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Google Home guide: Everything you need to know

Now is an ideal time to jump into Google's smart home universe.
By
December 22, 2022
Google Home App Refresh 2022 2
Google

Whether you’ve been eyeing Google’s smart home offerings for a while or you’re just beginning to explore them, here’s what you need to know about Google Home — including available devices, the official app, and the best ways of getting started with it.

What is Google Home?

The Google Home 2022 reboot
Google

Originally, Google Home was just a smart speaker of the same name. To cut to the chase though, it’s evolved into a broader umbrella for Google’s smart home ecosystem, managed through the Google Home app for Android and iOS/iPadOS. If you have an Android phone, the app is probably already installed. There are also web and Wear OS controls, though the web interface is limited to viewing Nest cameras and doorbells.

Google’s naming scheme may be somewhat confusing, since all of the company’s own smart home devices are sold under the Google Nest label. The first-party lineup includes speakers, displays, doorbells, security cameras, thermostats, Wi-Fi routers, media streamers, the Nest x Yale lock, and the Nest Protect smoke/carbon monoxide alarm. You can of course buy plenty of Home-compatible products from outside brands, like Kasa, Ecobee, Nanoleaf, Wyze, and Philips Hue.

Google Home is an umbrella name for Google's smart home ecosystem.

One thing first- and third-party Home accessories share in common, apart from the Home app, is Google Assistant integration. This enables automation and voice control, whether directly or through a separate device. You can for instance control a Chromecast through your phone, a speaker, a Pixel Watch, or the bundled voice remote — as long as everything is linked to your Google account, it makes no difference.

No subscription is required, but if you’re counting on Google Nest products for home security, you’ll want a Nest Aware plan. The base tier extends video event history to 30 days, and adds familiar face detection as well as alerts when mic-equipped devices pick up alarms or breaking glass. A more expensive Aware Plus tier upgrades to 60 days of event history, plus up to 10 days of continuous video recording for devices that support it (meaning those with wired power). Check out our guide above for more details.

Devices: Meet the Google Nest family

Thermostats

A 3rd gen Nest Learning Thermostat
  • Nest Learning Thermostat: Nest’s flagship product adjusts its heating and cooling schedules based on your habits and the most efficient settings.
  • Nest Thermostat: A less expensive alternative, this drops automatic learning functions as well as external sensor support. It does have a slick new look, plus all of the other smart home integrations of its sibling.

Doorbells

Nest Doorbell battery Ash lifestyle
Google
  • Nest Doorbell (Wired/Battery): The key selling points here are an elegant design, three hours of free cloud recording, and on-device detection of people, packages, animals, and vehicles, which helps prioritize alerts. Only the Battery model can keep recording for an hour after a power or internet outage, but the Wired one never has to be charged, and supports continuous (i.e. more than event-based) recording with Nest Aware Plus.

Cameras

The Nest Cam Battery outdoors in the rain
Google
  • Nest Cam (Battery): Google’s core security camera is wireless and weather-resistant, with the same on-device object recognition as the Nest Doorbell, and the ability to record for an hour if Wi-Fi drops. If you’re willing to spend big, there’s an upgraded version with built-in floodlights.
  • Nest Cam (Wired): The Wired camera is largely identical to the Battery model, but lacks any weather resistance or lighting options. That helps keep its price down, and oddly enough, it has a slightly wider 135-degree field of view (versus the Battery’s 130).

Smart speakers

Google Nest Audio pictured on glass table with plants
Adam Molina / Android Authority
  • Nest Audio: Google’s best speaker features not just Google Assistant but Media EQ — which tunes output to the kind of content you’re listening to (music, podcasts, etc.) — and Ambient EQ, which adjusts volume based on ambient noise levels. You can pair two of them for stereo effects.
  • Nest Mini: The Mini is mostly intended for enabling an Assistant-based smart home, but it’s extremely cheap and compact, and does in a pinch for listening to radio, podcasts, and low-key ambient music.

Smart displays

google nest hub second generation review header
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority
  • Nest Hub (2nd gen): The standard Nest Hub has a 7-inch screen, and bolsters Assistant with visual controls, recipe guidance, and the ability to stream video from sources like YouTube, Netflix, Plex, and HBO Max. If you put it on your nightstand, you can take advantage of Sleep Sensing.
  • Nest Hub Max: The Max steps up to a 10-inch display, better audio, and an integrated camera for video calls, facial recognition, and Nest Aware functions. It doesn’t support Sleep Sensing, though.

Safety sensors

Nest protect device on wall
  • Nest Protect: The Protect detects smoke and carbon monoxide, pushing alerts to your phone as well as its built-in speaker. Another benefit is app-based battery warnings, so you never have to scramble for a stepladder to shut off annoying chirps. There are wired and battery-powered versions, the former using three AA batteries as backup.

