Technology

My Gadgets: Made by Google

google home and wifi
Written by Kevin Koperski

I’ve long been a fan of Google services. In the beginning, I resisted. I’ve spent a chunk of my career designing interfaces and coding presentation layers, and Google’s early interfaces were boring, often crude, and painfully simplistic. Eventually, they won me over, and it had everything to do with their early cloud game.

More than any other major player, Google understood the advantage of universal access. I could search, check my email, view my calendar, track my history, or update my task list from any machine, anywhere, as long as it had a web browser, or eventually an app. Google understood that to make experiences fast, to make syncing reliable, you had to transfer as little data as possible across limited bandwidth connections, and you had to pick up an experience on a new device from where you left off on a different device. As a result, they’ve always been at the forefront of asynchronous design patterns, and the synergy they’re beginning to offer across all devices is wonderful. Sure, it took them until the early days of Material Design to really nail their “multiple account” issues, but they’ve managed it in most cases better than anyone else.

Before Android came along, I was a Windows Mobile user. Before that a Palm user. Before that a Handspring user. I never liked Apple’s iOS. I’ve tried it numerous times. On ipods and ipads and iphones. Not a fan. Android, however, let me use my phone the way I wanted to use it, and the experience of “how it works” usually makes more sense to me logically than iOS. I know that’s not true for everyone, but I long ago gave up trying to understand other people’s technology choices.

Anyway, when Google announced their new Made By Google initiative, I was excited. Over the past two months, I’ve been using most of the Made by Google products. These are my initial impressions.

Pixel

This is a no-brainer. As a veteran Android user, I made the switch from Samsung to a Nexus 6P more than a year ago. Loved it. Samsung has done innovative things with Android, and for years I was a huge Galaxy Note fan, but I was never fond of their UI aesthetic, and their proprietary apps usually sucked. The 6P finally allowed me to make the switch, although I still miss the Note’s stylus.

The Pixel XL isn’t a noticeable upgrade over the 6P. It’s smooth and fast, of course. It’s a decent size, and I like the flat back better than the raised camera bump. The camera is a giant leap over the 6P, and coupled with the unlimited Google Photo storage it’s an unbeatable package. 360 photos and 240fps slow motion ain’t too shabby either.

Google Assistant on the Pixel is okay, but I continue to have better luck with the Google Now search. I’ll discuss that in the Google Assistant section later in this post.

Anyway, here are a few of my comments on the Pixel.

  • The camera’s HDR is fantastic. Outdoor photos are gorgeous. Indoor photos can still be a bit grainy without enough light, but that’s true of any camera.
  • Video stabilization is amazing. Works great when walking. The AI tends to lock-in to maintain stability. When you pan in any direction, there’s a noticeable stutter in the resulting video as the camera stubbornly fights your attempts to destabilize it. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s definitely noticeable.
  • Why does Google insist on voice commands for Assistant? Let me type! Voice commands are wonderful when I’m dancing around the house or driving in my car, but when I’m on a crowded train or sitting at a café, I don’t want everyone listening to me converse with my digital friend. Another point to Google Now, as well as the Allo version of Assistant.

Daydream VR

I received the Daydream View headset free with a Pixel pre-order. I was an early adopter of Samsung’s Gear VR Innovator Edition, and I still occasionally tinker with it (if I remember to charge the old Note 4 it requires). Sadly, given my determination to avoid buying another Samsung phone, there was no way I could remain loyal to their VR platform.

I’ve used the Daydream View once. It was a let down. It didn’t fit my face comfortably. Don’t get me wrong, its construction and materials are softer and less clunky on your head than the original Gear VR (I can’t speak for more recent models), but it didn’t fit as flush against my face as I hoped it would. It fit over my glasses, which the Gear VR cannot do, but it wasn’t a perfect fit.

I hope to play with it more in the future, and I expect improvements. Here are my notes:

  • It fits over my glasses, but not well.
  • The fit isn’t as good as Gear VR, but the materials are much softer and comfortable to wear.
  • VR quality isn’t as good as Gear VR. The 360 photos I’ve taken were super pixelated. Not sure why. And there was significantly more stutter than I ever noticed on my two year old Gear VR. These issues can likely be fixed with updates, but they were disappointing.
  • This was the first VR set I’ve used with a handheld controller device. What a difference. Gear VR needs it. I can’t wait to try the Oculus Touch controllers. The controller eliminates the sensation of being a passive observer. Everything feels much more interactive and engaging.
  • Generally, my opinion boils down to intrigued indifference. First impressions were lacking, but there’s plenty of potential, and I will pay close attention. I refuse to complain, however, because my unit was free.

Google Home

I’m already a big fan of Google Home, despite some glitches. Here are a few of my favorite and most frequent use cases:

Controlling my Phillips Hue lights in four different rooms. At night, I love to say, “Hey Google, make the lights Bronze.” My entire house descends into a soft warm glow.

