Get ready Alexa: Google Home will cost $129 and taps Google search, maps

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Get ready Alexa: Google Home will cost $129 and taps Google search, maps

The inevitable showdown between Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant is getting near.

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Get ready Alexa: Google Home will cost $129 and taps Google search, maps

Edward C. Baig , USA TODAY 1:18 p.m. EDT October 4, 2016

Google Home has removable base accessories.(Photo: Google)

NEW YORK—The inevitable showdown between Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant is getting closer.

Google said Tuesday that its voice-activated Google Home speaker, the company’s answer to Amazon’s popular Echo speaker, will go on sale Nov. 4 for $129. That’s about $50 cheaper than Echo.

Google Home is coming to the U.S. only at first, and will be sold in the online Google Play Store, as well as at Target, Walmart and Best Buy; Google starts taking preorders today.

Home is a showcase for the newly unleashed Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence-infused virtual assistant that wouldn’t feel out of place hanging out with other digital assistants, notably Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Alexa’s own primary residence is in the Echo speaker, though the AI-powered assistant is expanding into other devices.

The conceit behind the Google Assistant is to let you engage Google in conversation to get things done or get questions answers. On Home, that means Google can play music through its own speaker, or through voice-enabled wireless connections to speakers connected to Google's Chromecast or Chromecast Audio devices. And at your behest, Google Home can turn on lights, set alarms, translate languages and so on. Or you might ask the Google Assistant to tell you how to get rid of fruit flies in your house, a query that was among those demonstrated to me.

In supplying various answers, Google Assistant can leverage the 50-billion fact Google Knowledge Graph database.

Assistant actually made its debut recently on the Google Allo messaging app on Android handsets and the iPhone, and will assume a major role inside the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones that Google unveiled today..

Google also announced an open platform for developers that will invite them into the conversations that you have with the Assistant through Google Home. For example, if you want to book a car with Uber or other services, a conversation will center around the kind of car you’re looking for, where you are going, when the car is expected to arrive and so forth. Google plans to announce such conversation partners later in the year.

In Allo, chat participants type @google to solicit the Assistant’s help, perhaps for directions or a restaurant recommendation.

On Google Home, you summon the Google Assistant by voice with the “OK Google” phrase familiar to many smartphone users; there are no buttons on Google Home. The Assistant's voice you hear in response to your own is female.

Google Home

Google Home (Photo: Google)

Home stands 5.6 inches tall and was purposely designed by Google so that it isn’t black (like Echo) and doesn't look much like a tech product. The upper portion of Home is white. To alter the aesthetic, you can unscrew a gray base at bottom and replace it with optional base accessories that add different colors and finishes.

At the very top of Home are LEDs that light up when you’re talking to Google; the top also serves as a capacitive touch surface for situations where voice isn’t working perfectly or isn't practical. Google wants you to keep Home out in the open, whether you use it in the kitchen, living room, bedroom or wherever. It must be plugged into a wall.

Of course Google’s challenge with Home will be in persuading buyers that it is superior to Echo, which has been a surprise hit for Amazon.

Google Home doesn’t function as a Bluetooth speaker like Echo, but via Wi-Fi it has full Google “Cast” support letting you tap into other speakers.

The product has two on-board microphones and it uses far-field technology to understand what the people around the home have to say to it. Google says it has modeled hundreds of thousands of different audio environments to replicate everything from running faucets to blaring TVs, and applies its machine learning algorithms to isolate speech versus ambient noises.

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant.

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant. (Photo: Google)

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant.

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant. (Photo: Google)

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant.

Google Assistant is an AI-powered digital assistant. (Photo: Google)

Since the OK Google command might also wake up a phone in your pocket, Google claims through proper context only the device that you want to call into action responds. That’s something I’d also like to test.

The new speaker will work in tandem with a companion Google Home app, rebranded from the Google’s Cast app.

As with Amazon Echo, you can have Home play music on command through various services, some by subscription. Google is offering Home buyers a free six-month trial subscription to YouTube Music. Home also works with Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, iHeart Radio and Google Play Music.

The intelligence built into the system promises some interesting search results. For example, it was demonstrated to me how you might play a song but can't remember the precise title. So you could ask, “OK Google, play that famous song from Frozen" and Google Home starts playing Let It Go from the movie, sung by Idina Menzel. A follow-up query shows how you might pivot: “OK, Google, play the Demi Lovato version,” without mentioning the title as part of that query. Google Assistant indeed played Lovato's version of Let It Go.

“We can start doing more smart things about how you interact--and that’s really important in voice since there’s no fallback for a search box,” says Rishi Chandra, Google’s vice president of product management for Home products.

Here’s another example of a how conversation might progress: You can start by asking, “OK, Google, where is this nearest Best Buy?” then followed up with “OK, Google, what time does it close?” and “OK, Google, how long will it take to get there?” Google factors in the current traffic conditions when it answers.

Rishi Chandra of Google explains Google Home, its new

Rishi Chandra of Google explains Google Home, its new AI-powered digital speaker. (Photo: USA TODAY)

While you can ask the Assistant such individual questions as “what is on my calendar?” or “when is my next flight?” you can also ask more generally, “OK, Google, tell me about my day” and the Assistant will surface everything from the weather to your appointments to your reminders, kind of a verbal version of Google Now, which with the arrival of Google Assistant on phones will eventually be phased out.

Out of the gate this type of “my day” query cannot distinguish your day as opposed to your spouse’s or kids’ day. “Over time we can figure the multiuser scenario (out) in a more prominent way,” says Chandra.

On the home automation front, Google Home will support Google’s own Nest products, as well products from as Samsung-owned SmartThings and Philips Hue.

And it will tie into the Chromecast devices that are out there---so you could use your voice to voice enable any speakers in your house that are connected to $35 Chromecast Audio devices or speakers that support Google Cast, as well as and TVs that work with Chromecast.

I’m eager to try Google Home in my own home, and looking forward to its rumble with Alexa.

Email:; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

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