Wi-Fi routers

Google Nest Wifi Pro
Google
  • Nest Wifi Pro: Google’s latest mesh router offers Wi-Fi 6E, and Ethernet ports on every node. While you can just use a single node, you’re really meant to buy a multi-node bundle to cover a wider area and fill in any signal gaps. Read our review here.
  • Nest Wifi: The basic Nest Wifi is limited to Wi-Fi 5, and only sports Ethernet on its main router. It is cheaper however, and each “point” extension doubles as an Assistant speaker.
  • Google Wifi: Outdated but still on sale, the Google Wifi is similar to the Nest Wifi except that it’s slower (capped at 1.2Gbps instead of 2.2Gbps, or the 4.2Gbps on the Pro), and none of its nodes act as smart speakers.

Media streamers

Google Chromecast with Google TV for you tab
David Imel / Android Authority
  • Chromecast with Google TV (4K): This dongle plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI ports, and comes with a remote enabling both onscreen control and Assistant voice commands. Most people should choose this over the HD model, since it supports 4K resolution and every major HDR format, including Dolby Vision.
  • Chromecast with Google TV (HD): Resolution may be capped at 1080p, and you lose Dolby Vision, but the tradeoff is a lower price while keeping HDR in the form of HDR10 Plus and HLG.

Smart locks

The Nest x Yale lock with a Nest Connect
  • Nest x Yale Lock: This keypad lock replaces your existing deadbolt, and effectively requires a Nest Connect module, which links it with Wi-Fi and Google Assistant. It’s actually outdated in that regard and should probably be skipped in favor of other Home-compatible locks.

The Google Home app

Google just recently began rolling out a new version of the Home app, meant to solve some long-standing complaints. We won’t go into every minute detail, but here’s a breakdown of the essentials.

The homescreen/Favorites tab

Here you’ll find a carousel of device categories (Cameras, Lighting, etc.), plus quick-access controls and camera views for any scenes, accessories, or commands you’ve marked as Favorites (tap Add Favorites to start, or Edit to change). If you’re playing audio or video on a compatible device, you’ll see a small overlay with media information, a play/pause toggle, and a Google Cast button for shifting content to other devices.

A Home/Away drop-down menu can be used to flip between different device settings based on your presence, if you’ve set that up. If you need to switch Google accounts, or manage settings not covered in the Settings tab (see later), tap on your profile icon.

To control devices here or anywhere in the home app, it’s important to distinguish between tap and long-press options. If you do a quick tap on something like a light or smart plug, it’ll simply toggle on and off. To access more complex options, such as colors and brightness for smart bulbs, you’ll probably have to long-press. Long-press and slide on audio devices to adjust volume.

If you tap into a carousel category, you’ll see a broad overview — thumbnails for Cameras, sliders for Lighting, and so on. Where applicable, you can even turn everything in a category on or off with a single tap.

At the bottom of the homescreen you’ll see five tabs: Favorites, Devices, Automations, Activity, and Settings.

The Devices tab

This is similar to the Favorites view, except that it includes every device linked to your Google account, organized by the rooms you’ve assigned them to.

This also where you go to add new devices by tapping the plus icon. You’ll get two subsequent options:

  • New devices is used to add Google Nest products, or various third-party accessories, particularly those that support Google’s Seamless Setup.
  • Works with Google links existing devices, usually through a login with a manufacturer account. If you’ve got Lifx bulbs, for example, attaching your Lifx account will automatically populate Home with that brand’s lights. You may need to tweak device settings once an import is complete.

The Automations tab

Manual smart home control offers some extra convenience, but naturally, the thing most people are interested in is automation — triggering accessories at specific times, or at least triggering multiple accessories with a single command.

Under the new Home structure, automations are divided into Household and Personal routines. Household routines can be seen, edited, and triggered by anyone you’ve added to your home in the Settings tab. Personal routines are visible only to you, and should be your default choice unless you know others will want to use them. Tap the plus icon to begin creating either kind.

To build an automation, you first need to hit Add starter to choose a trigger condition. There are five starters at the moment:

  • When I say to Google Assistant lets you assign a custom voice command, such as “Hey Google, I’m leaving for work.”
  • At a specific time runs a routine repeatedly on one or more days of the week.
  • At sunrise or sunset is similar to regular time scheduling, but adjusts automatically based on your home’s location, with optional offsets up to 4 hours before or after.
  • When an alarm is dismissed is limited to personal routines on speakers and displays, but can be set to work only in a specific time window, which prevents havoc if you sleep in or take a late-day nap.
  • When a device does something is available only for household routines, and links to the status of one of your smart home accessories, such as motion detection or powering on or off.

