Among Google's announcements at its Pixel event in San Francisco were three pieces of in-home technology that on their own are interesting, but together are hugely noteworthy.
In addition to the Google Home assistant-in-a-speaker, which was announced at Google I/O earlier this summer, the company unveiled a streaming stick, the Chromecast Ultra, and a brand new mesh-enabled Wi-Fi router called, appropriately, Google Wifi (yes, lowercase i). Let's break them down a little.
This is the first time we're seeing Google Home, and it's quite the compact little speaker. With magnetic replaceable bases made of metal or fabric, the unit can be made to stand out (a bright red flourish, for instance) or blend in (a nondescript slate metal) depending on the environment, and because they're magnetic they can easily be exchanged for various situations.
The slanted top is certainly a bold decision, but it definitely feels like something Google can get away with. The top is also touch-sensitive, and features a set of four dancing lights in the Google color scheme when a command is issued.
While the testing environment wasn't conducive to extensive testing, Google Home promises to be attentive and sensitive, able to hear a voice from across the room using far-field microphones. With Google Assistant built in, Home becomes a place to ask questions and solve problems, or just access information directly from Google Search. The upside is that Google's "knowledge graph" is in many respects the world's vastest and, with your permission, Home can access personal information culled from Maps, Gmail and more.
To convey those details, Home also sports a speaker — a 2" driver and dual 2" passive radiators for deeper bass — which sounds better than we expected, but it's not going to replace your Sonos Play:1 for music playback. What it can do, however, is reach into YouTube, Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn and more to access tracks and podcasts, which is pretty great, and there are more services to come. There's also support for IFTTT and other smart home platforms like Nest, SmartThings and Philips Hue, so you can turn off your lights and turn on your thermostat with one command.
While Amazon's Echo has a pretty invested developer community, this is Google, and it's safe to say that after years of building developer relationships for Android's Google Play Store, Home should gain a lot of traction very quickly. Google is already planning that future with Actions, an SDK for developers to plug into Google Assistant, which works on Home as well as the Pixel phones.
At $129, Google Home appears to be a bargain, and a loss leader that Google is looking to capitalize on, not only to get Assistant into as many homes as possible, but to show off the multi-room synergies with Chromecast, Chromecast Audio, and the new Pixel phones. This is an ecosystem, folks.
Look for Google Home at the beginning of November.
The Chomecast Ultra is a Chromecast, but better. Google demoed a number of 4K experiences for us at the event, and they looked great, with limited buffering and no skipping to speak of. Of course, much of that smoothness will depend on your broadband speeds and Wi-Fi bandwidth, but Google's got a trick up its sleeve for that: an ethernet adapter that attaches directly to the Chromecast Ultra's HDMI port.
Being nearly twice as fast as the previous Chromecast, it can handle 4K Ultra HD streams and HDR content, where supported, which is great to see.
At $69, the Chromecast Ultra isn't cheap, but it isn't replacing the existing Chromecast, which is highly resembles. Look for it in November.
Google Wifi is perhaps the most vexing announcement of the day. Alone it's a small puck whose user experience resembles that of the OnHub that was announced last year, but when paired with one or more friends, or an OnHub itself, it creates a mesh network that, according to Google, creates "fast Wi-Fi everywhere in your house, not just right next to the router." Each puck is AC1200 compatible, with 2x2 Wave 2 MIMO support and dual-band 2.4/5Ghz compatibility. On the back are two ethernet ports, one for a modem and one for a switch or something else.
Google Wifi itself is fairly nondescript, and considerably smaller than the OnHub routers from TP-Link and ASUS released last year, but the value proposition is the same: easy setup, and no maintenance. Plugging in a Google Wifi to your modem is the only thing you need to do, aside from pairing with the app that is set to unify with Google On later this year.
When paired with an OnHub or another Google Wifi puck, Wi-Fi creates a seamless mesh network that we hope truly solves the problem of dead spots throughout homes — my home is full of them, even with an OnHub. The good news is that OnHub isn't going anywhere, and Google is working hard to make sure it and the new set of Wi-Fi products work well together. Google also promises new features for both later this year, once Wi-Fi has launched, including Family Wi-Fi, which allows parents to pause connectivity on kids' devices.
Pre-orders for Google Wifi are expected in early November, starting at $129 for a single puck and $299 for a set of three.
What do you think?
They're not as flashy as the Pixel phones, but these products represent a Google that is thinking beyond the handset, or the operating system — it's thinking of how the handset and OS are the center of a wide range of products in the home that enable continuous connectivity using either voice or touch.
We'll have lots more on Google Home, Chromecast Ultra, and Google Wifi in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
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