Google’s Pixel phones tick off all the checkboxes, but its design is uninspiring

The Pixel XL (top) and Pixel (bottom).
Image: dustin drankoski/mashable

Google couldn’t have picked a better time to hit reset on its flagship phones. Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 is literally burning up in flames, and that’s created a gaping hole in the premium Android market.

The company’s new Pixel and Pixel XL replace the Nexus phones. The names are new and they’re positioned as premium phones, but, make no mistake, they still stick to the Nexus mission: to offer the very best and purest experience of Android and Google services that you can get.

Which isn’t to say the Nexus phones were flawless. The problem with Nexus wasn’t bad hardware (last year’s 5X and 6P were the best Nexus phones yet) or poor software (stock Android will always be superior to any custom skins), but that they never moved outside of the geek circle: Google barely marketed them, and they never really sold at scale. Most consumers still don’t know what a Nexus is.

To many people, Android equals Samsung. And for good reason: Samsung’s Galaxy phones (when they’re not exploding) are incredibly well-made. The company makes dozens of different models, and Samsung shipped more than 300 million phones worldwide last year.

That’s an empire, but without the Note7, Samsung has a empty spot at the top of the line. Android needs a new king can the Google Pixel fill the void left by the Note7?

The Pixel XL (left) has a 5.5-inch screen and the Pixel (right) has a 5-inch screen.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

With the Nexus, Google trapped itself into a corner with price. Consumers got used to expecting midrange prices for a premium phone. The Pixels, by contrast, are priced like iPhones.

The Pixel starts at $650 for a 32GB of storage and the Pixel XL starts at $770 for 32GB. Both are also available with monthly financing plans starting at $27 per month paid over 24 months.

In the U.S., the Pixels are available from the Google Store and at Verizon stores. Verizon’s Pixels come with three pre-loaded apps, which are fortunately removable, but otherwise, they’re carrier unlocked and identical to the ones sold from Google.

They come in three colors: “Quite Black,” “Very Silver” and a limited edition “Really Blue.” Obvious digs at the iPhone 7’s pretentious color names aside, I tested out the Quite Black Pixel XL and let me tell you, it is not quite black. The color is more gunmetal or dark gray. It still looks nice, but it’s nowhere near as sleek and stealthy as, say, a Jet Black or Matte Black iPhone 7 or a Black Onyx Galaxy Note7 (RIP).

Looks nice, but doesn’t inspire

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

Everyone who has seen the Pixel XL says it looks just like an iPhone. I don’t really see it.

Sure it’s got some similarities like the aluminum body, visible antenna bands and rounded corners, but all phones now look like that. Save for the extra large pane of glass covering two thirds of the backside, the Pixel XL hardware is as generic as a premium phone gets.

Like the past Nexus phones, the Pixel XL is made by another company. In this case, HTC’s manufacturing it and Google takes full credit for its design as evidenced by the “G” logo on the back and no HTC logo anywhere to be found.

Fingerprint sensor

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

Textured power button

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

There’s nothing wrong with the Pixel XL’s hardware; it’s a nice metal phone. But there’s also nothing that jumps out and surprises like the Jet Black iPhone 7 finish or the curved glass edges on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (and the now dead Note7). Those phones exude luxury and tempt you to caress them every single time. The Pixel XL just is.

When you’ve seen phones like the OnePlus 3 that cost hundreds less and also come with solid metal designs, the Pixels, despite their sturdy construction, just don’t inspire.

But looks are just one reason to buy a phone. Usability is another. The Pixel XL is pretty manageable for a phone with a 5.5-inch screen. It’s a smidge larger than the S7 Edge and way easier to hold and use with one hand than any Plus-sized iPhone. The Pixel has a smaller, more manangeable 5.2-inch 1080p screen.

Performance and power all day long

The Pixel XL’s not lacking in specs. It’s got a large and bright Quad HD screen (2,560 x 1,440) and a big 3,450 mAh battery that’ll last you up to two days. The Pixel XL is definitely a marathoner and not a sprinter. The Pixel’s got a smaller 2,770 mAh battery. Both phones also support quick charging to get up to 7 hours of battery life with a 15-minute boost.

