Intercom, assistant, DJ, and dinner bell; all for under $50.
Google launched its first virtual assistant powered speaker last Fall, and this year's they're making a return with a product that's not only smaller than last year's but is considerably cheaper too. Designed to be placed in most rooms of the house, the Google Home Mini features a sleek, minimalist design, all while being loaded with more features than ever. Is this the next generation home intercom? Let's take a look.
Google Home Mini measures in quite a bit smaller and lighter than its predecessor in every way. With a small puck-like design, the 98mm (3.86in) diameter and 42mm (1.65in) height make it a super small little speaker that can be placed anywhere. It's also weighs only 173g, making it about the weight of the average smartphone. The power cord measures 1.5m (4.92ft) to help reach the nearest outlet, and outputs 5v/1.8a. Google sells the Home Mini for $49 on the Google store, and it comes in Chalk, Charcoal and Coral colors. All Home Minis are made with recycled plastic materials, and the tops are covered in fabric with the color of your choice.
Home Mini delivers 360-degree sound via a 40mm driver, and supports HE-AAC, LC-AAC+, MP3, Vorbis, WAV (LPCM), and FLAC codecs. Dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds are supported, and unlike the larger Google Home, Bluetooth 4.1 is supported, as well as both Chromecast and Chromecast Audio too. Dual far-field mics are on board, as well as a single microUSB port for power on the back. Both Android and iOS are supported to cast from, and to configure via the Google Home app.
Unlike the original Google Home, which was designed to go in the kitchen or living room entertainment shelf, Google Home Mini is designed to be placed in a more discrete place. As such it's a much, much smaller device, and is designed quite differently too. Looking more like an overstuffed cookie with fabric on top, the round, compact design of the Home Mini complements most rooms in the house, looking more like something out of a home design catalog than a virtual assistant speaker. Google's fabric-based designs look gorgeous, particularly the Home Mini, and feel just as good as they look too. This fabric covers the entire speaker portion of the Mini, as well as the LED lights underneath for a smooth, sleek design.
The fabric is folded inside the base, so it's not going to come unglued or fall out over time, as the fabric itself is larger than the top of the unit. This fabric is not interchangeable the way the bases on the larger Google Home is, so the color you pick is what you get. A capacitive touch button is located underneath the center of this fabric, but Google has since disabled the button due to an error in the design, which kept the microphone open and listening on some units indefinitely. This really is a shame, as it removes the top touch functionality that we've enjoyed with the regular sized Home, but ultimately only disables the ability to call up Assistant or mute the unit without using your voice, so it's not a deal breaker. The volume adjustment touches are still around though, with the left and right-most sides of the unit acting as volume buttons. These capacitive buttons light up when pressed, and the light in the center of the unit also lights up any time a command is issued or Assistant is speaking.
A single microUSB port for power is located around the back; a strange idea in 2017 when most phones and related accessories have moved toward USB Type-C, and unfortunately keeps old, antiquated cabling around for a few more years. There's also a microphone toggle switch back here in case you just want to use the Home Mini as a WiFi or Bluetooth-powered speaker. The entire base is rubberized to keep the unit steady, and the 173g weight makes it heavy enough to feel solid and keep from needlessly falling off the shelf. The design and construction quality are incredibly solid, and this doesn't feel or look like a sub-$50 speaker in any way.
Despite the very compact nature of the Home Mini, you'll likely be surprised by the audio quality that comes out of this tiny, single speaker. Packing large 40mm drivers and a 360-degree positional output, the Home Mini is an excellent way to pipe quality sound into a room without feeling like it's coming from a cheap, portable unit. Part of this quality is possible thanks to the fact that it's not a battery powered experience, and therefore doesn't have to worry about keeping a good balance between quality and battery life. Google's choice of materials on the unit itself, cloth and rubber, also help with vibrations that might be generated were the unit made of a cheaper plastic, or just more poorly made in general.
When comparing it directly to the larger Google Home, you'll notice there's a definite reduction in bass output, which is both a positive and a negative. The larger Google Home is tuned to be a bit bass heavy, and tends to drown out the mids and highs at the expense of extra bass. Because the Home Mini is so much smaller, there's no room for a substantial subwoofer, however the large driver on the Home Mini delivers excellent mids and highs, or basically the opposite of the larger Google Home. Music that heavily relies on bass won't sound as good as other types of music, and music that's more vocally focused will sound best on the Home Mini.
Being a speaker that's better sounding with voice makes sense too; in the end this is designed to deliver Google Assistant, and all its many functions, to every room of your home. This means it's easier to understand your Google Assistant's voice when compared to the larger Home, as the distinct highs and mids play better to clarity in voice when using either the original female voice (voice I) or the new male voice (voice II). Bluetooth AAC HD audio is supported, giving cleaner quality music than some Bluetooth speakers out there would for sure, especially at this price. Pairing is done through the settings app under individual device settings, so it has to be enabled to pair with a single device. This keeps it secure so that not just anyone can pair with the Home Mini. There's also an equalizer that can adjust bass and treble from a preset -6 to +6 on each side.
