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:

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.