It’s got the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor with 4GB of RAM and comes with either 32GB or 128GB of storage. I don’t recommend buying 32GB since there’s no memory card slot to add more storage later.

The Pixel XL is definitely a marathoner and not a sprinter.

On the other hand, the Pixels do come with unlimited full-resolution photo and video storage with Google Photos, so if you’re planning to stash everything in the cloud, maybe 32GB will be enough. But even with the premium Google Photos storage, I wouldn’t get 32GB since apps keep getting larger; if you’re buying a premium device, you can afford to pay extra for storage.

The rest of the Pixel XL is pretty similar to the Nexus 6P. There’s a fast-working fingerprint sensor on the back (doubles as a touchpad to bring the notifications shade down with a swipe), identical power and volume buttons on the right side and a reversible USB-C port on the bottom.

The Pixels come with USB-C ports and support fast charging.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

The mono speaker is a bit of a downgrade compared to the Nexus 6P now that they’re both downward-facing instead of front-facing stereo speakers. The Pixel XL’s speakers can get loud, but when even the iPhone 7 has at least one front-facing speaker and a stereo setup, it’s a little disappointing. But hey, at least there’s a headphone jack. That’s meaningful in 2016.

The phones ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, which comes with some new features like split-screen, better notifications, more emoji and customizable quick settings. Daily performance is as I expected: fast and smooth with no noticeable lag opening apps or multitasking. And you’ll have no issues playing playing 3D games like the usual graphic-intensive Asphalt 8 and N.O.V.A. 3 or Pokmon Go (if you’re still playing it).

Other neat little gems include the GIF keyboard and Night Light (works just like iOS’s Night Shift mode and adjusts the screen to a warmer color temperature for nighttime use).

The Pixels run Android 7.1 Nougat and come with a new “Pixel Launcher” that no longer has the app drawer icon; it’s been replaced with a ^ swipe up.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

The most notable aesthetic change is the home screen. Google’s app icons are now round, the search bar is tucked inside of an oblong “G” icon that floats in the upper left, and the app drawer icon is no longer an icon that hogs up a spot on your dock (it’s been replaced with a “^” that brings up all your apps with a swipe up). They’re all fairly minor tweaks, but they make for a more pleasant Android experience.

Alongside all your regular Google apps, the Pixels also come with Allo and Duo. Allo replaces Hangouts (which is disabled by default, but can be enabled from the Play store) and Duo is basically Google’s FaceTime.

A digital assistant that’s actually smart

More than the hardware, newest version of Android or great cameras, Google strongly believes AI is the next frontier after mobile.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said AI will tie all devices together and the company is uniquely positioned to dominate because of its heavy investment in machine learning. Google’s been building towards its Google Assistant with Google Now for years and now it’s here. As a built-in feature, it’s exclusive to the Pixel phones (and Google Home), and it stomps all over Siri.

As Pichai said on stage during the Pixel’s unveil event, Assistant is “your own personal Google.” It’s constantly learning things, and it can intelligently anticipate what you want to do next.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Image: SCREENSHOT: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

To activate the Assistant, you press and hold the home button. (This action was previously reserved for Google Now on Tap, which has now been absorbed by the Assistant.) And then you just start talking to it. Your requests show up in a chat-like interface, which I guess is supposed to make it feel more like you’re talking to someone on the other end. You can still say “OK, Google” if your screen’s unlocked, but that’s still lame, especially in public.

The Assistant is pretty quick to answer. It rarely misunderstood what I was saying and corrected itself on the fly even as I stuttered through some of the queries.

It understands all the general voice commands like “What’s the weather?” and “Give me directions to the Grand Hyatt,” but most importantly, it understands conversational English and understands it well.

For example, you can say “I’m hungry” and the Assistant will show some nearby restaurants. Or say, “Show me the Pen Pineapple Apple song,” and it’ll bring up the viral song and video from YouTube. It’s also hilarious to ask for photos, which it’ll either search for on the web or yank from your Google Photos (if it detects any relevant ones). Try “Photos of dogs with hats” to get a fun laugh.