Tap Add action to choose one or more things that will happen when a routine runs. The possibilities are endless, but there are seven action categories:

  • Get info and reminders includes weather, commute times, and Google Calendar events, among other options.
  • Communicate and announce can send texts, or make announcements on speaker-equipped devices.
  • Adjust Assistant Volume tweaks Assistant’s media volume.
  • Adjust home devices is how you run most smart home accessories, such as lights, plugs, and thermostats.
  • Adjust phone settings can do things like change volume, warn about low battery levels, or turn on Do Not Disturb for an Android device.
  • Play and control media lets you start music, news, radio, podcasts, audiobooks, or ambient sleep sounds.
  • Try adding your own lets you perform anything you can phrase as a (valid) Assistant voice command. This can be useful shorthand, since Assistant supports two commands in the same sentence, e.g. “turn on the Kitchen and Living Room lights.”

You can also specify a delayed start for actions. A “leaving for work” automation, for example, might only lock your door and turn off the lights 15 minutes later, giving you ample time to get back inside if you forgot something.

Once automations are ready, any of them can be run from the Automations tab, regardless of whether they’re normally triggered by voice or scheduling.

The Activity tab

This tab shows a history of events, including not just home activity but things like invitations to new members and suggestions to connect third-party devices. It may be useful as a way of making sure automations are running as expected, or catching up with notifications you missed when they were live.

The Settings tab

There are many options available here, so we’ll focus on the most important ones.

  • The blue plus icon can be used to add devices, services, speaker groups, home members, and even entirely new homes.
  • Tap your home name at the top to change its nickname or edit its address. The latter can make a difference with automations, particularly ones linked to sunrise or sunset.
  • You’ll see one or more profile icons for people that belong to your Google home. Tap the gray plus icon to add someone new, or existing profiles to manage current members.
  • Tap on device names to edit their settings, or else Devices, groups and rooms to see a more comprehensive list. You can add speaker groups from here if you like.
  • Tap on Services or one of its underlying icons to manage music, video, radio, podcast, and note/list connections, as well as Works with Google.
  • Privacy mostly links to outside controls and guides, but it’s still a convenient way of viewing and deleting activity history, and you can choose to remove your home address or saved Wi-Fi networks if you’re done with Google Home.
  • Google Assistant configures things like Voice Match, Face Match, and personal results delivery.
  • Notifications manages which alerts you get, if any, including whole-home events and Wi-Fi outages.
  • Digital wellbeing is vague, but if you want to filter content or force yourself to take downtime, you can do that here.
  • Communication lets you manage calling providers, voice and video apps, and related options. Explore this if you intend to use any Assistant speaker or display for calling, particularly for options like Only ring when home, or automatically uploading contacts. You need Google Contacts to make free phone calls in supported regions.
  • Subscriptions handles things related to Nest Aware, plus offers for rebates and rewards. This menu is mostly pointless on iPhone/iPad, since you can’t access Google’s subscription system directly.
  • Delete this home is a nuclear option. If you use it but later change your mind, you’ll have to have to redo settings and automations, and re-add every accessory.

Google Home vs Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit

Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2

With its latest changes, Google Home has become much more competitive with Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit. It used to be that Home didn’t even support accessory-based triggers, which eliminated a lot of possibilities and for some people reduced Home to a way of controlling Assistant-capable speakers, TVs, and displays.

We’d still give the edge to Alexa and HomeKit when it comes to automation possibilities, but practically speaking, it shouldn’t make a difference to most people. Alexa is unique in offering free sound detection triggers, such as baby cries or beeping appliances, not to mention Alexa Guard options if you’re in the US. You need to spring for Nest Aware to get anything similar with Google.

Google Home has become much more competitive with Alexa and HomeKit.

All three platforms are gradually rolling out Matter and Thread support. The former is meant to simplify cross-platform compatibility, while Thread is a low-power wireless protocol with fast response and reduced need for hubs. HomeKit is ahead in this game, especially when it comes to Thread, but by the end of 2023 the playing field should level out.

We will say that Google Assistant offers the best voice technology, hands down. It’s better at understanding context than Alexa or Apple’s Siri, and supports two commands in the same sentence, which makes it more efficient. On top of this it’s superior at answering knowledge questions, using Google Search data to scrape the far reaches of the web.

Note also that if you’re a hardcore fan of YouTube, YouTube TV, or YouTube Music, Google should be an easy choice. There’s just no direct support for those in Alexa or HomeKit, which is problem if you want to use them on smart speakers and displays. You can find apps on other devices such as the Apple TV 4K or Fire TV Cube, or use a web workaround on Echo Show displays.

