number of things it can do pales in comparison to Amazon's Alexa. But the things it does do work well, and I chose Google home because i think it'll slowly gain useful capabilities meanwhile amazon will just learn to play stupid games and other useless things.
posted by cgg at 12:59 PM on December 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Like mosst, we use our Homes to control our collection of Hue lights (handy, and one of the factors that contributed to the purchase). While our home is much more of a "Google ecosystem," complete with Google calendar and Gmail accounts, neither my husband nor I use those features frequently.

More often than not, I'm using it to set a timer or an alarm, and we often ask for conversions ("How many Euro is $86 USD?"), including how to say something in another language ("How do you say 'X' in Spanish?") or other measurements (ounces to quarts, inches to yards, etc.). I also use it for math on a regular basis. (Mr. Jaqi likes to brag when he knows the answer before the Home does.) Occasionally, we'll try one of the new skills Google promotes, but they're often pretty goofy and not worth a repeat performance.

We had company over for T'giving, and it was fun to play music by asking for songs by title or by artist - everyone got involved and it was such fun! A great way to share new performers and experiences with each other. Oh, and we ask the Home each morning what the forecast is - much faster than pulling it up on the phone. We regularly throw out questions based on something we're watching on TV or reading about, though our answers to general questions are far less reliably useful. (It can be fun to try to stump the Home, though. Don't discount robotic weirdness as a source of entertainment.)

You can set up your Home to recognize each of your voices, and to "unlock" information based on voice recognition (so strangers won't hear about your embarrassing doctor appointment when they ask about today's schedule, for example), so be sure to explore the settings. I ordered my Home when the original was brand-spanking-new on a lark, and have really enjoyed having it around. Fingers crossed you find a comfortable middle ground.
posted by Jaqi at 1:11 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

We just got a Home Mini primarily because our kitchen is a weird dead zone for radio reception. We use it a lot to stream radio ("Hey Google, play NPR"), but are also using it quite a bit for background music and podcasts. I have a Google Play free account, so I can tell it to play a specific artist/playlist/song I have in my library, or we can do just a general, "Play Mozart/piano music/dinner music." (My husband has been testing it by telling it to play "Music that doesn't suck" or obscure metal bands.) With the free account, we can't get specific songs, but it will tell us, "That's not available without a Google Play subscription; here's X" (which is similar). The speaker is decent for this type of background music.

I've also started using it to ask questions like others have mentioned - current weather, commute time, how long to bake pork at what temperature, how many grams in an ounce. I now use it as a timer rather than needing to manually set a timer with wet/dirty hands, which is nice.

For your concerns about privacy - my husband also has some privacy concerns, and his older phone couldn't handle the initial syncing between his voice and Google account, so he's never bothered. He still uses it for all the same stuff as I do, but he can't get things specific to him (ie, he can't ask how long his commute to "work" is, but if he gives the name of the company, it figures it out). You can use much of the functionality without ever needing to hook it to a Google account.
posted by writermcwriterson at 1:27 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

We keep ours in the kitchen, which of all the choices seems the most privacy neutral. We are still uncomfortable putting them all over, although I didn't know about that 'tell everyone' command -- it could stop a lot of shouting conversations from one end of the house to the other.

1. I'd keep ours for no other reason than "Hey Google Good Morning" - I make coffee and breakfast to a set of news podcasts that are a real revelation to me: NPR latest news + NPR's Up First + NYT's The Daily. I could have set this up on the phone but this is easier and the sound is better. (It says good morning back, sometimes with your name, which is surprisingly non-creepy *until* you remember this is how the robots manipulate us to like them!)

Like others we also use:
2. Hey Google Play [local NPR station] (we're also in a radio dead zone) and Hey Google Play [music] - connected to our free Pandora account. It is not a great podcast player, but I have just started using it as a bluetooth speaker when I play something on my phone in the kitchen.

3. And kitchen timers. I never realized how much I should have been using kitchen timers before we got a Home. It is a revelation just to call out into the air when your hands are full and it just works.
posted by troyer at 1:57 PM on December 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

Upon request, it will tell you a knock-knock joke.
posted by lyssabee at 2:21 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Full disclosure though - it uploads the actual audio snippet of you talking that starts a bit *before* you say "OK Google" to Google's servers. The audio can be accessed under Google's My Activity with the log of commands and responses from your Home, and alongside your other web browser and search history. This feature is not widely advertised.

I have justified it to myself by that fact that Google, FB, and others already are tracking me all over the web and this seems little different, plus I can see what they have stored and even delete it.

So if a child or spouse says something particularly cute in the presence of a Google Home, you can immediately say "OK Google" and the current audio recording will be faithfully sent up to the cloud, where you can later retrieve it for posterity. (I haven't tried this but have been told it works.) I suppose this could be used in less cute scenarios, such as recording threats as evidence in a legal action, which is, um, great, I guess?
posted by troyer at 2:41 PM on December 27, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm not sure about Google specifically because I have Alexa, but I was skeptically at first about it and now I really like it - especially in the kitchen.

Things I like:

ALL THE TIMERS. I can start a million times and it keeps track of them while cooking. Converting measurements.

"Turn on NPR" or "Play [whatever]" or "Skip this song" probably gets the most use, I didn't realize how much I would use this until I got it.

"What's the weather" or there is an app for my local transit that gives updates or delays while I make coffee.

I haven't used it much with my calendar but I LOVE being able to add things to my grocery list by yelling at it. You and your partner would probably enjoy sharing this. I never realized the number of times I was like "Hey I should get more ____ at the store" while mid-dish washing or mid-shower or mid- walking out the door or other times when my hands are totally full.

I hate to admit it but I use the voice-ordering quite a bit as well and it's kind of awesome how accurate it is ("Alexa I need to order more socks" .. "Based on your order history you're a size...")

Even if you don't have smart home stuff most apps have some kind of integration. So like for your Playstation 3 there may be an app (I don't know how PS3s work) that would let you control it, or if PS3 has has an app store itself one of those probably has voice control.

Like I have a dumb projector, but my Roku itself has an Alexa app and the program I use to watch movies (Plex) also has an app. So when I run to pee in the middle of a movie I can yell at it instead of trying to find the remote in the dark to pause it.

Anyways, I am skeptical because of privacy as well but I do really like it. It's best for things where you have your hands full already. Also they tell great jokes.
posted by bradbane at 5:27 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

It is really nice to look up things in the category of "for sure the first Google hit is accurate" without having to type.
posted by k8t at 5:32 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

The mini also has a physical switch to disable the microphone, if you feel so inclined.
posted by dforemsky at 6:41 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Heaven help us: partner has just received a second Mini from another friend. They are taking over. Partner is squeeing about the prospects of 'an intercom system' -- even though we live in a small apartment, so utility seems... limited. But I have, clearly, already lost this battle, and Google is definitely taking over. Thank you all for the assistance!
posted by halation at 12:51 PM on December 31, 2017

Every computer security researcher on the planet would love to get a scoop that one of these smart speakers was listening in all the time. But from a practical mathematical standpoint it's not really possible to send any significant amount of audio without it being noticeable. A medium quality voice recording (like a cell phone call) would use about a megabyte every two minutes, which would immediately show up in the most cursory analysis. Not to say there's not some nefarious way for a skilled person to target your specific device (thus why Zuckerberg famously put tape over his webcam), but in terms of mass surveillance you would definitely hear something about it.
posted by wnissen at 2:34 PM on January 4, 2018

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