Teardown: Google Home personal assistant
Google Home joins Amazon Alexa in the voice-first assistant market.
Some analysts expect the voice-first market to be one of the consumer electronics stars of 2017. Amazon was first out of the gates with the Echo in 2015, and late last year Google joined the race with a US-only launch of its Home product.
The presence of two players has allowed researchers to come up with some broad definitions for the space. One of the best so far has come from VoiceLabs: “A voice-first device is an always-on, intelligent piece of hardware where the primary interface is voice, both input and output.”
It keeps things simple in a market that could stretch into multiple areas from e-commerce to productivity to gaming and home automation – though we do not know which yet will be the big monetisers. The definition also recognises that the artificial intelligence (AI) technology underpinning voice assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri needs to improve.
Nevertheless, VoiceLabs forecasts that 24.5 million voice-first products will be shipped this year, up from 6.5 million in 2016 and 1.7 million in 2015. Other estimates nudge towards 30 million.
To date, Google Home, the subject of this teardown, is only available in the US (although some UK users have imported them but with varying experiences as to how much functionality crosses the Atlantic – so be warned). Despite the excitement around the product group, Google has yet to detail plans for Home’s official availability anywhere else, but most analysts believe it will do so shortly.
Several reasons have been put forward for Google’s reticence. One is potential component shortages – Amazon’s Echo reportedly suffered from these in the run up to last Christmas and Home also shares many of its parts with the existing Chromecast media stick.
A second and probably more significant factor is the need to build out a voice-first infrastructure. Today, a device like Home can give voice feedback and control from Google Assistant based on its parent’s search, music, media and – through the Nest subsidiary – home-automation products. But third-party apps are in short supply.
Even for Echo, where Amazon has built out broader developer support, VoiceLabs says that many apps are failing to get much traction yet. It found 7,000 ‘skills’ available on the company’s Alexa AI platform, yet only 31 per cent had more than one consumer review.
“This indicates that many of [the] Alexa voice applications are ‘Zombie Skills’: they are accessible but are not heavily used or appreciated,” VoiceLabs concludes.
With much of the learning curve still to climb, it makes sense for players to show some caution. That is reflected in Home’s design.
As noted, its main electronic components are essentially identical to those in the Chromecast (which also shares a design team with the Home). The holdover includes the same Marvel Armada dual-core ARM Cortex A7 processor. The Home’s speakers, meanwhile, comprise a two-inch off-the-shelf (COTS) driver from Peerless and dual passive radiators.
An iFixit teardown found that the device is relatively easy to repair – scored at 8 out of 10 largely because of the use of COTS components – with the one major obstacle being a glued-in touch board. It also noted, however, that Google has looked to control costs by installing just two MEMS microphones to pick up user commands: “Will only two be enough compared to the Echo’s seven?”
There are some differences from the Echo also when it comes to the industrial design, especially in the Home’s resemblance to a ‘smart’ air freshener as opposed to the Echo’s sleek cylindrical look. However, the Home is roughly half the height of the main Echo product at 143mm with a diameter of 96mm and users also have the option to customise the base in different colours.
In the US, these design decisions have allowed Google to price the Home at $129, which is $50 cheaper than the main Amazon Echo (although Amazon does also have the more limited Tap voice-first device on sale at the same price and the hockey puck sized Echo Dot at $49).
Price points are likely to matter a lot if the voice-first market is to take off. The vendors’ dream is that consumers will install multiple ‘reasonably priced’ devices in different rooms – the marketing from Amazon and Google already makes much play of being able to have your music follow you through the home. To that end, Google has decided to have Home run off mains power only (Amazon’s Echo and Tap speakers both have rechargeable batteries) – even though that could prove a weak spot in the earlier stages of adoption.
For now, the general consensus is that Amazon’s Alexa-powered products have the advantage. Though it still needs to grow, they have the bigger infrastructure today and the benefits of portability. As a standalone speaker, Echo is also the winner.
But as Google’s launch strategy suggests, the first generation Home chiefly sets down an important marker. It also achieves a solid balance between cost control and functionality. Indeed, by the time it does become available in the UK, the company might have implemented some significant revisions.
Key components: Google Home personal assistant
1 Top including mute button and LED array
2 Touch panel
3 Speaker cable
5 Ribbon cable/antenna
6 Cable (Test points)
7 Base insert
8 Changeable outer base casing
10 Side inner assemblies
11 Front inner assembly
12 Inner assembly clamps
14 Magnet holder for changeable base
15 Flash memory, Toshiba
16 Media processor, Marvell