In lockstep with Amazon, Google has announced a free, ad-supported music streaming option for use with smart speakers that feature its voice-activated assistant.
The new "free" streaming tier means owners of Google Home or other Google Assistant-powered speakers can listen to tracks from the YouTube Music catalog, albeit interspersed with ads.
Listening to music on your Google Home speaker right out-of-the-box seems too good to be true, right? It’s not! Starting today, YouTube Music is offering a free, ad-supported experience on Google Home speakers (or other Google Assistant-powered speakers).
Free, ad-supported YouTube Music is available on smart speakers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Netherlands, and Austria. Google says it will be available in more countries soon.
Note that the ad-supported streaming tier isn't supported on computers or phones. On that note, Google appears to be using the free offering to entice people to upgrade to YouTube Music Premium ($9.99/month), which enables listening on both supporting smart speakers and the YouTube Music mobile app, which also lets users background play music while using other apps and download tracks for offline listening.
Amazon on Thursday also announced the debut of a free music option for Amazon Alexa users in the United States alongside its Prime music service, which provides access to more than two million songs, and Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon's on-demand music service priced starting at $9.99 per month ($7.99 for Prime members).
With that in mind, it's worth noting that the free speaker offer can only be claimed by the master account holder. However the device's built-in Google Assistant can recognize up to six different voices in the home, which means each person in the family can stream Spotify tracks from their own accounts.
In an earlier statement, a Google spokesperson said "Apple Music is currently only available for Google Assistant users on mobile phones. We have nothing to announce regarding updates to Google Home."
Back in December, Apple Music became available on Amazon's range of Echo speakers, so there was hope that the service would be expanding to Google Home speakers too. Many other music services are available on Google Home, including Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, Google Play Music, and YouTube Music.
Apple Music is currently available on iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Apple TV, HomePod, and Amazon Echo and Sonos speakers. Apple Music can also be controlled with the Google Assistant app on iOS devices.
Apple Music may be soon be available as an option on Google Home devices, according to an image that was shared by MacRumors reader Jason.
We were able to track down the Apple Music listing within the Google Home app for iOS devices, but at the current time, it can't be linked to a Google Home device.
Still, the listing suggests that Apple could soon make Apple Music an available option for Google Assistant-powered playback on Google Home devices, much like it did with the Amazon Echo.
Back in December, Apple Music became available on Amazon's range of Echo speakers, allowing Alexa voice commands to be used to control Apple Music playback.
The Apple Music listing appears to be relatively new, and given that it's not working, it suggests an upcoming feature.
Apple Music expanding to Google Home speakers would make Apple's music service more accessible across all of the most popular smart home speakers that are available at the current time, expanding access far beyond just the HomePod.
Many other music services are available on Google Home, including Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, YouTube Music, and Deezer.
HomePod shipments totaled 1.6 million units in the fourth quarter of 2018, a 45 percent increase on a year-over-year basis, according to Strategy Analytics. Despite the growth, the research firm estimates that Apple's share of the worldwide smart speaker market was just 4.1 percent during the quarter.
By comparison, Amazon and Google commanded the market with an estimated 13.7 million and 11.5 million smart speakers shipments respectively. The two companies combined for an estimated 65.5 percent market share in the quarter.
A lot of this comes down to pricing. At $349, the HomePod is significantly more expensive than the Amazon Echo and Google Home. In particular, the smaller Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini models were available for as low as $25 during the holiday season, a fraction of the cost of a HomePod.
"Amazon and Google both have broad model lineups, ranging from basic to high-end, with even more variants from Amazon. Apple of course has only its premium-priced HomePod, and likely won't gain significant share until it offers an entry-level product closer to Echo Dot and Home mini," CIRP co-founder Josh Lowitz said last month.
To improve sales, many resellers offered the HomePod for $249 during the holiday season, and $279 is a commonly seen price too.
A third reason is availability. Apple launched the HomePod two to three years after its largest competitors, and sales remain limited to the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, China, and Hong Kong. Amazon and Google smart speakers are available in more countries.
Of course, the Strategy Analytics data is estimated to begin with. Apple does not disclose HomePod sales, instead grouping the speaker under its "Wearables, Home, and Accessories" category in its earnings reports alongside the Apple Watch, Apple TV, AirPods, Beats, iPod touch, and other accessories.
Google entered the smart speaker market in 2016 with the introduction of Google Home, allowing users to speak to Google Assistant and control various smart home products, listen to music, get the news, and more. Eventually, Google added the Home Mini and Home Max to the lineup, introducing products that were direct competitors to the Amazon Echo Dot and Apple HomePod, respectively.
Looking forward, the next Google Home will be a smart speaker equipped with a touch display that should arrive in time for the holiday shopping season, according to sources speaking to Nikkei Asian Review. This means that the new device "is likely to be similar to the Amazon Echo Show," which includes a display so users can do things like watch videos, view photos, and hold video calls.