I asked the Assistant what Trump’s latest tweet was…

Image: SCREENSHOT: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

…and it launched Twitter to show me.

Image: screenshot: Raymond wong/mashable

It’s still weird to talk to the Assistant (just like it was weird to talk to the Amazon Echo’s Alexa in the beginning) instead of just going into an app and doing things yourself, but once you get used to this new way of oral computing and realize how much time you’re saving, I think there will be no going back. Years from now, we’ll all be laughing at how we spent time opening Chrome up to look someone up or Google Maps to get home.

Google’s Assistant is still a newborn, but it’s already fulfilling what Siri promised.

Stunning photos, except for one thing

The Pixels have identical cameras: 12.3 megapixels on the back.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

Google says the Pixels have the best smartphone cameras, period; DxOMark, an industry-respected imaging benchmark, gave it a score of 89, the highest of any smartphone camera.

That said, a high score is what you aim for when you’re playing Pac-Man, but mostly nonsense when it comes to determining the best smartphone camera.

I mean, when the HTC 10 has the same score as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and the Sony Xperia Z5 one of the worst-tested smartphone cameras in Mashable’s 2015 ultimate smartphone camera shootout scores higher than the iPhone 7, I was highly skeptic.

Having tested every single flagship phone this year (crazy, right?), I can tell you unequivocally it’s harder than ever before to crown any one phone’s cameras the best there is. The best will be decided over the nerdy details and, honestly, nobody but nerds care that much.

If you want to really see how well the Pixel cameras compare to the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, check out our in-depth camera comparison here where you’ll find more sample photos and more close-up side-by-sides. It may surprise you just how good the Pixel cameras are, especially if you’re more forgiving on when it comes to color reproduction.

I couldn’t find many photos that looked like potatoes out of the hundreds of shots I took.

For a 2016 flagship phone, the Pixel XL’s cameras are exactly where they need to be. They’re wicked fast to focus, shoot and save (even with HDR+ processing turned on). Details are crisp and detailed from the 12.3-megapixel back and 8-megapixel front camera and the back camera excels in low-light situations with little to complain.

Reviewing the photos on the Pixel XL’s screen, I couldn’t find many photos that looked like potatoes out of the hundreds of shots I took. That’s really impressive and Google should give itself a huge pat on the back for really improving the cameras.

The back camera’s only real weakness is color accuracy. The camera still tends to oversaturate colors with warmer tones. So shots look way yellower, redder and greener than they really do in real life. Some people like this artificial color boost since they really pop off the phone’s AMOLED screen, which is made for more saturated colors, but I prefer the iPhone 7’s more life-like colors.

Way warmer tones

Galaxy S7 Edge

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Though most photos are way warmer than on the iPhones, sometimes the rear camera goes cooler for some reason. There just isn’t much consistency for white balance:

iPhone 7

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL has wider lens that fits more into a shot

iPhone 7

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I also like the camera app’s “pro” controls. Adjusting exposure is an easy swipe up and down on the screen after tapping on a focus point and there are various white balance settings. I wish it had more settings like ISO and shutter speed, but I’m in the minority when it comes to wanting manual controls.

Other clever and useful camera features include ways to quickly launch the camera. Double-tap the power button when the screen is off or from the lock screen, double-tap power button from home screen or while in an app to launch the default camera app or a preset third-party camera app like Snapchat, and double twist to switch between from and selfie camera in default camera app.

There’s also a really neat Google Photos-integrated feature called Smartburst that automatically creates a GIF from a burst of photos, saves all the individual shots and even picks out the best one for you.

As for selfies, I think the Pixel XL does a better job than the iPhone 7:

Skin tones

iPhone 7

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL

Image: raymond wong/mashable

The Pixel XL performs quite good night shots. As expected, photos are a yellower than the iPhone 7:

iPhone 7

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Pixel XL

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Galaxy S7 Edge preserves shaper details of the Empire State Building, but the image noise is greater, too:

iPhone 7, Pixel XL, Galaxy S7 Edge

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

While the camera attention is almost always focused on still photography, the Pixel XL boasts impressive video recording capabilities. Like most smartphones, it records at up to 4K resolution.

