We thought we’d been good gadget fans this year, until Google announced that its smart Home speaker was unlikely to be appearing in our Christmas stockings this year.
With no sign of a UK release date for Google’s chatty little gnome, it seems likely that we’ll have to wait until 2017 to get it stuck in an infinite talking loop with our Amazon Echo.
Or perhaps not. Not renowned for our patience when there’s a new futuristic toy in town, we did the only sane thing and sent some freelance reindeer to bring us a Google Home back from the US.
Of course, this raises a number of questions: how much do these reindeer (okay, online shopping services) charge for their international gift gathering?
And more importantly, how much of Google Home’s voice-controlled talents actually work in the UK? After all, given that it’s still US-only, there’s no guarantee that its integration with services like Spotify and Nest will work over here.
But first, a more pressing concern...
How do I import a Google Home?
Unless you have a friend visiting or living in the States, you have three main options.
1) Personal shoppers
The first is a personal shopper service like Big Apple Buddy.
For a fee (£40 in our case), it will buy a product on your behalf, then ship it to the UK or any of its other 150 supported countries.
You’ll need to factor in a couple of extra little costs. Unlike the UK, price tags in the US don’t include sales tax, so you need to remember that this will be added at the checkout. For example, in New York this adds an extra 9% to a price tag. There’s also the possibility of being hit by a UK customs charges at the other end of the journey.
2) Reshipping services
They’re particularly useful if you’re planning to import several items, as these can then be sent onto the UK as one shipment. Again, bear in mind the sales tax and customs charges.
3) Direct shipping
Lastly, some sites like B&H Video promise to ship directly to the UK, though they have currently run out of stock and we have heard of orders being cancelled from some US retailers due to customs restrictions.
In our experience, there’s little between personal shoppers and reshipping services: based on our quotes, Bundlebox came in slightly cheaper than Big Apple Buddy at £173 compared to £180 for a Google Home (including the product, taxes and shipping). Of course, if you manage to buy during the $99 Black Friday offer, it'll work out much cheaper.
Bundlebox does ask you to estimate the weight and dimensions of the package, which involves a certain amount of guesswork. And we liked the personal feel of Big Apple Buddy, so bought our Google Home with them.
And they’re reliable, yes?
Based on our experiences, yes. After getting a quote from Big Apple Buddy with an expected shipment date, we were sent an invoice for the full amount.
We weren’t blessed with payment options: aside from using Paypal (which came with a 3.9% surcharge), the only alternative was a wire transfer from a U.S bank account. So we plumped for the former and were swiftly given our Fedex tracking number.
Communication was good throughout and we received our Google Home just six days after it officially came out in the US, and three working days after it shipped.
In total, it cost $227.32 (or £182.24). This is likely to compare favourably to the UK’s yet to be announced Google Home price tag, and isn’t a huge amount more than the £150 it costs to buy an Amazon Echo over here. We did sadly buy it before the $99 Black Friday offer though.
The only remaining question is: how well does an American Google Home settle into a UK house and its world of strange accents?
Google Home: what works in the UK?
Surprisingly, almost everything. Well, apart from the plug - you'll need an international adaptor to feed British electricity to your Home, but after that, you'll be up and running instantly.
Setup is as easy as downloading the Google Home app and following the step by step instructions, though oddly you'll have to set your smartphone's keyboard language to US English to complete the process. But don't worry, you can swap it back afterwards and return to your true
Once that’s done, you’re good to go. You can ask Google the weather, and it’ll happily tell you your local forecast. Just remember to swap your measurements from fahrenheit to celsius in the Google Assistant preferences, to save you the hassle of asking the Assistant to convert it for you each time.
Music works as normal too. As long as you’re a subscriber to a supported service like Spotify or Google Play Music, you can tell Home to play specific songs, playlists, or just name an artist whose music you’d like to hear.
You can also ask Home for (limited) directions too. Ask it where the nearest KFC is for example, and it’ll tell you where it is, but can’t give specific directions at this stage. It told us that it was 11 minutes away in light traffic though, which is a start.
If you’ve got a Chromecast then things get even more interesting. Tell Home to play the new Martin Scorsese trailer on your Chromecast-connected TV for example, and it’ll do just that, firing up precisely what you asked for on your TV, via the Chromecast’s YouTube app.
Google has confirmed that this voice control functionality will be opened up to other apps like Netflix too, and the ability to fire up your favourite show before you've even sat on the sofa is a massive advantage the Home has over its Amazon Echo rival.
What doesn’t work in the UK?
The main feature of Google Home which doesn’t work in the UK is YouTube Red, and that’s because the service has yet to launch here.
YouTube Red, which is currently available in the States, is a US$10 a month service which removes ads on YouTube, and allows users to save videos on their smartphones for offline viewing, as well as giving them the option to purely stream the audio, to save data.
As an added bonus, YouTube Red subscribers can enjoy background playback, which means that audio will continue playing outside of the YouTube app, even when the screen is off. Though we have found a few ways around that.
If you’re a Google Play Music or Spotify subscriber though, the lack of YouTube Red shouldn’t be a deal breaker, as you can still listen to music through your chosen music service.
For us, we tend to go to YouTube if we want to hear less common songs like DJ mashups, which aren’t available on mainstream music services. Ask Home to play songs by mashup artists The White Panda, for example, and it it won’t find any results on Play Music or Spotify.
If you ask it to play The White Panda on YouTube on your Chromecast or Chromecast Audio connected device though - which could be a TV or a speaker - then you’ll be able to listen to it via YouTube.
However - if you don’t have YouTube Red, you’ll only be able to do this by playing the YouTube video on a TV, as non-YouTube Red users don’t have the option to listen to YouTube audio alone.
It’s a very specific problem, and one that shouldn’t affect most people 99% of the time, as long as they’ve got a Chromecast-connected TV. If you're really desperate, you could also set up router-level VPN access to trick your Home that you're in the US, but this can be a bit fiddly and will affect all of your other devices too. It probably isn't worth the hassle for most people.
The only other main issue we found with the Home was a lack of UK-specific and local news services. Currently, if we ask Home for a news update, we’re bombarded with US news channels, though BBC World News is at least an option.
So then - should you import one?
According to our rough calculations, the Google Home operates at 97.89% of its maximum potential here in the UK.
It'll play nice with your music collection - Amazon and Apple's streaming services aside, of course - and the Google Assistant works just as well, answering your questions and firing up YouTube videos on your Chromecast with ease.
Weather and news are fully supported too, though some UK-specific and local news would definitely be preferred.
The main feature that doens't work in the UK is YouTube Red, but as we've discussed above, it really isn't a feature that most people will be missing.
Having said all that, we personally wouldn't import Google Home into the UK just yet, and that's purely because it's a very young product which has yet to reveal its full potential.
Amazon's Echo, which has been out for two years already, is compatible with more apps and features than Google's offering. We've tested out Goole Home in a house kitted out with Hive, for example, but currently it only works with Nest. The Echo, on the other hand, plays nice with both. The Echo is also available to buy in the UK, saving you the cost of importing in the Home.
This isn't a feature pitting Google Home agains the Echo though. If you're a diehard Google fan and a Play Music subscriber, this is the only smart speaker which will serve you your music. Given that we don't expect Home to land on UK shores for another year, it's worth shipping it over if you can't wait that long.
For everyone else however - namely Spotify and Amazon Music subscribers - you're probably better off waiting until Home hits UK shelves officially. By then we have no doubt it'll be a lot smarter, with a more familiar British accent to boot.