Google Home review: How my family got hooked on a personal assistant speaker

Google Home

My Google Home patiently waiting for me to ask it something.

Ever since I heard about the Amazon Echo a couple of years ago I’ve wanted a personal assistant speaker. The idea I could just walk into my home and tell it to turn on lights or adjust my thermostat was the obvious next level in my dream of having a high-tech house.

While I waited for Amazon to release the Echo (or its cousin, the Echo Dot) in Canada, Google unleashed the Google Assistant on its line of Pixel phones. The Assistant was near perfection and was the main reason I ditched my iPhone and made the move to Android (bye, Siri). It kept getting better and better, too, with new capabilities being added frequently.

So when Google announced the Google Home, their Echo competitor, back in 2016, I was intrigued at what it could offer. It appeared to be just like the Assistant on my phone but able to do more in my home and for my entire family. And unlike the Echo, which uses Bing to look things up, Home has the almighty Google Search behind it. Then Google did something Amazon didn’t (and still hasn’t) – they released the Google Home in Canada!

Now, my excitement of having a personal assistant speaker over the years was not shared by my wife. My kids, of course, were on my side, but she was not sold on having a device “listening” in on us and told me I was never going to be allowed to bring one into our home. When Google offered to lend me a Home to review I figured it would be the only way I could convince her we needed one and, spoiler alert, it worked!

Here’s what impressed my family the most about the Google Home and why we can’t live without one now.

The speaker

I was not expecting much in the sound department from the air freshener looking Google Home. I’m used to streaming music via my Sonos system, which is still the gold standard for connected speakers in my opinion. That said, the Google Home offers really good sound quality that fills my living room quite nicely.

Being able to control Spotify (my streaming music service of choice) and raise or lower the volume via my voice is also a big benefit and a huge timesaver. This was by far the biggest selling feature for my wife, and even my kids ask it to play songs they like (although my youngest is hooked on Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” thanks to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare and that’s all I hear now).

Home control

Controlling my lights and thermostat by voice is what I wanted the Google Home for in the first place, and it has lived up to my expectations!

The Google Home works with a majority of “smart” products and was easy to connect with my Philips Hue bulbs, Nest thermostat and Lutron switches. I can say things like “Ok, Google dim my living room lights” and ta-da, my living room Hue bulbs dim! Or I can say “Ok, Google adjust the temperature to 21” and I can see my Nest light up and adjust the temperature. It also works with the Wink hub, WeMo plugs and switches, TP-Link bulbs and Samsung’s SmartThings hub (among a slew of other devices).

Sadly, Logitech does not support the Google Home in Canada yet so users of the Harmony remote won’t be able to control their TVs via voice (this is an option in the U.S. and I still don’t understand why it doesn’t work here). If you have a Chromecast though (which, I do not) you can use the Google Home to control it via voice.

It really is an assistant

Since the Google Home is connected to your Google account it truly does act as a personal assistant. “Ok, Google what’s my day like?” will tell you things that are on your calendar, let you know how long your commute to work is and tell you the weather for the day.

You can also ask for the latest headlines and it will play you clips from news providers you’ve selected (CBC, Global News, Sportsnet and CityNews are available Canadian sources). And it works for multiple users, meaning my wife and I can both access our own info depending on who is talking.

Perfect in the kitchen

Using the Google Home to add items to our shopping list, set timers when we’re cooking, convert measurements and even find recipes are features of the Home I never expected to be hooked on. It’s pretty much the perfect kitchen gadget and has become a great motivation to get me cooking more.

General knowledge

With a six and a 10-year-old in the house we get a lot of questions about a lot of different things. We try our best to answer everything we can but when they ask a question like “how many home runs did Jackie Robinson hit?” I need to look it up. These questions usually come up at the dinner table when phones and computers are not around (and not allowed). Now we can ask the Google Home questions to get the answer and that tends to lead into more questions and more learning opportunities.

My wife also found this to be a blessing when doing homework for a class she was taking. Instead of getting distracted on her phone or computer she asked it a few questions to clarify info as she was writing notes.