That’s nothing special. What is crazy is how well the camera stabilizes video. Phones like the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 rely on optical image stabilization (OIS) to compensate for shake in different directions, but the Pixels uses electronic image stabilization (EIS) to outstanding effect.

EIS is normally inferior to OIS, but not so on the Pixels. Through software even the shakiest footage appears smooth even smoother than the iPhone 7:

Maintaining the status quo

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

In the past, Google showed up to what were essentially gun fights with Samsung and Apple with a knife.

The Nexus phones, as highly coveted by geeks as they were, couldn’t really compete with any Galaxy phone or iPhone. Whether it was materials or cameras, the Nexuses always fell short somewhere. The Nexus 5X and 6P weren’t perfect, but they had enough polish and the pricing was so good.

If Google wants to really play in Apple’s playground, it’s going to have to try harder next year.

With the Pixels, Google has basically rebadged the Nexus, tossed in the new Assistant and jacked up the price to match the iPhone.

In my opinion, the Pixels aren’t compelling enough compared to more affordable premium phones like the OnePlus 3 outside of the Assistant. Is that enough to justify a premium? Not yet if you ask me.

Google could have fiercely charged through the door and laid smackdown on the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, but it didn’t. Instead, it just played things safe and maintained the status quo.

The Pixels don’t have groundbreaking designs that would make anyone line up outside a Verizon store just to be the first to have them. They’re fine phones and I’m positive the Assistant will only grow to become more useful, but they’re just not exciting enough or inspiring enough.

If Google wants to really play in Apple’s pricey playground, it’s going to have to try harder next year.

Pixel and Pixel XL

The Good

Fast cameras take sharp photos Incredible electronic image stabilization for video Terrific battery life Super smart, convenient Google Assistant Has a headphone jack

The Bad

No water-resistance Bland generic design Costs as much as iPhone No memory card slot

The Bottom Line

Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL have everything you could want in a flagship phone but a first-class design that makes you lust.

BONUS: The best parts of Pixel

Read more: http://mashable.com/

OnePlus 3T is the new heir to the Google Nexus throne

The OnePlus 3T replaces the the OnePlus 3, which was released less than six months ago.
Image: lili sams/mashable

Startup phone maker OnePlus has a new flagship Android smartphone. Well, tweaked phone might be more accurate.

Less than six months after it released the $400 OnePlus 3 to critical acclaim (Mashable’s included), OnePlus is back with the OnePlus 3T a faster and longer-lasting OnePlus 3.

The OnePlus 3 (left) and new OnePlus 3T (right) are identical with the exception of the darker gunmetal color.

Image: lili sams/mashable

OnePlus 3 owners might be upset at the rapid refresh I’d be upset too if my phone was suddenly outdated in less than six months but OnePlus waits for no one, not even its most loyal customers. Pushing forward as quickly as possible is built into the company’s “Never Settle” ethos.

So what’s new and what’s different and does the new justify the higher pricing ($450 for 64GB and $480 for 128GB)?

The OnePlus 3T is to the OnePlus 3 as the iPhone 6S was to the iPhone 6. That is, design-wise, the OnePlus 3T is identical to the OnePlus 3, save for the new darker gunmetal color (it’s also available in “soft gold”).

Fingerprint sensor is embedded into the touch-sensitive home button.

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE

Which isn’t a deal breaker at all since the OnePlus 3’s design drew inspirations from all of the best premium phones and was already superb. Nothing’s changed on the OnePlus 3; it still feels amazing.

The 5.5-inch AMOLED screen is still “only” full HD resolution and very bright even out doors, and the home button/fingerprint sensor below the screen is still super fast.

You don’t get water-resistance, but at least the headphone jack is still there and the port is USB-C.

Modest speed boost

With the OnePlus 3T, OnePlus focused on on inner beauty. There’s a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor with 6GB RAM, the aforementioned 128GB storage (still no expandable storage, though), and 3,400 mAh battery that lasts 13 percent longer.

