Factor Reviews: Google Home

Once in a while I get the chance to try out a product that really makes me feel like I’m living in the future. Not because it feels outrageous or space-agey, but because it simply and effortlessly provides something that not all that long ago would have seemed like magic. Google Home, the smart home speaker and rival to Amazon’s Alexa, is one of those products.

Combining beautiful hardware design with a delightfully simple user interface, it’s an absolute pleasure to set up and use. Connecting to the supporting Android or iOS Google Home app – which if like me you are an Android user, you probably already have – the setup is very straightforward, with clear, easy to follow steps, and lovely little animations while you wait. And you don’t have to wait long: for me, the time from opening the box to starting to use it was less than 3 minutes.

Once set up, it is extremely easy to get going with Google Home. The initial setup includes suggested interactions to get you started, and it very quickly becomes second nature to ask the device questions, add notes or get it to start timers.

Which is good, because combined with the extremely long response distance – I found it worked fine from the other side of my flat – Google Home is an invaluable tool for cooking and other activities where you have your hands full.

Ok Google: a rapidly expanding knowledge base

When it comes to asking questions, Google Assistant is a very knowledgeable source, with the ability to answer accurately on subjects ranging from obscure celebrities’ heights to the distance between various planetary bodies. Sometimes I did find it unable to answer my query, but usually only when it required the cross-referencing of multiple knowledge sources. And when I broke a question down into several sub-queries, I didn’t struggle to find the answers I’d asked for.

There are also, if you are so inclined, rather fun interactive quizzes, which made for a bizarre but entertaining session with family members.

One of the best features, however, is the response to “Tell me about my day”, which includes weather, a roundup of any appointments (automatically synced from your Gmail account, of course) and a rundown of today’s headlines. It is not only futuristic but also genuinely helpful, and a feature I am increasingly using while having my morning coffee.

In addition, one of the real appeals of Google Home is how quickly the search engine giant is adding features. It has already improved – without any input from me – in the time I’ve been testing it, and it’s clear it will continue to do so in the future, seemingly far quicker than with rivals such as Amazon Echo.

Smooth sounds: Google Home’s voice

The UK edition of the Google Assistant should also be praised for its voice – I personally found the UK female Siri voice to be intensely irritating, sounding condescending and rather too much like presenter Holly Willoughby. By contrast Google’s chosen voice is helpful and supportive, and someone I could happily hear on a very regular basis.

This is a feature that cannot be under-estimated in a voice-based assistant.

It also, notably, was very good at responding to a host of different accents, although unfortunately I was not able to test it with some of the more extreme regional accents of the UK, unless you count some fairly rubbish attempts at Scottish, which to the device’s credit, it did respond to.

The speaker itself could be better, however, but not without adding significantly to the price: there are less bassy speakers out there, but none of them have a built-in assistant, and Google Home’s is certainly decent, just not amazing.

Killer connectivity: Chromecast, Spotify and more

One ability that makes the Google Home invaluable is its integration with services such as Spotify, and with hardware such as Google’s Chromecast.

The result is a device that will play almost any music you care to name, or will allow you to cast a TV show via Netflix simply using your voice. Which feels shiny and amazing.

However, the results can be less than perfect if there are multiple similar-named programmes from which it has to choose. Asking for Gilmore Girls, for example, seems to default to it playing 2016’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life rather than the original, while if you want anything other than the Star Trek original series to play, you will need to specify.

The device also has some widely supported integration with home automation products such as smart bulbs, although I was not able to test these.

Insanely intuitive: Google Home’s ease of use

Despite all of these exciting features, the moment that really convinced me of Google Home’s specialness was when I introduced my boyfriend’s mum to it. For context, she is not a tech-savvy person: I have known her to need assistance to click ‘continue’ in an app on more than one occasion, and she is one of the most prolific adders of superfluous toolbars I have ever encountered.

So when I introduced her to this device, I expected the usual confusion and issues. Instead, she took to it better than any gadget I have ever seen her with. Within five minutes she was happily asking it questions and getting it to play music, and she now uses it without prompting or help whenever she visits.

Google, you have performed a miracle: I’m not sure this device could be more intuitive if it tried.

Google Home versus Amazon Echo

Of course, if you’re thinking about buying a Google Home, you’re probably wondering if it’s a better option than its main rival, Amazon Echo. And the honest answer to this is that it depends on what tech you have already, and what you want it for.

If you want to effortlessly buy things just by speaking, the Echo is a better shout. But if, like me, you’re all about finding out things and getting updates on what you need to do next, and do not want to make spending money any easier, then the Google Home is for you.

Similarly, if you already have Google products such as the Chromecast and Gmail, you’re in a better place to fully use this smart speaker, which, when fully utilised, is an absolute gem.

Factor’s verdict:

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Renault unveils unorthodox ‘car of the future’: a dockable, peanut-shaped driverless pod

Renault has unveiled its take on the car of the future: a peanut-shaped, mulit-directional driverless vehicle that is capable of docking into a train of vehicles.

Designed by Yuchen Cai, a student of Central St Martins’ MA in Industrial Design, the vehicle is the winning design in competition run between Renault and the prestigious design school, and was honed during a two-week stay at Renault’s Paris studio by Cai this summer.

Dubbed The Float, the vehicle was unveiled today at DesignJunction, a four-day design event that kicked off today in London.

“Everyone has accepted that cars will be part of the sharing economy in the future – that’s what’s going to happen,” said Will Sorrel, event director of DesignJunction, this morning.

“This takes it one step further and these pods are this peanut shape so they can join together, so the autonomous vehicles can link up and join together if they’re going in the same direction, conserving energy.”

The Float by Yuchen Cai, winner of the Renault and Central Saint Martins, UAL competition

The Float is rather unusually designed to run using magnetic levitation – known more commonly as maglev – and would be capable of moving in any direction, eliminating the need for tedious three-point turns.

Made entirely of glass, the vehicle is designed to have sliding doors. Two bucket-style seats enable up to two passengers to travel per pod, and swivel mechanism ensures easy departure from the pods.

When the vehicle is docked to another, however, the passengers aren’t just stuck grimacing at each other through glass. Instead passengers can rotate their seats using built-in controls and power up a sound system that allows them to talk to the pod next door.

Those who are feeling less sociable can change the opacity of the glass, ensuring privacy when their neighbours are not so appealing to communicate with.

The Float is also designed to be paired with a smartphone app, through which would-be passengers could hail a vehicle as required.

“Central Saint Martins’ Industrial Design students really took this on board when creating their vision of the future,” said Anthony Lo, Renault’s  vice-president of exterior design and one of the competition judges. “Yuchen’s winning design was particularly interesting thanks to its use of Maglev technology and its tessellated design. It was a pleasure to have her at the Renault design studios and see her vision come to life.”

“From a technological viewpoint, the prospect of vehicle autonomy is fascinating, but it’s also critical to hold in mind that such opportunities also present significant challenges to how people interact and their experience of future cities,” added Nick Rhodes, Central Saint Martins programme director of product ceramic & industrial design.

“Recognition of the success of the projects here lies in their ability to describe broader conceptions of what driverless vehicles might become and how we may come to live with them.”