Games

The Google Home is loaded with fun word and sound games you can play. These range from trivia and math-based games to things like Mad Libs and Tic Tac Toe. Because there is no screen, you need to visualize and actually use your brain a bit more than if you were just playing a game on your phone or tablet. My kids and I find it’s great to play these around the breakfast table and I’ve even caught them forgoing their iPad time in favour of these games.

The Google Home can be purchased in Canada for $159 from the Google Store. It’s also available to purchase at Best Buy and Home Depot.

Have a Google Home or want one? Share your thoughts on it in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Orbi delivers on performance, falls on features

Mesh WiFi routers are all the rage this year, and rightfully so. A mesh network delivers a stronger connection throughout your home with fewer dead zones and dropouts. And Netgear’s Orbi WiFi system is one of the most powerful systems I’ve tested.

Unboxing

I received the two-unit AC3000 Orbi WiFi system to test from Netgear. It comes with a base router and one satellite. Both feature four Ethernet ports and a USB 2.0 port. To my surprise, the units are much larger than I expected, especially when compared to other mesh WiFi systems, and finding a spot to place them proved difficult.

Setup

After finding a spot for the oversize base unit and satellite to live, I set my system up using my Google Pixel. I did the entire setup via the phone’s web browser and it was a breeze. In total it took about 15 minutes to get everything up and running.

Orbi WiFi

Trying to find a spot to hide the large Orbi satellite proved to be difficult.

The connection

Netgear says that the two-unit Orbi system covers up to 5000 sq. ft. and they don’t lie. I live in a side-split bungalow and have had issues in the past with dropouts and dead zones. With the Orbi my connection has been solid throughout my home, in my garage, and all around my yard.

The Ethernet ports on the satellite have proved beneficial for connecting IoT/Smart Home hubs, like my Philips Hue and Wink hubs. I also found that the Orbi works with wireless IoT/Smart Home products much better than other mesh systems I have tested.

Sadly, the USB ports on both the base unit and satellite are for networked storage only and not printers.

App and features

The official Orbi app is quite useless and I recommend Netgear’s genie app to manage your Orbi system. While the genie app offers some nice features for mapping out devices and monitoring traffic, it still does not give enough control when it comes to security or parental features (you can’t even turn on the guest network via the app and will need to login through the web portal for this). The system can supposedly be controlled via an Amazon Echo, which would be a bonus if it ever gets released in Canada.

Final thoughts

Overall, if you are having issues with WiFi dropouts in your home or have a lot of connected devices, the Orbi should solve your problems. If you want more parental controls, features or a better app experience, look into other mesh systems like the eero or Luma.

The two-unit Orbi WiFi system retails for $499 on Amazon.ca. For more info and full specs, visit netgear.com.

Are you looking to upgrade your home WiFi network? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Around the House (Oct. 4, 2016)

Around the House is a weekly roundup of news items related to smart devices, tools, kitchen gadgets and anything else worth mentioning that affects how we live at home.

Google Home not coming to Canada

Google held a big event Tuesday to announce the new Pixel smartphone, which features Google Assistant and supposedly has the best smartphone camera ever. The more exciting news was about their Amazon Echo competitor, Google Home. Considering the Echo is still not available in Canada I fully expected Google to jump on the market with Home and completely crush Amazon here (the Home and Echo pretty much do the exact same thing). Sadly, Google did not mention availability in Canada at all and now we have two devices we can only dream about using.

Amazon now ships faster in Toronto and Vancouver

Speaking of Amazon, they now offer same-day and weekend shipping to Amazon Prime members in Toronto and Vancouver (they really should launch their own delivery service here). They also rolled out Twitch Prime last week which offers exclusive gaming content every month, discounts on new release games and a free monthly Twitch channel subscription. Twitch Prime is included with the annual $79 Amazon Prime service for Canadians.

Samsung washing machines could hurt you

Did you purchase a top-loading Samsung washing machine between March 2011 and April 2016? If so, you might want to listen up. Samsung has issued a warning about some of these machines after reports of them “exploding”. According to Consumer Reports, “the problem seems to occur during the spin cycle when some machines suddenly and sometimes violently break apart.” Considering Samsung just had to recall the Galaxy Note 7 over reports of it exploding, this is not a very good year for the company.