As per Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 821 provides a performance boost of up to 10 percent a very modest improvement.

The gains were mostly negligible.

And true enough, in my tests, the gains were mostly negligible, if not inconsistent. Some apps like Twitter and Feedly actually opened slower on the OnePlus 3T compared to the OnePlus 3, and other times, like launching Instagram and loading up websites, loaded up faster on the OnePlus 3T.

And for some reason, even though they were on the same Wi-Fi network, the OnePlus 3T always took longer to download the 750MB file for Need For Speed No Limits.

But like most modest performance updates, you wouldn’t notice the difference unless you had the two phones running side-by-side.

At least it has a headphone jack, which means you can charge and listen to music at the same time…

Image: lili sams/mashable

Functionally, Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow customized with OnePlus’s “OxygenOS” add-ons still runs like a champ with buttery smooth performance and no real slowdown.

The 13 percent longer battery life is also welcome and got me through nearly two days if I was judicial with my usage. Heavy users should have no problem getting through a full day. Plus, the Dash charging is still the quickest fast charging technology around, juicing up the OnePlus 3T from 0% to about 60% in 30 minutes.

Stock Android gets dressed up

The OnePlus 3T runs OxygenOS, which is based off of stock Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE

Don’t be alarmed…yet.

While the OnePlus 3T is still based off of stock Android, the customized OxygenOS software is starting to show signs of deviating from Google’s clean experience.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice some of the icons are different (i.e. Messages, Calculator, Settings and Clock). Open some of the apps and you’ll see some small and subtle differences, but nothing as overbearing as the skins on other Android phones (I’m looking at you Samsung, LG).

As always, all of OyxgenOS’s extras (Shelf, gestures, dark theme, touch-sensitive/onscreen buttons, etc.) are customizable.

App Locker lets you lock up your apps behind a PIN code or fingerprint.

Image: SCREENSHOT: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Don’t even think about spying on my Insta.

Image: Screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Two handy new features include the App Locker, which lets you lock up apps and require either a PIN code or a fingerprint to unlock them and a three-finger swipe down gesture for taking screenshots. Both are super handy and the screenshot gesture sure beats pressing the power and volume down button.

There’s another feature that lets you flip the phone upside down to mute an incoming call, but it’s not nearly as useful.

Other niceties in OxygenOS include a dark theme, proximity wake feature (wave your hand in front of the phone display to turn it on) and the double-tap power button shortcut that launches the camera. These are all great, but they’re not exclusive to the OnePlus 3T; the OnePlus 3 already has them.

Shipping with Android 7.0 Nougat would have been great, but I’m told it’s coming by the end of the year, so that should be just around the corner.

Sharper selfies

Improved cameras are must with smartphone refreshes. While I would have liked to see the rear 16-megapixel camera get a boost better low light, faster autofocusing, etc. OnePlus left it unchanged with the lone exception of better electronic image stabilization while recording video. There’s still optical image stabilization (OIS) like on the OnePlus 3, too.

The front camera, arguably the most important camera for so many people nowadays, got a big boost: double the resolution from 8 megapixels to 16.

Selfies definitely look sharper:

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

And low-light performance from the selfie camera is a little sharper, too:

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

But if you look closely, there’s still a lot of image noise. For outdoor and indoor selfies, the OnePlus 3T’s higher resolution front camera does the trick, but it’s no iPhone FaceTime camera or Galaxy S7/S7 Edge front camera.

Photos taken with the back camera are basically the same as on the OnePlus 3. You’ll get lots of details. The colors are a smidge saturated if you’ve got HDR turned on (it’s on by default and all of the pics below were taken with HDR on), but not as aggressive like on the other phones such as the Google Pixels.

Photos look pretty good indoors.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

The sky is a little oversaturated.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Filling the Nexus void

Image: lili sams/mashable

You can skip the OnePlus 3T if you already own the OnePlus 3. But if you don’t own a OnePlus 3, the OnePlus 3T is yet another excellent and more affordable device that puts the squeeze on more expensive premium phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel.

