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Inexpensive. Nice design. Better sound quality than the Echo Dot. Better at answering music-related queries than Alexa.
Lacks audio out. Google Home still offers less support for third-party services than Alexa.
The Google Home Mini smart speaker takes on Amazon's Echo Dot with a cute, fabric-covered design and Google Assistant smarts, but its lack of an audio out is a major bummer.
Google's cute $49 Home Mini, is a better standalone voice-activated speaker than the Amazon Echo Dot. That would be great, except for the fact that a lot of Echo Dot owners don't use their Dots alone—they connect them to bigger, better-sounding speakers using the audio-out port, which the Home Mini lacks. Google's demand that its speakers play only with other Google-compatible equipment continues to be the platform's weakest aspect, and the primary reason the Echo Dot remains our Editors' Choice.
Design and Set Up
Google's speakers are generally more attractive than Amazon's, although the new $99 fabric-covered Echo is a step in the right direction. Still, the Home Mini is super cute and measures 3.86 inches in diameter, 1.65 inches high, covered in chalk, charcoal, or coral fabric.
There isn't much here in the way of ports. On the bottom, there's a microphone off switch. You can tap the sides of the speaker to change volume. You were initially able to play/pause music or activate Google Assistant by tapping the top panel, but Google has since disabled this feature due to a bug on some units that registered phantom touches, so the speaker was always listening.
You plug the Mini into the wall and set it up through the Google Home app on Android or iOS. Then, when you say "Hey Google," four soft LEDs light up in the middle of the speaker, and Google Assistant answers. The app is very similar to the Alexa app (and, like the Alexa app, it buries many of its options and third-party services under a hidden menu).
Audio and Features
Tiny speakers typcially don't sound very good. Compared with some of our favorite Bluetooth speakers (even small ones), you could say that the Mini's 40mm drivers sound tinny and harsh. But it's much better than the Echo Dot. At arm's length, it can be up to 10db louder than the weak little Dot, with a much rounder sound that at least it suggests bass. The Google Assistant's voice sounds considerably more natural and human than Alexa's does. That said, this is still a secondary speaker; if you want to kick back and enjoy music, you need to get the larger Google Home.
The Home Mini can function as part of a whole-home coordinated audio system, and if you have multiple speakers, only the closest one will respond. They'll also work as a home intercom system: You can say "Broadcast," and if you have multiple Minis (or a Mini and a Max, or any other combination) scattered throughout your house, they'll all say your message.
Google Assistant can now control almost all the major smart home brands, so you shouldn't see a big difference between Google and Amazon there. Yale locks and Ecobee thermostats are the last major brands I still see missing on Google's site. As Google owns Nest, special Nest features are coming—for instance, the ability to just say, "Make the room a little warmer," rather than having to specify a temperature.
See How We Test Speakers
In general, Google Assistant is better at interpreting loose, natural-language queries than Alexa is. Alexa gets more powerful when you include its library of third-party skills, but you often need to know the specific wording to make things work. For example, if I ask Google Assistant, "Where is Blade Runner 2049 playing near me?" it will give me movie showtimes, automatically. For Alexa, you have to specifically "Ask Fandango." I can ask Google Assistant directly for a fried chicken recipe; with Alexa, you need to remember to enable the Allrecipes skill. That said, Alexa's recipes then come from Allrecipes, a reliable source; Google's came from some site I'd never heard of.
Both Alexa and Google support Pandora and Spotify music, but I tested the speakers primarily with their own services. Google Play Music is much better at dealing with weird or quirky playlist requests than Amazon Music is. I can ask Google Play Music for "Canadian indie music," or "Play the song that goes, 'I was afraid I'd eat your brains,'" and it will. Alexa has fewer pre-programmed playlists and prefers the name of an artist, album, or a playlist you created in your Amazon music account. That isn't to say Google Assistant is perfect—sometimes it didn't understand my song requests, just as Alexa didn't.
As a personal assistant, Google Assistant still has one weird omission: It can't see into G Suite accounts, Google's own enterprise system. You need to have a Gmail account for Google Home to access your calendar. Alexa is more flexible, supporting G Suite, Office 365, and iCloud.
Doesn't Play Well With Others
The Google Home Mini stands alone, beautifully. But it doesn't play well with others.
The speaker doesn't have a 3.5mm output jack or a standard Bluetooth connection. You can play music from your phone by using the Google Home app, and can connect the speaker to a larger, Chromecast-enabled speaker for better sound quality. But there just aren't that many Chromecast-enabled speakers, and you can plug an Echo Dot into anything. You can get similar results by connecting a Chromecast Audio to your favorite speaker and using it with the Mini, but that's an extra purchase and step that will be a deal breaker for many people.
And while Google's third-party "actions" are catching up to Alexa's, Alexa is still ahead when it comes to support for third-party services. You can ask Alexa about concert tickets via Stubhub, to order you a Lyft, or to get groceries through Peapod. Alexa can connect to your YNAB home budget or tell you TV schedules. Google Assistant can't do any of those things, yet.
Amazon also offers more discovery options for skills. You can browse through Google's third-party services on your phone, but there's no web-based directory like the one Amazon has. That makes it harder to figure out exactly what your Google Home can do.
Comparisons and Conclusions
When it comes to speakers, Google has the $50 Mini, the $129 Home, and the $399 Max. Google Assistant is also available on every recent Android phone, without you having to hunt down an app.
Amazon has the $45 Dot, the $99 Echo, the $149 Echo Plus, and the screen-equipped Echo Show ($199.99) and Echo Spot ($129.99). You can plug Echos into any other speaker you want, while Google's systems need to work with Chromecast-enabled speakers. But Amazon is second place on most phones, requiring you to hunt down and press the Alexa icon.
We're seeing more Alexa-enabled speakers than Google-enabled speakers coming down the pike in the next few months, and Alexa has maintained its lead in third-party services. Some speakers, like the upcoming Sonos One, support both.
If you're a Google Play Music subscriber, or you have a Chromecast or Chromecast-compatible TV, you have a compelling reason to go with the Google Home Mini instead of the Echo Dot. For everyone else, the Echo Dot is still our Editors' Choice.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed... More »