No Apple Home support for the Wink Hub 2

In one of the worst-kept secrets around the smart home and “Internet of Things” community, the Wink Hub 2 was officially announced last week. Coming to a Walmart or Home Depot near you for $99US, the Wink Hub 2 adds 5GHz Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port and upgrades the internal memory from 64MB to 512MB. Unfortunately, it does not support Apple Home yet which means it’s really not worth upgrading to if you already have a first-gen Wink Hub. (When I complained about lack of Apple Home support on Twitter the company pointed out they support over 31 brands and 300 devices).

You could win $10,000 in tools from Milwaukee Tools

Milwaukee Tools launched their “Cut the Cord” contest on Oct. 1 with a grand prize of $10,000 in cordless tools! All you have to do to enter is submit a photo of your Milwaukee tool collection at cutthecordcontest.ca and get your friends and family to vote for you. There’s also monthly and weekly prizes up for grabs, along with a “most voted” prize worth $1,200. The contest closes on Jan. 31, 2017. Good luck!

Have something to add to Around the House weekly? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Around the House (Sept. 20, 2016)

Around the House is a weekly roundup of news items related to smart devices, tools, kitchen gadgets and anything else worth mentioning that affects how we live at home.

Philips Hue Motion Sensor coming to Canada in October

Philips is adding more ways to control its Hue line of connected bulbs and lighting devices with a new wireless motion sensor. Available in Canada this October for $39.95, the Hue Motion Sensor allows users to run certain scenes during set times. This means that if you want your Hue bulbs to only turn on in “Nightlight” mode when motion is detected between midnight and 6 a.m., you can set it up that way. I can see this being very useful when my son wakes up in the middle of the night.

Hue Motion Sensor

The Philips Hue Motion Sensor will be available in Canada for $39.95 this October.

CraveTV scoops up Rolling Stones doc at TIFF

Right before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, Bell purchased the exclusive rights to The Rolling Stones road movie The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America for its video streaming service CraveTV. The film follows The Rolling Stones during their 2016 Latin American tour, which saw them stop in 10 cities, including Havana. CraveTV subscribers will be able to stream the film beginning Oct. 14. Check out the trailer for it below.

Lay’s taking Chalet Sauce chips mainstream

It seems that Canadians love Lay’s Swiss Chalet sauce flavoured chips so much that the company has to ramp up production to meet demands. The chips have been selling out since they arrived at select Swiss Chalet locations earlier this month and now Lay’s says that along with restocking restaurants, the chips will be available in limited quantities at grocery stores across the country beginning Nov. 1. Expect to see a lot of these out at holiday parties this year!

Apple helping teach kids to code with Swift Playgrounds app

Learning to code is becoming more popular with kids and now Apple is helping with their new iPad app Swift Playgrounds. The free app allows users with no programming experience to get a better understanding of coding concepts and experiment with the Swift language, which is used by professional developers to create apps. Along with app templates, Swift Playgrounds also features lessons and challenges to keep users interested. Swift Playgrounds is available via the App Store.

Swift Playgrounds

Apple’s free Swift Playgrounds iPad app helps teach kids to code.

Amazon Echo coming to Germany and the UK (but not Canada)

Amazon announced last Wednesday its popular Echo device is coming to Germany and the UK this fall, giving us Canadians hope it will be available here at some point soon. Amazon also announced a new (cheaper) Echo Dot that gives users more control of the Echo throughout the entire home. It’s also not available in Canada.

Have something to add to Around the House weekly? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

5 reasons to add Philips Hue bulbs to your smart home

Philips Hue

Philips Hue bulbs truly add the “smart” to “smart home”.

For the last few years I’ve been attempting to turn my home into a “smart home”. Some of the products I have added or tested have been great, while others have had constant issues or just didn’t live up to the hype. My latest addition, the Philips Hue connected LED bulb, blows every other “smart” thing out of the water. Here’s five reasons why.

Easy to setup

For my review Philips sent me the Hue White Ambiance A19 Starter Kit. This kit consists of two connected bulbs, a bridge and a remote. Hook the bridge up to your router via an Ethernet cable, screw the bulbs into the light fixtures you want them in, download the app and you’re up and running (seriously, the setup took about 10 minutes in total).

