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Google smart home: what you need to know about setting up a Google Assistant system

Google's smart home ecosystem has something for everyone

Google Assistant has been with us since 2016, when it debuted on the first Pixel phone, and it’s now able to communicate with and control tens of thousands of compatible devices. Google Home is the second most popular smart home system: as of summer 2021 it was estimated that eight million American homes had multiple Google Home devices, compared to 20 million for Amazon. Here’s our guide to setting up a Google smart home.

Born to be wide

Google Assistant is the app and virtual personal assistant for Google Home and Nest, the smart home system Google bought in 2019. It’s in all of the newest Android phones as well as many older ones, and also appears in Google devices including the Chromecast and Pixelbook Go, plus lots of third-party devices. The product range covers everything from phones to locks, thermostats and plugs, and that wide selection of devices means prices are very competitive, especially compared to HomeKit.

Although Google Assistant’s true home is on Android, there’s an iPhone/iPad app too. You can’t officially replace Siri with it but there is a workaround, by creating a shortcut in the iPhone Shortcuts app.

For the best Google Home experience, though, you should use an Android device, a Google-compatible smart speaker or a dedicated Google Home hub such as the Nest Hub (see right). These hubs can also present a range of information and play media, much like the Echo Shows do.

See your data, alligator

Google is in the data business and there have been concerns over its privacy protection. It says it does not sell your data for ads, although it does use it for personalisation of your Google services and the Google-powered ads you see. You can access any recorded conversations and delete them via My Activity, or by saying “Hey Google, delete this week’s activity.”

Google Nest Hub

The second-gen Nest Hub is the kind of device that’s well suited to the kitchen, or other spaces where you might want to watch videos or check information without turning on your smart TV or computer.

With a 7in touchscreen, three microphones and a full-range speaker, the latest Nest Hub is an attractive and effective video caller, music speaker and information station where you can watch YouTube videos, check the weather and stay on top of your schedule. It’s a gadget that works smartly as well as looking nice, with first-class voice recognition and the ability to control all kinds of smart devices through voice commands or via the touchscreen.

This is an excellent all-round device if you want more than just something that plays music: the relatively
low audio output won’t scare the neighbours but it’s fine for news and podcasts, and it does deliver more bass than the previous model.

STUFF SAYS A handsome and affordable information station, video player and smart speaker, 5/5

Google Nest Mini

Google’s most affordable smart speaker is sometimes discounted to around £30, so it’s a good idea to keep your eye out for deals. But even at full price you get a lot of device for not very much money. This is a huge improvement over the original model, with 40% more bass power, improved voice recognition and support for all the key apps. It can be popped on a desk or wall-mounted.

STUFF SAYS Cheap and smart, but watch out for discounts, 4/5

Google Nest Hub Max

If you want to take your Google Nest Hub to the max, this does exactly that with a 3in woofer round the back and a stereo speaker pair for much better audio, a 10in touchscreen and built-in Chromecast. It’s particularly good for video-conferencing and that larger display and improved audio performance make it even better for watching YouTube or streaming Netflix.

STUFF SAYS A pumped-up Nest Hub with a price to match, 4/5

Google Nest Audio

While the current Nest Mini is better than its predecessor, if sound quality matters to you then the Nest Audio is the Google Assistant device you need. It’s far better than the Mini, although at this price don’t expect the kind of audio experience you’d get from a Sonos: it gets a little harsh at higher volume and sounds best as part of a stereo pair. It works with all the key streaming music and podcast services.

STUFF SAYS A more musical option than the Nest Mini, 4/5

Why Google?

Huge hardware support

Google’s range of compatible devices is second only to Alexa’s. That means lots of security cameras, thermostats and all kinds of other tech, all controllable from your phone, Google hub or smart speaker. The range includes the high-end Nest home protection products.

Superb voice search

Google knows a thing or two about searching and its voice search is the best in the business: the voice recognition, honed with the help of lots of Android phone users, is fast and accurate, and doesn’t suffer from the mishearing or not-hearing that plagues Siri and Alexa.

