Computers / Hands-on Review

In the Field with Google Home and Wifi

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I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit late to the smart-home party. Having purchased my first Echo just a few months ago, I purposely watched this technology develop from the sidelines. Not because I didn’t have faith in its long-term viability, but because I knew that once I dipped my toe in the water, I’d be all in. There are few slopes slipperier than home modernization. When I reviewed TP-Link’s HS105 smart plugs just three months ago, I decided to purchase a couple of my own. I then tried to convince myself that I’d stop there, but three bulbs and another smart outlet later, I’ve completely automated half of the lighting in my home. Using my smartphone to control these new devices is a great feature, but Echo compatibility, which added the convenience of voice control, sealed the deal. By the time Google released a digital assistant of its own, dubbed Home, Amazon was already in full swing, serving up some pretty big shoes to fill in the process. However, that didn’t stop the excitement and anticipation that surrounded Google’s leap into the smart home market, and for good reason. Few things make tech better than good ole’ competition.

Google Home

My foray into whole home Wi-Fi, also known as mesh networking, wasn’t as cautious. If you’re unfamiliar with this technology and the benefits it offers, I recommend you check out our Intro To Whole Home Wi-Fi Systems. Additionally, I watched closely as many of my colleagues reviewed systems from Luma, eero, and Orbi. Each was intriguing and helped to raise the profile of this growing category. Considering the potential of mesh networking, it was only a matter of time before more manufacturers jumped aboard. While you wouldn’t normally associate Google with hardware, the company’s Pixel smartphones and tablet, along with the Home, show that Google is expanding its portfolio. Something which they clearly have the clout and technical know-how to do, this contributed to Google Wifi being one of the most talked-about devices of the last year. So, you can understand why I was ready to take this system for a proverbial test drive.

Google Wifi

First up, Google Home

The day I received an email from TP-link stating that my smart outlets and bulbs now supported Google Home was the same day I unboxed the digital assistant. While home automation support was initially limited, Google Home has garnered some respectable third-party support, which includes brands and services like Honeywell, Insignia Connect, LIFX, Nest, Philips Hue, SmartThings, WEMO, Wink, and IFTTT. As compatibility continues to grow, it appears as if Google Home is getting its sea legs.

Like my experience with the Echo, installation was very straightforward. As a Chromecast user, I already had Google’s free Home app installed on my smartphone and simply had to add the digital assistant to my Google account. If you have other multimedia devices from Google such as the 4K-enabled Chromecast Ultra and Chromecast Audio, the Home app provides a convenient hub for discovering new content and streaming it to your devices. Once the Google Home smart assistant was connected to my Wi-Fi network, the Home app also served as a home automation hub. I linked the Google Home to my TP-Link Kasa account and it automatically recognized my devices. I was then able to assign each device to a pre-labeled or custom room, giving me the flexibility to shut off one light, a specific zone, or all lights at once. Simply saying “OK Google” activates the digital assistant and its super-sensitive microphone (almost scarily sensitive) and I was able to speak my command: “turn off all lights,” to which it responded by not only doing so, but providing voice confirmation of how many devices it turned off.

While I wasn’t prepared to do any critical listening, the sound quality that emanated from the digital assistant’s compact body was surprisingly full and had plenty of reach, filling my 22 x 20' living room quite nicely. Furthermore, if you have multiple Chromecast Audio streaming devices spread throughout your home, you can use the Home app to configure groups, which then allows you to stream music from Chromecast-compatible music sources such as Google Play Music, Pandora, and Spotify to multiple rooms in your home, simultaneously.

What about Chromecast Video devices? I’m happy you ask. Once I linked my Netflix account to Google Home I could then use my voice to find and play content. For my first experiment, I commanded, “OK Google, play Iron Fist, from Netflix, on the living room Chromecast.” The command sounded like a mouthful, but the result was worth it because after a couple of seconds, my TV turned to the correct input (thank you, HDMI CEC) and Iron Fist began to play, remembering where I left off from previous viewing and, more importantly, I didn’t have to lift a finger. I could also use my voice to pause and resume content. If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, this feature can also be used on YouTube. The way these devices worked together showcased the benefit of being tied into Google’s ecosystem, even for an iPhone user with a Gmail account like me.

Next up, Google Wifi

In hindsight, I should’ve configured the Google Wifi system first—I realized this when I had to reconnect the Google Home and my other devices to the new network. Thankfully, Google made the installation process for its Wifi system remarkably easy. I’ve connected dozens of routers and wireless range extenders over the years and I’ve never encountered an easier process. Much like Google Home, Google’s free Wifi app walks you through configuring each access point (the system accommodates up to four more) complete with testing the communication chain to ensure everything is behaving as it should. It also performed an automatic software update. Once operational, the in-app speed test confirmed my Internet speed at 77 Mbps down and 63 Mbps up, which is close to the advertised speed of my ISP’s Internet plan.

Google Wifi is available as a single unit or a three-pack; the latter was tested for this review. Each access point features a compact footprint at approximately 2.7 inches tall for easy placement, and its integrated light can be dimmed to blend easily into its surroundings. The system supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standards, works with 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, and can accommodate AC1200 speeds. Each access point also features two Ethernet points for connecting your LAN devices. If you’re wondering if this system has what it takes to cover your entire home, each access point supports up to 1500 square feet. Using three access points in my apartment was clearly overkill, but the concrete walls have proved challenging for other routers and extenders I’ve tested. With Google Wifi, room-to-room connectivity wasn’t an issue, Wi-Fi was literally everywhere and, in the week I used the system, I didn’t experience a single hand-off issue—the three units operated as they should, as one.

The Google Wifi app was laid out in a simple to use format, in my opinion, even easier than Google’s Home app. The app displayed many useful options, including Network Check, Priority device, Network Settings, Guest Wi-Fi, and my kids’ least-favorite feature, Family Wi-Fi. The Family Wi-Fi pause feature allows you to pause Internet access for specific devices, say, during homework or dinner time. You can now even schedule those pauses, automating the process so you’re not constantly interacting with the app. On the security side of things, Google Wifi utilizes WPA2 encryption, features a built-in firewall, and security updates are automatically downloaded and installed.

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Google Knows What It’s Doing

For smart and whole home solutions to be successful, they need to support the wide variety of devices already available and be able to adapt to ever-evolving trends. In these two areas, Google has shown a great deal of promise with its Home and Wifi systems, because both continue to get better with time by way of software updates. As often is the case with new tech, manufacturers sometimes inadvertently turn us into beta-testers but, while there’s potential for both devices to grow even more, I never felt cheated. Google Wifi and Home both felt polished, delivered solid performance, and were a pleasure to use. I’m happy that Google has entered this arena; with a heavyweight like it in the smart-home corner, the future appears awfully bright. If you need help blanketing your home with Wi-Fi and A/V goodness, contact us—we’re here to help.

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