Sure, it’s $40 more than the OnePlus 3 and while the updates are modest, they’re still improvements. There are other excellent phones like the Huawei Honor 8 and ZTE Axon 7 that occupy the $400-$500 space, but neither are as polished as the OnePlus 3T.

And with Google abandoning its Nexus phones in favor of its premium-priced Pixels, there really is no other phone that gives you so much bang for your buck.

Long live the heir to the Nexus throne: the OnePlus 3T.

OnePlus 3T

The Good

Excellent premium build-quality Fast, smooth performance Great cameras Useful new software features

The Bad

No water resistance No microSD card slot for storage expansion

The Bottom Line

The OnePlus 3T balances premium features with performance at an incredible price.

BONUS: OnePlus 2: Is the most hyped Android phone really a ‘flagship killer’?

Read more: http://mashable.com/

With Google Home and Assistant, Google is ready to take over your home

I’ve been eagerly waiting to try Google Home, Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo, since the company announced it in May.

Not just because Home is smaller, cheaper ($130 versus $180) and prettier than the Echo, but because Google Assistant, the built-in digital assistant Google’s big AI bet on the future is supposed to put all other digital assistants to shame.

Echo’s Alexa is no dummy. With its year head-start, Alexa’s gotten so much brainier that I was surprised it was able to answer many of the questions I asked. Alexa also has over 3,000 “skills” integrations with third-party products and services at its disposal. For instance, you can now easily set up your Echo to order you an Uber or read Twitter updates on command.

But as smart as Alexa is today, Google’s Assistant is potentially a lot smarter because of the work Google has put in to understand context. It can also tap directly into Google Search and other services.

Still, after using Home for almost a week, it’s clear to me that it’s still very, very early days for AI at home.

If you already own an Echo, you probably don’t need a Home, unless you really care about having the Assistant read you search results. But if you don’t own an Echo and haven’t yet set up a smart home, Home is a great place to start (assuming you’re okay with giving Google a physical presence in your home).

Fits right at home

Say what you want about Home looking like a Glade air freshener, but compared to the Echo, it’s a downright looker.

Home blends better into my home decor on my kitchen counter or on a bookshelf than the black-Pringles-can look the Echo has going. Home looks less like a gadget and more like a piece of modern art; the only thing that gives it away is the flat cable snaking out the backside, but that can easily be tucked away.

Choose between different colored bases and materials.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Home is also customizable. The standard gray fabric base pops right off with a light tug and you can swap in a different color made of either fabric ($20) or metal ($40). Google sent over a “Mango”-colored fabric base and a black metal base to check out and I’ve taken a real liking to the orange.

On the back, there’s a single button to mute and un-mute the microphone. And that’s it for physical buttons, unless you count the touch-sensitive top; you can tap it to play and pause a song, use a clockwise gesture (with one finger) to increase volume and a counterclockwise gesture to decrease volume, and tap it to cancel a Google Assistant command.

The top lights up with four dots (blue, red, yellow and green) when you say “OK, Google,” and they spin when it’s searching for an answer.

Controlling your house

Google Home has a built-in “high-excursion speaker”.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Functionally, Home is capable of doing everything the Echo does. Just like the Echo, it’s got a built-in speaker to play music from various music services like Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify (premium account) and Pandora. It also connects to smart-home devices from Philips, Nest, SmartThings and Chromecast devices (of course). It also works with the digital “recipe” service IFTTT.

If you’ve never used an Echo with Alexa to control your smart home, you’re going to be mighty impressed.

Using the Google Home app (formerly called Google Cast) for iOS and Android, I was able to easily connect my Philips Hue smart light bulbs and Nest Cam, and within minutes say “OK, Google, turn on living room lights.”

If you’ve never used an Echo with Alexa to control your smart home, you’re going to be mighty impressed. It’s going to feel like magic. But since I’ve been using an Echo and Alexa for over a year now, it just felt normal. The “OK, Google” command doesn’t feel quite as personal as “Alexa…” (or “Hey, Siri” for that matter), but it works.