How to set up a smart home in the Google Home ecosystem

Which products to start with

A kitchen lit up with Lifx smart bulbs and lightstrips
Lifx

Before anything else, you need to decide on hardware. This is going to depend not just on your budget, but the things you care most about automating. You might enjoy the idea of smart shades or a garage door opener, but if they’re not going to make a huge difference in your life, you might as well save your money. You can always add accessories later.

These are the products we feel are worthwhile for a basic but well-rounded smart home:

  • An Assistant-capable speaker or smart display. Mostly this is for music, news, and voice control, but going forward, you’re also going to want one as a Matter and Thread hub. Smart displays can make it easier to check doorbells and security cameras. Remember that you don’t have to get one from Google Nest — there are third-party alternatives like Sonos. You may want multiple units depending on when and where you need various functions.
  • Smart bulbs, lamps, or switches. It’s extremely convenient to have lights turn on at the right time(s) or when you enter a room, and color-changing bulbs and lamps can radically alter the mood of a space. Smart switches may be preferable if you don’t care about color and want to prevent people from accidentally disabling smart lights.
  • Smart plugs can only ever turn something on or off, but they’re cheap, and bring automation to appliances that wouldn’t otherwise have it such as fans, humidifiers, and coffee makers. You can often buy smart plugs in two- or four-packs, or as powerstrips with individually controllable outlets.
  • A video doorbell adds an important layer of security, keeping an eye on visitors, packages, and/or your driveway. Try to avoid doorbells that require a subscription for anything more than live views. Likewise, skew towards models that include person detection, since that cuts down on false alerts.
  • Smart thermostats can actually save you money in the long term by optimizing heating and cooling, and reducing consumption when no one’s home. Most homes only need one or two, depending on how your HVAC system is structured.
  • Smart locks make it easier for you and/or family to get into your house, as well as temporarily grant access to visitors. At night, you can use them to ensure things are secure when going to bed. If you’re just starting out you probably only need a single lock for your main entrance.

Note that if you’re renting a space, you probably won’t be allowed to install your own locks, switches, or thermostats. You might be able to use a video doorbell if it’s battery-powered and you can install it with non-permanent mounting.

Setting up a Google Nest speaker or display

Pictured is the gray Google Nest Audio on a bookshelf with the lights blinking.
Adam Molina / Android Authority

If you do decide to go the Google Nest route for speakers or displays, here’s how to get them up and running.

  • Plug in the speaker or display.
  • Open the Google Home app and select the Devices tab.
  • Tap the plus icon.
  • Choose New devices.
  • Select the home you want your display associated with, then tap Next.
  • Wait as the Home app scans for nearby devices, then select yours when it appears.
  • Follow prompts to pair and configure essential settings, such as Voice Match. You can adjust more settings later through the Devices tab.

Tips for a great experience

Nanoleaf Essentials Bulbs and Lightstrips Purple
Nanoleaf

Following these principles can solve some of the hassles of running a Google smart home.

  • Make sure you’ve fully configured third-party accessories in their native apps before adding them to Google Home. This can potentially save time on naming accessories and assigning them to rooms, especially since Works with Google imports as many items as it can simultaneously.
  • Stick to simple yet memorable names for rooms and accessories if you’re going the custom route. “Kitchen Lamp” is a better device description than “Lamp” or “Roger’s Lifx Lamp,” and you should typically use Google’s default rooms unless you need to be more specific, e.g. “Jackson’s Room.”
  • Use a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router, preferably a mesh model to prevent any deadzones. Wi-Fi 5 routers may be cheaper, but they have trouble keeping up with the number of connections in a smart home.
  • Unless there’s a special reason, try to stick to a single brand for any given accessory type. That reduces the number of apps you need to flip between, and in the case of lights, provides consistent brightness and color output.
  • In a multi-person dwelling, make sure every person has their own Google account, but only add them to your home via Settings once you trust them with full control. Young children should usually be excluded for this reason. If they need to control accessories, they can probably just talk to your smart speakers and displays. When full control is a must, it might be worth setting up a secondary home that only they belong to, then giving them their own devices. That has other advantages, such as preventing kids from hijacking your Spotify or YouTube accounts if Voice Match profiles aren’t properly recognized.
  • Speaking of which, make sure every Google account has Voice Match enabled for Assistant, since that lets users choose their own default services and avoid stepping on each others’ toes. Without Voice Match, Assistant turns to the services of whoever first linked their voice to a device.
  • If you have a Nest Hub Max, set up Face Match for similar reasons.
  • Use volume control automations to keep speakers and displays quiet overnight.
  • Lighting automations should accommodate the habits of everyone in your home. If you wake up at 8AM but your partner wakes up at 7, keep bedroom lights off until you’re up, but make sure the rest of the house is lit at 7 on the dot. If you can afford enough motion sensors, you may want to set up motion-triggered automations to allow flexibility.

Read more: The best Google Assistant devices