Waking up in the middle of the night and asking for the time. I don’t have to roll over. I don’t have to find my phone or squint at the clock without my glasses. I simply ask Google the time, and Google tells me, and I go back to sleep. It’s a delight.

“Hey Google, tell me about my day.”  I love the idea. The execution, however, is lacking. The biggest issue is the lack of multiple account support for calendars. “My Day” in real life is a combination of my personal calendar and my work calendar, but each resides on a different Google account. Because Home can only sync to a single account, it never offers me a complete picture of my day, and that’s frustrating in a “My Day” application.

I also like the idea of the various short news podcasts that can accompany the My Day summary, but I haven’t yet stumbled on a combination I like. I want a rundown of the day’s headlines (in various categories, like US News, World News, Tech, Finance, etc..), with the ability to ask for more details after each headline. Instead, the podcasts tend to be filled with fluff and stories I read the day before. Some of them are well-produced and informative, but I never make it through more than one or two, and I rarely feel more informed than if I scanned headlines on cnn.com.

“Hey Google, tell Todoist to add a new task…” The best part of Home arrived last week with the introduction of Actions. For me, this meant Todoist integration. The two cases for which I’ve traditionally most often used voice commands involve adding Tasks to my to-do list and adding Voice Notes to Google Keep. With Actions, I can now add and modify tasks in Todoist, and it’s a smart, scalable solution that will likely work with every app. “Hey Google, let me talk to Todoist.” The Google Assistant’s voice changes to the App’s action voice, which feels like speaking to a new and specialized minion. You can add tasks, move them to various projects, change the priority, etc.. I haven’t experimented with all the options yet, but the potential is there. If only Google Keep would support this, so I could more easily pace around my house dictating notes.

Playing YouTube videos via Chromecast. As for media, I’ve successfully asked Google to send YouTube videos to my TV. This works well as long as the TV is on, because Chromecast lacks full control of your television. It’s a fun trick, but the specificity required to perform the action can be a bit cumbersome. “Hey Google, play “Tonight, Tonight” by Smashing Pumpkins on YouTube on the Family Room Chromecast.” If you pause to think during any part of the command — to remember the name of a particular Chromecast, for example — Home gets confused. Plus, given the abundance of similarly named videos on YouTube, you’re never quite sure you’ll get the video you want instead of some parody or fan-made cover.

Music on Google Home works wonderfully. I regularly request and play music on my various Home units (I have three). Favorite feature: creating a Home group and playing music throughout the house. I’m not sure how they manage the syncing — maybe with microphones — but as I walk down stairs away from the kitchen home unit to my office home unit, the music is perfectly in sync. It’s great for cleaning and doing laundry, when you’re moving from room to room and don’t want to blast the family room speakers loud enough to be heard throughout the house and anger the neighbors.

Anyway, here is my quick summary plus a few miscellaneous points:

  • Tons of potential. Fairly easy to use without the need to memorize an abundance of command syntax.
  • Every bit as good as Amazon Echo, but without the ability to purchase stuff from Amazon. It also lacks the quantity of integrations Amazon has, but those will come. I do wish Amazon’s Audible app would support Chromecast
  • Controlling Hue lights is a blast. Turn them on, turn them off, change the colors, change the brightness. It all works perfectly. Much easier than using the Hue app.
  • It doesn’t feel “conversational”, which is a bit frustrating. I never feel like I’m talking WITH my Assistant. It’s always TO my assistant. Actions feel a bit more conversational, because the Actions ask lots of guided questions.
  • Home doesn’t work without internet. This point is frustrating but understandable. The processing happens in the cloud. Still, it would be nice to be able to control home automation gadgets on your local network even if your cable line gets bulldozed.
  • Yes, saying “Okay, Google” or “Hey Google” is a pain in the ass. It does NOT roll off the tongue, and it’s tempting to mumble it, but then Home doesn’t pick up your request. I applaud Google’s attempt to avoid gender-typing for a digital assistant, but they need to find a better initialization command.

Google Wifi

I don’t have a ton to say about Google Wifi, except that it works and I love it.

Over the summer, I moved to a three floor townhouse. My otherwise awesome Nighthawk router simply couldn’t get a signal from the ground floor to my kids’ rooms on the top floor. I purchased extenders, but they require a separate SSID from your router, and that leads to all sorts of device switching and complication.

Google Wifi is a mesh network that attempts to intelligently handle all device and band switching on a single SSID. Setup couldn’t be much easier. I’ve spent too many hours of my life on those old router admin screens. I don’t use many custom settings anymore, because I don’t play too many multiplayer games, and I’m frequently the only one using the network. So why fuss with all that? Google’s wifi setup is straightforward and simple. I had no issues. And I can see and rename all the devices that connect to the network

If I must get nitpicky, I’d point out two issues.

The first is kinda silly but easily fixable. I created a guest network with a complicated password, thinking I could easily share the password to my guests, who would then copy and paste it to obtain access. When my parents came to visit, I shared the password with them via text message. Unfortunately, the message includes more than just the password. It said something like “You’ve been invited to Kevin’s guest wifi. The password is XXXXXXXXX. Please blah blah blah…”

In every SMS app we tried, there was no way to copy a portion of the message text. You could only copy/paste the entire message, which was rather useless for signing onto the network.