Works with everything

There is nothing more infuriating than not being able to control a “smart” device the way you want. One of the standout features of the Philips Hue bulbs is it can be controlled from almost everything. The Wink Relay works with it as does Amazon’s Echo device (still not available in Canada) and it’s compatible with Apple HomeKit (meaning you can tell Siri to turn lights on and off). It also works with Nest (lights turn on when thermostat is in “Away” mode and turn on if your smoke detector goes off) and can also be controlled via the Harmony Ultimate One remote.

Total control

Along with it working with everything I threw at it, the Hue app gives you total control of the bulbs. You can set routines for the bulbs to turn on and off, change the brightness level (“Dimmed” is great for watching Stranger Things on Netflix) and even change the colour (only if you have a colour Hue bulb). The supplied remote (which can also be mounted to the wall) can be programmed and both the Android and iOS app are easy to use. You can also control it via certain wearables, like the Apple Watch, and use the IFTTT app with it. There’s also third-party apps available that opens up the potential of Hue even further.

RELATED: Nest aims to make your home safer with new outdoor camera

Great bulb

My entire house has been updated to LED bulbs and the Philips Hue bulbs give off some of the best light out of the bunch. The White Ambiance bulbs range between 2000K and 6500K, giving you the ability to have warm or cold light depending on your mood. They’re 800 lumens, use only 10.5 watts and can last up to 25,000 hours (comparable to most LED bulbs these days). Because you can dim them via the bulb there is also no need for expensive dimmer switches, which sometimes cause LED bulbs to hum.

Expandable

Philips makes a range of Hue bulbs and up to 50 bulbs can run off of one bridge. I’ve already purchased extra bulbs for around my house and added some colour ones to the mix (having my lights outside turn orange for Halloween or red and green for Christmas is going to be awesome). There’s also Hue light strips available, which are perfect for under kitchen cabinets.

RELATED: Netatmo Weather Station review: Cool device; far from perfect

Final thoughts

The initial cost of adding Philips Hue bulbs is a bit shocking (the starter kit I was sent is about $129.99) but once you see the control they give you you’ll realize it’s well worth the investment. I honestly don’t know how I survived this long without them.

Are you a fan of Philips Hue bulbs? Use something similar? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Not available in Canada

Amazon Echo Canada

The Amazon Echo is not available in Canada.

I reached out to Amazon earlier this week to inquire about their Amazon Echo device, which I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about. Their reply? “Not available in Canada.”

As a Canadian there is nothing more infuriating than hearing those four words.

This is not a new issue, either. Americans have always gotten the latest greatest gadgets and services before us. The iPod, iPhone, Netflix and Spotify were all mysterious creatures before they eventually arrived in the north. Even homegrown tech company Blackberry released some of its products in the U.S. before here!

RELATED: Map of drive-in movie theatres in Canada

Sometimes products come too late or are crippled when they get here and end up being a bust.

I remember wanting a TiVo for years only to be disappointed when it was finally available because it wouldn’t integrate with any of our cable or satellite providers properly, and the online components didn’t function because the services were unavailable. The recent failure of Target also comes to mind.

Canadians still can’t access Hulu, Amazon Prime Video or Pandora without workarounds. Traffic updates on Toyota’s Entune navigation system don’t work up here, and if we want to enjoy a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles or eat an Almond Joy bar, we have to cross the border and smuggle some back. And why no Chick-fil-A or Waffle House up here?

Of course there are a few things we have that Americans don’t.

Kraft Dinner, Coffee Crisp, Smarties, Canada Dry Ginger Ale and Kraft Peanut Butter are only available in the Great White North. And CraveTV and shomi do a good job filling the void of Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. And while people like to complain about our version of Netflix, we do have content on it Americans don’t get.

Of course there are many reasons for all of this. Different tastes and markets, cost of importing products, deals with service providers, etc. But in this digital day and age it’s hard to avoid hearing about all the cool things we’re missing out on and not get slightly jealous. And I really want to play with the Amazon Echo, dammit!

Are there things not available in Canada that you wish were? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.