The Lenovo Smart Display with Google Assistant (left) and Amazon Echo Show (right)
Google's plan for the upcoming device is described as "aggressive":
"Google targets to ship some 3 million units for the first batch of the new model of smart speaker that comes with a screen," an industry source said. "It's an aggressive plan."
Earlier in 2018, Google announced a new "Smart Display" platform with partners like Lenovo, JBL, and Sony. Through these partnerships, the Google Assistant can be placed in devices not directly built by Google, like the Lenovo Smart Display and upcoming JBL Link View and ThinQ View. The new product described in today's report would represent Google's own first-party entry into this market.
Google and Amazon butted heads following the launch of the Echo Show last year, when Google removed YouTube from any Amazon Echo device with a screen. Google said that Amazon was violating its terms of service, but in December 2017 a YouTube spokesperson explained that the removal was due to Amazon not carrying certain Google products. This grants the upcoming speaker-equipped Google Home a potential edge in the market as Nikkei points out that playing and browsing YouTube will likely be a major selling point.
For Apple, the company is sticking to smart speakers without full displays. Although the HomePod does include a small screen that provides a visual indicator for Siri and volume buttons, no information regarding the currently playing song or album selection is available. Currently, the main rumor for the next iteration of HomePod is that Apple is working on a low-cost version of the speaker.
Google typically holds a hardware event in October, so we should hear more about the upcoming Google Home speaker with a touch screen -- if it exists -- around that time.
In January, Voicebot.ai surveyed 1,057 Americans over the age of 18 regarding their ownership or interest in smart speakers, and today the researchers have published their final report with the results. While the data precedes Apple's entry into the market with HomePod in February, it does include a few points of data regarding iPhone/iOS users and their interest in smart speakers, prevalent long before rumblings about Apple's HomePod began.
Specifically, the Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report states that iPhone owners are 22 percent more likely to own a smart speaker compared to non-Apple smartphone owners. Of the smart speakers on the market besides HomePod, iPhone users are 30 percent less likely to own a Google Home and favor devices like Amazon Echo.
Graphs via Voicebot.ai
In fact, Voicebot.ai argued that Apple and Amazon are likely companions in "multi-manufacturer households," where HomePod is purchased as a "luxury item for music listening" and Echo is used for more "utilitarian tasks."
iOS users are attractive consumers and far more likely to own a smart speaker overall, but far less likely to own a Google device. However, the data also suggests that Google is at less risk of losing share to Apple HomePod than Amazon. Apple and Amazon may be the focus of multi-manufacturer households where HomePod is a luxury item for music listening in living spaces while Echo products get placed in the kitchen and bedrooms for utilitarian tasks.
In addition, iPhone owners are a good fit for Amazon because they are far more likely to have made a purchase by voice and more likely the 30,000 Alexa skills offered to Echo users. The favoritism shown by Apple owners to Alexa devices may also appeal to developers. Historically, iPhone app users have been far more valuable to developers on a revenue basis than Android users.
The report has many other interesting tidbits of information, stating that about 19.7 percent of adults in the United States use smart speakers, while 47.3 million have access to one of these devices. This means that they live in a home with a smart speaker, but may not be the primary owner -- a necessary distinction for the survey as smart speakers are "communal devices" used by entire households, unlike a smartphone with one user.
Many consumers own an average of 1.8 smart speakers, most place them in their living room (45.9 percent of owners) or kitchen (41.4 percent), and Amazon remains the dominant player in the market with a 3.5 times larger install base than Google. All of this growth surprised many analysts, particularly compared to growth rates of other product categories.
How does the march to nearly 50 million smart speaker consumers in 3 years compared to growth rates of other communications channels? Television took 13 years, the internet four years, and Facebook just two years. Smart speakers are devices but are growing almost as quickly as social media apps."
Among the most popular use cases, questions, music, and weather commands remain at the top. In total, the researchers said that this data provides the best indication that smart speakers are "being incorporated into everyday lives of consumers," with 63 percent using them daily and 77 percent at least weekly.
For those who don't own a smart speaker, 37.9 percent stated disinterest as their reason, 21.2 percent said they get enough similar features from their smartphone, 16 percent referenced privacy concerns, 11.8 percent said they plan to purchase soon, 8.8 percent claimed they were too expensive, and 4.2 referenced other reasons. For future owners, 9.8 percent expect to make a purchase in 2018, 26 percent of which said they will be purchasing Apple's HomePod.
Apple's new HomePod is late to the smart speaker market, which is already crowded with speakers from companies like Amazon, Google, and Sonos. The latter two companies, Google and Sonos, have released speakers with high-quality sound and robust voice assistants, giving the HomePod some serious competition.
To compare the three speakers, we focused on design, sound quality, and the overall performance of Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant.