Excellent app integration

Because Google Assistant knows you through the other Google services you use, it can do all kinds of useful things – such as checking in for flights or booking hotel rooms using only your voice. You can also use Interpreter Mode
to get real-time translations.

Smart TV integration

Google has partnered with a number of TV firms, most notably Sony, LG and Panasonic, to include Google Assistant on their smart TVs. This means you can operate your telly and other devices with the remote control’s mic or a compatible smart speaker.

Now add these…

Nest Learning Thermostat

Now in its third generation, the Nest Learning Thermostat was originally developed by some of the same minds that created the iPod – and like the iPod, it brought brilliant simplicity and great design to some pretty complex tech. Although the Nest is happy as a standalone device, it’s part of a family that also includes a smoke/CO2 detector plus video doorbells and security cameras.

Unlike traditional thermostats, this one has brains built in. That enables it to keep an eye on comings and goings to learn your routine, so for example it knows when you go out or when you go to bed and can start to turn the heating down at those times. It can also tell when your home is unoccupied and turn the heating off then.
That’s only going to be more important as energy prices climb ever upwards, and we know from our own bills that a smart thermostat can save you a lot of money simply by reducing waste.

The Nest ’stat isn’t designed for DIY installation but a professional install isn’t time-consuming or particularly expensive, and the Nest itself is much better-looking than any other thermostat we’ve seen; it has a great interface, effortless operation and Google Assistant voice control too. It can take charge of your hot water as well as heating (depending on the system you have in your home), and the companion app lets you see your heating history to identify where you might want to use less energy.

If you swipe around the outside of the Nest it will increase or decrease the temperature; if you tap, it will change what’s on screen. It’s a simple but brilliant bit of ergonomic design. Your Nest’s temperature display will be orange when it’s heating the room, and it’ll turn to either black or white depending on the model when it’s off or in Eco mode.

The Nest Leaf isn’t just a cute little image: it’s there to show you that you’re set to an energy-efficient temperature rather than unnecessarily turning your room into a sauna.

Arlo Pro 4

Arlo makes some of the very best security cameras, and this high-end model has colour night vision, 2K video (twice the resolution of most rivals), two-way audio and a built-in siren. It links up directly to your Wi-Fi network and you can then control it not just with Google but via other platforms too.

Yale Linus Smart Lock

Yale has made several smart locks, and this is the most recent model: it enables you to create and share virtual keys for others, which is useful for shared spaces and Airbnb lets. Instead of fiddling with keys you can unlock the door simply by saying “OK Google, unlock my door” and telling it your unique PIN.

Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Slim

Smart plugs are brilliant things, enabling you to add voice control and automation to devices you already have… and for stuff like table lamps, they’re more affordable than smart bulbs. This one adds Google Assistant to anything you plug into it – and it won’t block adjacent sockets.

Google Chromecast

The latest Chromecast dongle makes it easy to stream music, films and shows to your telly from a phone, and its remote control enables you to use voice commands to browse YouTube, get news updates and play specific shows or songs. You can also control it with other Google Home and Android devices.

Google and your data

Let’s be honest, Google’s main business is the advertising business. So if you fill your home with Google Home devices, will they be sending stacks of data to people who want to sell you stuff?

Google says no, and its privacy policy – which you can read online at policies.google.com – goes into a lot of detail about what data it collects and what it does with it. For example, its devices may know when you’re coughing (that’s a real feature) but Google doesn’t then sell that data to your local pharmacy so they can try to persuade you to buy some Benylin.

All shook app

It’s important to note that those privacy policies only apply to Google: third parties may have their own rules. That’s why it’s wise, if you’ve been using any non-Google gadgets in your smart home, to go into the Google Assistant settings and check what third-party apps are linked to your Google Home products. You can then simply unlink any that you don’t want to use.

Jargon buster

Smart thermostat

Traditional thermostats aren’t very clever, but smart ones can detect whether you’re home or away and adjust the heating accordingly. Some can even learn your habits.

Smart speaker

A smart speaker like the Google Nest Mini enables you to play music, get the weather forecast or control other devices using voice commands.

Voice recognition

Clever software can listen to your voice and turn it into something an electronic device can understand, so your “OK Google” isn’t ignored by your phone or smart speaker.

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