Despite its small size, the Home is a decent speaker. Google says it included a “high-excursion speaker” for clear highs and rich bass. The speaker sounds good (comparable to most $50-75 Bluetooth speakers), but the Echo sounds better with deeper bass and clearer highs at the loudest volume. You’ll hear more distortion at louder volumes with Home.

Compared to the Echo, Home’s a little lacking when it comes to device support I can’t connect the Wink smart plug I have set up in my bedroom to Home like I can with the Echo but hopefully that’ll expand in the months following its release.

Image: lili sams/mashable

One thing Home has going for it: Chromecast support. If you’ve got a Chromecast plugged into your TV or a Chromecast Audio plugged into a speaker and they’re turned on, you can say something like “OK, Google, play Casey Neistat videos on TV,” and it’ll play his newest vlog video. Say “OK, Google, play the Weeknd on bedroom speaker,” and it’ll play music from whatever supported music service you have it set to.

It’s not quite full entertainment-center automation but really cool nonetheless. Besides, it’s just awesome being able to use voice controls to play YouTube videos.

Smarter than Alexa

The Google Home app is available for iOS and Android.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

You use it to set up your Home and manage all the queries that you’ve asked the Assistant, similar to the Alexa app for the Echo.

Image: SCREENSHOT: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

“Credit to the team at Amazon for creating for creating a lot of excitement in [the home AI space],” Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, said during this year’s I/O keynote. “We’ve been thinking about our own unique approach.”

It’s rare for a company, let alone one as large as Google, to publicly tip its hat at a competitor. But by doing so, Google is admitting Home is playing catch-up to the Echo.

And when you’re behind, you need something that’s more than just a “me-too” product. You need something that matches the competition and has its own compelling twist.

Google Assistant the same one that’s built into the new Pixel phones and into Google’s Allo chat app is Home’s secret weapon.

Powered by over a decade of natural-language processing and Google Search, the Assistant is simply brainier than Alexa in almost every way. It knows 70 billion facts, according to Google, and is constantly adding more knowledge to its artificial gray matter. If it doesn’t know something, it’ll try to find an answer from the internet using Google Search.

Four dots light up when you say “OK Google.”

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Touch and rotate to adjust volume.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Last month, while reviewing the Pixels, I pitted the Assistant against Siri and the Assistant emerged triumphant. I did the same with the Assistant and Alexa and no surprise the Assistant was able to answer more questions in more detail.

For starters, the Assistant is able to understand context better. For instance, you can ask it a question, then follow it with another and another. Alexa couldn’t even answer the first question below.

Q: When did Michael Jordan retire?

Home: Michael Jordan career ended in 1995 and 2003.

Q: And how tall is he?

Home: He’s 6’6″ tall.

Q: Does he have any kids?

Home: Marcus Jordan, Jeffrey Michael Jordan, and three others.

Q: Where does he live now?

Home: According to Reference.com, Jordan also owns a luxury condo in Charlotte, N.C. and a property in Salt Lake City. He has sold his Chicago mansion for $29 million.

Missed the answer the first time? Just say “repeat that.” But don’t wait too long or else the Assistant will tell you “I forgot what I said.”

The stronger conversational queries are great, but they’re not perfect. Sometimes when you ask a completely unrelated follow-up question, it still thinks you’re talking about the same previous topic.

Assistant also knows traffic information data:

Q: How long does it take to bike to the World Trade Center?

Home: It takes 18 minutes to bike to One World Trade Center.

Echo: Your current location is 10.6 miles, 17.1 kilometers from World Trade Center. As I don’t know your speed, I can’t tell you how long it’ll take.

And the weather in more places:

Q: Whats the weather like in Lake Elkhorn?

Home: Right now in Lake Elkhorn, it’s 57 and cloudy. Today, it’ll be cloudy with a forecast high of 59 and a low of 58.

Echo: Sorry, I couldnt find info on location.

And translations (although not all of the languages from Google Translate), which is super convenient:

Q: Translate “This is the best day ever” into French.

Home: C’est le meilleur jour.

