MEGATech Reviews: Google Home Mini
If you scoffed at the higher price of the regular Google Home or you don't yet have full access to Amazon Echo and Alexa, this mini smart speaker is affordable and increasingly intelligent.
Pros
  • Pleasant, minimalist design
  • Easy integration into smart home
  • Surprisingly decent audio
Cons
  • No audio-out jack
  • Why not USB-C?
  • Still room to learn
9Overall Score

For years now, Google has effectively owned my life. From Gmail to Calendar to Contacts to Photos, almost the entirety of my existence is kept in digital form on a Google server somewhere. Some people may fear a Skynet-themed future (and that's still a real possibility), but until then, I for one welcome our robot overlords. And that relationship is more affordable than ever with the Google Home Mini.

Hey Google!

The fundamental appeal to the Google Home Mini, as I mentioned in the unboxing video we shared last week, is that it is the cheapest way to jump on this digital voice assistant train for your smart home. Yes, there is also the Amazon Echo Dot, but Alexa isn't yet fully compatible in Canada. And there's also a lot to be said about all this Google integration.

Like the Echo Dot, the Google Home Mini is a puck-sized device. Unlike the Echo Dot, the Home Mini is covered in a soft fabric on top that hides the series of five LED lights underneath. The rounded edges make for a more elegant, "homey" appearance that's less "gadgety" or "geeky." To this end, Google's cheap smart assistant blends more easily into contemporary backgrounds where you don't want to scream out that you've got tech.

On the technical front, the Google Home Mini measures 3.86 inches in diameter with a height of 1.65 inches. In addition to the "Chalk" color shown here, it's also available in Charcoal and Coral. You get 360 degree sound from the 40mm driver and it'll listen for your "Hey Google" or "OK Google" wakeup with far-field voice recognition. Power comes by way of a micro-USB port (no USB-C) and there is no internal battery, so you can't unplug it to carry around the house with you.

Look Ma! No Buttons!

Speaking of things that it doesn't have, this little smart puck doesn't have any buttons either. With the larger Google Home, there is a button on the back to "mute" the device. That way, it's not listening in on your house when you don't want it to listen. On the Home Mini, this is replaced by a switch.

You also won't find any volume buttons, in the traditional sense. You can adjust the volume via a voice command ("volume up" and "volume down," as well as more specific settings like "volume six" on a 10-point scale), or you can tap either side of the device to turn the volume up or down. The single 40mm driver is surprisingly loud and while it certainly won't beat out a Sonos One, it's decidedly better than most laptop or Bluetooth speakers. Just don't expect much in terms of low-end bass.

Tell Me a Joke

Setting up the Google Home Mini is easy enough using the Google Home app on your Android or iOS device of choice. It initially connects via Bluetooth, similar to the Linksys Velop mesh Wi-Fi system, before borrowing the Wi-Fi credentials from your smartphone or tablet to connect to your home network directly.

You tell the app where you're going to place the speaker and that's really about it. The capabilities of this device are fundamentally identical to using Google Assistant on a smartphone like the new Google Pixel 2 XL. You can ask about the weather and news. You can get it to perform basic math. You can use it to stream music (Google Play Music or Spotify) or send a YouTube video to your Chromecast too. Then there are quirkier things like asking for a joke, asking for a scary story, or playing a game (like Mad Libs or trivia).

If you want to be able to access more personal information, it must first be trained to your voice. That way, it can identify different individuals in the household. You can ask about your upcoming appointments, for instance, which would then tap into your Google Calendar. This is also needed if you want to call someone from your contacts, though I found this function to be imperfect at the best of times. The same was true with the "find my phone" function.

The "smart" part of this "smart" speaker will only get smarter over time. Since this is Google, we know that they will continually update what Google Assistant is capable of doing and this is easily updated by way of some software. For now, you can maintain a shopping list ("add bananas to my shopping list"), control compatible smart home devices (I connected this to my WeMo setup without a hitch), set reminders and alarms and so forth.

Two additional features worth mentioning are guest mode and night mode. With guest mode, people at your place can cast multimedia content without being connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the Google Home Mini; they just need the 4-digit PIN that you, as the host, will provide.

Night mode, at least for me, is more useful in that it will reduce the volume of responses and decrease the brightness of the LEDs. There's also the option for a "do not disturb" toggle on top of this that will mute reminders and other notifications, but alarms and timers will still be heard.

Sorry, I'm Not Sure How to Help

A big part of the convenience with voice assistants like this is that you can speak to them using "natural language" for the most part. That's true in theory, but in practice, the technology is still in its relative infancy. This works fine for basic things like math and weather, but it gets a little trickier as you try to be a little cheekier or more nuanced.

It helps that Google Assistant recognizes and remembers what you just said, so your answers will be in context. If you just asked about a movie, you can ask what year it was released without having to restate the movie's title. I found that by asking it to play a particular music track, it'd automatically create one of those "radio stations" in Google Play Music. This is both good and bad, because sometimes I want to stick to one artist (and it doesn't really know that). This is where particular words like "play" or "shuffle" are needed and it's something that you need to learn over time.

And then there are times when it just gets confused and comes back by telling me that it's not sure how to help. But Google's engineers are constantly working on making the Assistant smarter.

MEGATechie Google Home Mini Magnificent or Home Mini Mediocrity?

If you've ever had the chance to use the regular Google Home, the Google Home Mini will offer very little in terms of surprises. It's exactly the same thing, except in a much smaller package and at a fraction of the price. The sound quality isn't as big, but it's hardly terrible. If you want big sound, you'll need to spend multitudes more on the Google Home Max or wait until Assistant rolls out onto Sonos speakers.

For now, at just $50 US or $80 Canadian, the Google Home Mini is a great entry-level way to get into the smart home, voice controlled revolution. I just wish it had an audio-out jack so I could connect it to a better speaker... but I suppose Google would tell you to buy a Chromecast Audio to achieve that.


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