The good news is you can share the password using Android’s traditional sharing functionality. In other words, you can basically use any communications app installed on your phone to share the password. So I next shared it using Facebook Messenger. Same problem. There was no way to copy and paste just the password into the appropriate field, which was a huge complication given the complexity of the password.

Ideally, Google would send the password characters without the fluff. It can be assumed that if I’m sending someone the credentials to my Home guest network, I’m probably in communication with them, and they’ll be expecting the message. There’s no need for extra explanation. The entire purpose of sharing credentials is to copy/paste the password, right? So that needs to be simple.

The other issue occurred when my internet went down. Granted, this doesn’t happen frequently, but when it did my entire wifi network became unusable. The Google Wifi app said the entire network was down. I couldn’t see other devices. I couldn’t do anything. I’m guessing this information is all stored and processed and synced in the cloud, which I hadn’t considered previously. Obviously, without a connection to the internet, the wifi units can’t pass this data to the cloud. But there’s no reason my local area network should stop working without Internet access.

To be fair, I didn’t experiment much. My Google Home stopped working. My Phillips Hue stopped working. I couldn’t control my devices. This may, in fact, be a result of those devices working through the cloud instead of through the local network, but it was still frustrating. Any solid home solution, specifically home automation functionality, must continue to work when the internet connection is severed. I will test more if/when it happens again, but first impressions with regards to non-connected functionality were less than stellar.

To sum up:

  • Easy setup. Easy visibility into devices and speed and coverage.
  • Great coverage for my specific home layout (three floor townhouse).
  • Integrated band switching and mesh network. No extenders needed. That means everyone connects to a single SSID and a single channel, simplifying many wifi issues.
  • Doesn’t work without internet!!!! Huge problem. Couldn’t turn off my lights. Had to resort to those archaic switch things on the wall! What century is this?!?!

Google Assistant

Between Google Now, Pixel Assistant, Allo Assistant, and Google Home Assistant, it feels like we have an army of helpers working for us, but our army is plagued by organizational nightmares. In theory, all these different assistants should be fantastic, helping us perform any number of rudimentary tasks just by asking. In practice, they’re a bureaucratic headache.

The various assistants don’t effectively communicate with one another. Some of them are more incompetent than others, which is frustrating because they all sound the same, and you have to remember who sucks at which task.

For example, “Okay, Google, save a note to Google Keep.”  Simple enough command, right? Depends which assistant is on duty.

The Google Now assistant asks, “Sure, what’s the note?” You dictate the note (don’t pause for too long, though, or it thinks you’re finished and moves on). When you stop speaking, it saves the note to Google Keep and says Note Saved. Beautiful.

The Pixel Assistant wants to help but can’t because it’s buggy. “Save a note to Google Keep,” I say.  “Sure, what’s the note?” it asks. But when you dictate the note, it freaks out and does a web search. The note does not get saved.

Still, at least it tried. The Google Home and Allo Assistants both reply with a simple “Sorry, I can’t do that yet.” Why did I hire you?!?!

This is just one example. There are others. As I mentioned with Google Home, I suspect Actions will fix this problem. If an app supports Actions, you’ll be able to communicate with the app directly. Google Keep Actions would be wonderful.

But will Actions work with Google Now or Pixel Assistant? I hope so.

Artificial Intelligence is supposed to be helpful. Instead, in this application anyway, it requires management diligence and a wee bit of patience. That’s not what I signed up for.

To be fair, this is complicated stuff. Can Google make the assistant experience uniform across all devices? I hope so. It will be awesome if they manage it. For now, though, I’ll be happy if the Pixel Assistant stops popping up on my phone if my Google Home assistant is within earshot. Mild annoyance, yes, but one more pain point in the overall experience, and too many pain points can add up.

What’s that hashtag? #firstworldproblems

Overall Impressions

“Made by Google” is off to a delightful start. There are little quirks throughout, but the beginnings of something magical are evident. All these devices and Assistants communicate with each other, albeit poorly, but as that communication improves so too will the experiences. Whether I’m home or in my car or walking along a sandy beach (with decent data coverage), I’ll be able to utter a simple phrase and my Assistant will respond.  Currently, it feels like I’m speaking to multiple entities on many separate devices. Instead, I want it to feel like I can speak through any device to a singular, omnipresent entity.

This is sci-fi stuff from my childhood days, and it’s every bit as exciting in reality as it was in my dreams. The technology is still early, and the kinks need to be worked out, but the progress is amazing. I’m confident Google and a few others will pull it off, and I’ll be thrilled to watch it, experience it, and help play a small part.

More to come…


Also published on Medium.

About the author

Kevin Koperski

Kevin Koperski is the author of the mystery novel Amontillado. He's a tech entrepreneur currently developing several new products.

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