Echo: Sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question.

And recipes (swiped from the internet):

Q: How do I make meatloaf?

Home: According to McCormick: Preheat oven to 350F. Mix ground beef, bread crumbs, egg and seasonings in large bowl. Shape into a loaf on shallow baking pan. Pour ketchup over top. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until cooked through.

Echo: Hmm, I don’t know but you can take a look at the Bing search link I added in the Alexa app.

And nutritional info (to maybe help you stop eating so much junk):

Q: How much fiber is there in a pretzel?

Home: There are 0.9 grams of fiber in one salted pretzel.

Echo: Hmm, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.

And how to soothe a sore throat:

Q: What do I do about my sore throat?

Home: Here’s some information that’ll help soothe sore throats. According to Every Day Roots: Heat the water until it is very warm, but not so warm that you cant drink it. Mix in teaspoon of salt and teaspoon or a little less baking soda, stir, and test the temperature. Pour some of the liquid into your throat, let it sit for a moment, then gargle. Do this twice in a row 3 times daily.

Echo: Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.

The Assistant is also funny:

Q: Is Siri better than you?

Home: Siri is the best Siri. I try to be the best Google Assistant.I think Siri is great. I’m definitely more Google-y.

Echo: I’m not better. Just different.

And knows way more pickup lines than Alexa, which knows exactly two:

Q: Tell me a pickup line.

Home:

Did it hurt when you fell from heaven? If so, I can find you the nearest doctors office.

It’s a good thing I have my library card because I love books.

Do you wash your clothes with Windex? Because you shouldn’t, I can find tips for doing laundry.

If I could rearrange the alphabet I wouldn’t because that would be mayhem.

Echo:

This place must have have good Wi-Fi because I’m definitely feeling a good connection.

You must be the square root of two because I get irrational around you.

Where Home and Echo both fall short is making shopping lists. You can add items to a shopping list (Home adds it to your Google Keep app) but you can’t remove any items using voice controls. I don’t need toilet paper on my list twice, guys!

Pichai touts Assistant as “your own personal Google.” Hands-down, Assistant is the smartest digital assistant on the block, but it’s still got lots to learn before it replaces any human assistant or butler.

My only real complaint with Home is that it has the same multi-room problem that hampered the Echo. That is, there’s no way to get a multi-room setup unless you buy multiple Home devices. Amazon’s solved this issue with the smaller, cheaper $50 Echo Dot, which comes in a six-pack for $250. It’ll be interesting to see if Google releases an Echo Dot counterpart or insists you just use the Assistant on your Pixel.

Will get better over time

Google Home has a single mute/un-mute microphone button on the backside.

Image: lili sams/mashable

I felt a sense of dj vu reviewing Google Home. It felt like the Echo all over again. In almost every sense, Home is like the Echo was over a year ago, but better out of the gate.

Home is instantly intuitive to use and intelligent enough to satisfy anyone who’s never used a voice-controlled digital assistant at home before.

Google nailed every trick the Echo could do at launch and packaged it all into a more attractive, customizable air freshener-like design. Extras like Chromecast support give the Home a slight edge when it comes to talking to your TV and speakers.

I’ve got my quibbles with the Assistant’s limitations just like I did with Alexa at first, but Google’s only scratching the surface of what it can do. Once Google opens the floodgates for Assistant to connect to more Google services (with your permission, of course) like Gmail, Google Maps, Google Photos, etc., then it’ll really be your own personal Google.

And at $130, you could buy a Home and a $50 Echo Dot for the price of one Echo, and live in both worlds.

Home is brimming with delight with what it can do today, but it’s what it’ll be able to do in the future that will make it a fixture in every home.

Google Home

The Good

$50 cheaper than Echo Base is customizable Responsive voice controls Google Assistant is way smarter than Alexa

The Bad

Only connects to three major smart home brands Doesn’t sound as good as an Echo

The Bottom Line

Google Home gives the Amazon Echo a solid run for its money.

Watch: Google Home answers the mind-boggling questions Google uses in job interviews

Read more: http://mashable.com/