When it comes to design -- and this is certainly subjective -- we preferred the look of the HomePod with its fabric-wrapped body and small but solid form factor. The Sonos One looks a little more dated with its squarer body and standard speaker mesh, while the Google Home Max has a much larger footprint that's going to take up more space.
All three offer touch-based controls at the top of the device, but the Google Home Max has one design edge - a USB-C port and a 3.5mm audio jack for connecting external music sources. The Sonos One has a single Ethernet port, while the HomePod has no ports.
Though we liked the HomePod's design, Siri, as you might expect, did not perform as well as Alexa on Sonos One or Google Assistant on Google Home Max.
Google Home Max
On questions like "Is Pluto a planet?" or "What's the fastest car?" both Alexa and Google Assistant were able to provide satisfactory answers, while Siri said those weren't questions that could be answered on HomePod.
Siri was not able to sing happy birthday, create a calendar event, or even provide the release date of the HomePod itself, directing users to Apple.com for more information, while the other smart assistants were able to do these things.
Though only briefly touched on in the video, Siri does, in fact, do well with HomeKit commands and controlling music playback on the HomePod through an accompanying Apple Music subscription.
Sound quality is a controversial topic because there's a heavy amount of personal preference involved when judging these three speakers. We thought the HomePod sounded the best, with the Google Home Max at a close second, followed by the Sonos One.
The Google Home Max gets the loudest, but sound becomes somewhat distorted at the highest volumes, while the Sonos One offers robust sound that's not quite as good at a lower price point. HomePod does have one major benefit: a fantastic microphone that picks up Siri commands even when you're across the room.
All three of these speakers offer great sound, and if you're attempting to pick one based on reviews, make sure to read several. We thought the HomePod sounded best, but other sources, like Consumer Reports and Yahoo's David Pogue found that the Google Home Max and the Sonos One sounded better than the HomePod.
So which speaker is better? The answer to that question depends on the other products you own. If you're an Apple Music subscriber with a HomeKit setup, the HomePod is going to work great. It only works natively with Apple Music, iTunes Match, and iTunes purchases, so if you have a Spotify subscription, for example, support isn't as robust.
For that reason, if you're not locked into Apple's ecosystem already, or if you have Apple devices but subscribe to Spotify, HomePod probably isn't the best choice for you.
Google's Home Mini smart speaker received an update on Friday that brings back some of the touch-based controls that the company had to disable shortly after its release back in October (via AndroidPolice).
Google was forced to turn off the built-in touch panel, which is designed to let users activate Google Assistant with a long press instead of a voice command, after a reviewer discovered that some of the devices were registering "phantom touch events".
The issue meant that some Minis were prone to recording conversations and sounds even when no "OK Google" voice command was spoken, immediately prompting privacy concerns. As a result, Google opted to disable the touch features completely, including single-tap functions that played and paused music, snoozed alarms, and ended phone calls.
Friday's v1.29 firmware update reinstates some of that single-tap functionality, but via a side long press instead. After installing the update, Google Home Mini owners will again be able to play/pause music, end phone calls, and silence alarms without speaking to the device. However, users still won't be able to trigger voice input, because the top long press functions remain disabled.
The software tweak is initially being rolled out in the preview firmware channel, which Home Mini owners can join via the Home app settings if they don't want to wait around for the automatic update.
Google recently disabled a feature included in its upcoming Google Home Mini smart speaker after a reviewer found that it was causing the device to record conversations and sounds even when no "OK Google" prompt word was spoken.
As detailed by Android Police's Artem Russakovskii, who received a Google Home Mini test unit last week, the device was malfunctioning due to an issue with the built-in touch panel designed to let Google Assistant be activated with a press instead of a voice command.
The Google Home Mini's touch mechanism was registering phantom touch events, causing it to continually record audio, which is not supposed to happen. Russakovskii discovered the problem after finding thousands of recordings in the Assistant section his My Activity portal on the web, where Assistant queries are stored.
Google was alerted to the issue and collected his unit for testing, which led to the discovery of the faulty touch mechanism. The problem as described by Google:
We have learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Minis that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly. We are rolling out a software update today that should address the issue.
To fix the malfunctioning touch panel, Google released a firmware update for all Google Home Mini devices disabling the feature allowing Google Assistant to be activated with a long press. Google told Russakovskii a longer-term fix is in the works, but in the meantime, the press to activate feature will not be available when the Google Home Mini launches.
In response, the updated software disables the long press to activate the Google Assistant feature. Once the Google Home Mini devices receive the updated software, all long press events (real or phantom) will be ignored and Google Assistant will not be invoked accidentally.
The company also let me know that they're in the process of building a long-term fix, whatever it may be. It's too early to say if they're going to be able to deal with "phantom" touch events entirely in software or a recall for affected units will be in order.
When the issue was discovered, Google took it seriously and collected the faulty review unit within a matter of hours. An engineer worked over the weekend to figure out what was going on and the firmware update to remove the feature was available by Tuesday.