A Revolution in Home Automation

November 3, 2018

We recently had a home automation revolution at Meador Manor, with Google Home devices vanquishing a number of Amazon Echo toys that had built up over the past two years.

In the summer of 2016 Wendy gave me a first-generation Amazon Echo, a tall black cylinder with a speaker and microphones that functions as a voice-driven assistant. I purchased a $79/year subscription to Amazon Music and put the present to use. I use it as my wake-up alarm and, when I go to bed, to control a Philips Hue bulb in the lamp on my nightstand, play music, hear the NPR news update, and get a minimal weather forecast.

Amazon Echo Devices

I eventually bought another large Echo cylinder for the home office, and added smaller Echo Dots in different rooms. When the Echo Show was released, with its screen and camera, I bought three, putting one in the kitchen and thinking I would have one at work and give one to my parents. The screen and camera promised easy video calling, which I thought could be useful.

However, I’d previously quickly abandoned using Facetime on my iPhone with a webcam on a computer at my parents’ home as too much bother, and my folks have no interest in smart phones or tablets.  I was never able to get the Echo Shows at work and home to call each other, so I never gave my folks the third Echo Show. And while I liked having the Echo Show’s screen in the kitchen so Wendy and I could see the timers we requested, that is about all we used it for, and nothing we used it for required the use of its camera.

Alexa can be quite frustrating

Wendy found Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, quite frustrating. When she would ask for a particular song, it would often struggle, playing something else or getting confused. Other seemingly simple commands could quickly befuddle it. That led Wendy to ban any voice-controlled lights around the house except for the lamp on my nightstand, and we kept our older Honeywell programmable thermostat instead of replacing it with one with WiFi and home automation integrations.

I found Alexa frustrating as well. I resorted to searching for a song from my music library using the Alexa app on my iPad until I learned to always say, “Alexa, play song title from my music library” to get what I wanted. Alexa’s poor comprehension means we have never trusted using it to buy anything or put things on a shopping list, even though we buy a lot of items from smile.Amazon.com.

For my birthday a friend bought me a Roav VIVA for my car. I had hoped it would let me easily request songs without taking my hands off the wheel. But it relied on my iPhone to connect to the car’s speakers, and I wound up having to invoke or mess around with its app almost every time I started the car. It was much easier to just set my iPhone so that I could holler out, “Hey Siri” and request specific songs that way. Siri is about as bad as Alexa at figuring out which song to play, but at least it is always ready, not requiring me to mess around with a special app.

I tried using If This, Then That and other Skills with Alexa, but found none of them compelling. Granted, some could have been more interesting if we had automated more lights, appliances, and utilities at Meador Manor. But the only Skill Wendy and I wound up using was “Simon says” just so we could make Alexa say silly things. I knew we weren’t as hopeless as the folks using Amazon Echo Silver in a SNL parody, but we were not getting much value out of our many Echo devices.

Amazon then decided to terminate my ability to add to my own music library in their service, limiting me to what I already uploaded and what they could stream. That mortal blow led me to order in July 2018, two years after getting my first Echo, a Google Home Mini, which is a competitor for the Amazon Echo Dot.

The Google Home Mini vs. the Amazon Echo Dot

My expectations were so low that it took me months to bother to plug in the Google device. Not caring for its default voice, I configured it to speak in a male British accent. (Since Apple changed the original voice of Siri, losing Susan Bennett’s intonations, I’ve turned it into a male Aussie.)

Since I was already paying $9.99/month for Google Play Music to get the bundled ad-free YouTube Red service, which has now morphed into YouTube Premium, it can stream music like the Echo devices, and Google still lets me upload my own music library.

It was easy to get it to work with my Philips Hue bulb, and I eventually had Wendy try it out. She was delighted with it, as it was far more accurate than Alexa at playing the songs she wanted. So I bought another Google Home Mini for her bathroom and then the larger Google Home, with its improved speaker and microphones, for our home office.

Her happiness with the Google voice assistant led me to finally break out a Wemo Switch Smart Plug I’d received as a birthday present 18 months earlier. I plugged Wendy’s coffee maker into it, programming it to turn on automatically each weekday morning as well as respond to her verbal commands to the Google Home devices. That sealed the deal for her.

Our Google Home devices

When the Google Home Hub came out, with its small screen and no camera, it replaced the Amazon Echo Show in the kitchen. It does everything we need, and its smaller size suits our galley kitchen better than the bulkier Amazon unit. Plus I know Wendy is glad it has no camera someone could hack into.

Sometimes Wendy and I want to share YouTube clips with each other on the big OLED television in the living room. I used to struggle with the remote controls to get AirPlay working via the Apple TV so we could stream videos from one or both of our Apple iPads. So I plugged a 2nd-generation Google Chromecast I found in the junk drawer (yes, there is a 1st-generation unit still in there) into the back of the TV, which thankfully supports HDMI-CEC so that the Chromecast can turn the TV on and off, which in turn activates our receiver for our surround sound speakers.

I was delighted that we could tell the Google Home Hub to turn on the TV and command it to play various YouTube videos. So we didn’t have to yell at the Hub in the kitchen from the couch, I bought another Google Home Mini and placed it on the TV stand. Now we can look at the title of the YouTube clip on one of our iPads and command the Google Home Mini to turn on the TV and play the clip.

We often have to help the Chromecast figure out which clip we want

It does struggle more with playing the correct YouTube video than playing the correct song from the streaming music service, but thankfully shows thumbnails of likely matches on the screen and asks us to say the number of the video clip we actually want to view. Overall, it beats fussing with the Apple TV and Airplay. I haven’t tried watching any movies with it yet, so I don’t know if we’ll be lured away from our current reliance on the TV’s built-in Amazon app or the Apple TV for renting and streaming movies.

I cancelled my Amazon Music subscription this week, and have retired all of the Amazon Echo devices except for the original gift on my nightstand. But there’s a Google Home Mini next to it. If I could only set the alarm on it to my liking, our last Echo would fade away. ¡Viva la revolución!

 

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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