Setup, App and Integration
The Google Home app has gone through many different name changes, visual changes and functional enhancements over the years, but Google seems to have solidified its design with last year's Home. The Google Home app is used to manage all Google devices in your home, whether it be a Chromecast or Google Home speaker. Setup is as easy as it has ever been; plug in the Home Mini's power and open the Google Home app. A large card will appear on the screen asking to setup the Home Mini. From here you'll link the Home Mini to your home's WiFi network, which will then link it to your Google account. The Google Home app also allows you to set the location of the Home Mini and organize it into different rooms of your home for easier casting later.
You'll also be able to organize speakers into groups, allowing you to use devices throughout the home to play the same music at the same time. This interlinking of devices is brilliant, although it's not terribly obvious how to do this without a bit of exploration. From within the Home interface you need to go into devices (top right button) and select the ellipses menu on the top right of the device you want to add to a group. From here you create a group name and add any devices that are paired to your account, which then creates a new casting group for any application. You'll then find this group when you cast, or just ask Assistant to play music or a video on the group's name.
Just as you would expect from the regular Google Home, or any Chromecast device for that matter, content is played back on the Home Mini via individual apps' Cast buttons, or by asking Google Assistant to do something. One of the coolest new features involves broadcasting your voice to all Home units on the same network, allowing users to utilize an intercom-like feature. Anyone can utilize this feature by starting the with "OK Google, Broadcast" followed by your message. This will actually play your voice over every speaker on the network, not a translated one by Google Assistant, and it's immediately broadcast without delay too. This broadcast can also be triggered on any phone running Google Assistant, and serves as a way to let everyone in your house know something without having to call them.
If you prefer to call instead, calling can be done from the speaker to any phone number. This utilizes the Google Voice back-end systems to make digital calls to real phone numbers, and you can choose which number is shown to callers too. Through the app you can allow it to randomly select an available number (the default action), use your Google Voice number (if you have one), or use the number on your phone. This last part is likely the most preferable method, and works for each Google account linked to the Home. For instance my wife and I have separate Google accounts and obviously separate phone numbers, but the Google Home will know which of us asked to make a call from it and use the correct number accordingly. I would then have no idea my wife was calling me from the speaker at home rather than her phone, since the number shows up identically to her own phone's.
Smart home integration has never been better too, and while it's not exclusive to the Home Mini by any means, it's better now than it has ever been. Alexa still holds the crown for the best integration with the largest number of smart home products and devices, but Google has caught up considerably, and with proper IFTTT integration can even control devices that aren't officially supported by Assistant just yet. This isn't a catch all, since devices would still have to support IFTTT in the first place, but so long as they have support from one service or officially, Home and Home Mini are some of the best ways to control your smart home via Google Assistant's ever-growing functionality.
Privacy and Content
Another new feature is Night Mode, which dims the LEDs on the top and turns the volume down after a specified period of time. This works much in the same way Do Not Disturb mode would in that it helps keep the Home Mini from making too much noise or being extra disturbing at night. It's also helpful if you have it in a bedroom and don't want the lights turning on or staying on throughout the night, and it also works on the regular sized Home as well. This ties in with Google removing the broken top touch feature that shipped with the Home Mini and helps give users peace of mind when it comes to having the Home Mini in multiple rooms of the house.
Google now delivers truly personal results when Assistant is called up; something they toyed with a bit in the past, but is in full form now. Google calls this a "multi-user experience," and it's one that works extremely well. Say I walk into the kitchen and ask Google what my day looks like. It might read off a meeting I've got in a few hours, or a deadline that's due, as well as some news highlights from the previous evening. When my wife asks the same question, Assistant will instead use her calendar to read off things she's prioritized, as well as any other pertinent information on her Google account. This works for phone calls too, as previously mentioned, and for more and more things each and every day as Google continues to add them. You can even personalize the voice sound for Assistant per account, and while there's only two options right now, Google very well could be working on a slew of these to change up how Assistant sounds for each person.
Google has built in tons of games and experiences over the past year since Assistant and Home launched, none of which rely on downloading or linking a phone app of any kind. Subscribing to the newsletter will give you an update on everything new that Google builds into Assistant, and there's been a wealth of free additions and functionality enhancements to say the least. Seasonal games give way to great family fun and get-togethers, and games like musical chairs are great for birthday parties or just when kids want to have some fun. There's tons of different trivia games to play, stories that Assistant will read and more. It's incredible to see how much Google has built up the Assistant ecosystem just in the past year, and there's really no telling how much more they'll add in the coming year.
For $50 or less, you're simply not going to find a better speaker that does so much. While Alexa still holds the crown for smart home integration, Google is catching up every day, and offers a considerably better virtual assistant than any other company out there in a number of ways. With the best voice recognition on the market, personalized results for everything you can think of, exclusive games and experiences, Bluetooth HD audio connection and multi-room playback to name just a few of its positive points, the Google Home Mini is a must buy for every house.