How to start a smart home using Google Home

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After a messy start, Google’s Home ecosystem is finally starting to come together. 

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Illustration by Samar Haddad for The Verge

The smart home isn’t perfect. No matter how many times a company claims “seamless” integration with third-party devices or “effortless” use of voice commands to bend your connected gadgets to your will, there’s no one platform that gets everything exactly right. Depending on your specific needs, any of the major options — Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit (now just Home), Google Home, Home Assistant, or Samsung SmartThings — could be the best fit for you and your home. Recently, I’ve been taking a long look at Google Home.

App screen with various buttons showing different devices.

App screen with various buttons showing different devices.

The Google Home app has recently been updated.

Google got a lot right when it bought Nest in 2014, but it ramped up too slowly, releasing only a modest trickle of new connected home hardware before eventually introducing its first Google Assistant-powered smart speaker in 2016. That was followed by a protracted rebranding once Google decided the smart home was indeed a thing. The tech giant brought Nest officially under the Google name in 2019, which involved a frustratingly glitchy software migration from the Nest app to Google Home.

But now, at last, a Google-led smart home is starting to make sense. 

The newly updated Google Home app improves a lot of basic smart home functions. Google’s refreshed software also comes with a long-awaited addition: support for Matter on the Google Home app with an iPhone running iOS 16.5. 

Put all that together, plus Google Nest’s pretty strong lineup of branded products, and the Google smart home is finally hitting its stride. But before I talk about where it is today and how I use it, let’s take a brief look at the history of Google’s smart home attempts.

Working backward

Google didn’t take a linear path to building its smart home platform. In 2014, it bought Nest, then a startup with just two products: the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Later the same year, Nest, now a part of Google (but still operating separately from its corporate owner), purchased startup Dropcam, maker of Wi-Fi security cameras, and replaced the Dropcam Pro with a similar Nest-branded camera, the Nest Cam. Nest also introduced a couple next-gen versions of its thermostat and smoke detector and created Works with Nest, its own platform consisting of third-party device partners that integrated with its products.

Then things began to change. Google Assistant arrived, followed shortly after by Google’s first smart speaker. Finally, five years after buying it, Google announced it was moving Nest under its purview, making the former startup Google’s official smart home brand.

The move from Nest to Google Nest was fraught with all kinds of problems. Google did away with the Works with Nest platform, which ended certain integrations for existing Nest users. The Google Home app didn’t support all Nest devices, which meant that, in some cases, you had to use the old Nest app for certain products and the new Google Home app for others (this is still an ongoing issue for some legacy products). 

There were also some privacy concerns around the same time concerning an undisclosed microphone built into the Nest Secure security system. The Nest Secure has since been discontinued and will no longer be supported in the Nest app starting in 2024. 

Currently, there are over a dozen Google Nest products, including four Google Assistant-driven smart speakers and displays that support “over 50,000 smart home devices from more than 10,000 popular brands,” according to Google. The latest version of the Google Home app, now live and rolling out to users, makes significant improvements for smart home configuration and control. 

“OK, Google, build me a smart home”

Google’s smart home platform has broad appeal due to its wide variety of third-party partners and easy setup and control, especially now that the app has been overhauled. 

If you have an Android phone, you can simply use that to command your various compatible connected devices. If you have an iPhone, you can access Google Assistant through the Google Home app. In either case, you can also use one of their smart speakers or displays. 

Personally, after years of testing Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and other voice assistants with all sorts of products and different commands, Google Assistant overwhelmingly feels more natural. It does a great job answering general questions clearly and thoroughly without either misunderstanding me or not knowing the answer.

Google Nest Hub Max

Google Nest Hub Max

The Google Nest Hub Max’s audio quality and display resolution were strong enough for the author to overcome her general dislike of smart displays.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

My current setup includes an iPhone with the Google Home app, a Google Nest Hub Max smart display, a couple of Nest Protect smoke detectors and a Nest Thermostat E. As far as third-party integrations go, I currently have a bunch of Wyze lights and an old Wyze Cam v2, though as a product reviewer, I’m regularly swapping products in and out for testing. 

The Google Nest Hub Max’s audio quality and display resolution are strong enough for me to overcome my general dislike of smart displays. I can easily view my connected products on the display and make adjustments there if I don’t have my phone handy — or use a quick voice command. 

I also really like being able to control my thermostat on my smart display. Unfortunately, the Nest Thermostat E has since been discontinued in the US, though you can still find it on Amazon. I’ve also tested the Nest Learning Thermostat and the newer Nest Thermostat, and they’re both solid products as well that I can comfortably recommend as part of a Google smart home. 

Nest Thermostat

Nest Thermostat

The Nest Thermostat is being updated to the Matter standard
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

While I don’t currently have any Google Nest cameras or doorbells installed at home, I’ve tested most of them and consider them excellent security devices. In fact, a huge part of my interest in a Google smart home lies with these Google Nest products. I’ve tested many Nest devices over the years, and most of them have stood out from the competition due to their attractive hardware and strong performance. It’s worth noting, though, that Google typically charges a premium for its products, which won’t fit with everyone’s budget. That’s especially true if you want to outfit your home with multiple thermostats, smoke detectors, cameras, and doorbells to cover different levels and entry points.

If you have a Chromecast with Google TV, you can view your Google Nest camera or doorbell’s live feed on your TV — and use Google Assistant on the Chromecast remote to play your favorite shows.

I’d also wholeheartedly suggest Wyze light bulbs as part of your setup. They’re cheap, they work well, and they’re compatible with Google Assistant. I have a combination of their white-light-only and color-changing bulbs. All of them are dimmable and have adjustable white-light color temperature, so you can switch between cooler-toned white light during the day when you’re trying to get things done and warmer light in the evening as you wind down. 

In fact, you may already have a device at home that’s compatible with Google. Check out your device options to see what companies and specific products will work.

Working with Google Home

While you can use the Google Home app or the touchscreen on your smart display to control your smart home devices, the core (and, in my opinion, best) functionality is tied to voice commands. Say, “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google” to kick things off.

I use these types of commands often, especially when there’s something I can’t schedule, like asking Google for the current weather in my area or the local traffic report. I also use commands to make one-off adjustments to my lights and thermostat separate from their normal schedule. 

Page headed Automatons with graphic of person coming into a house and a. list of household routines.

Page headed Automatons with graphic of person coming into a house and a. list of household routines.

Google lets you add a number of routines to your devices.
Mobile screen with Google Morning on top, Activate Routines below that, and several actions that can be activated.

Mobile screen with Google Morning on top, Activate Routines below that, and several actions that can be activated.

It’s very simple to assemble a Routine.

Those individual “OK, Google” commands are nice, but Routines (Google’s word for customizable smart home automations) are even better. Routines can modify the thermostat, lights, and garage door simultaneously, and all with just one command. For example, if I say, “OK, Google, goodnight,” the voice assistant adjusts my various connected lights for bedtime, as well as the thermostat. You can also create schedules with Routines so it’s a bit more automated and doesn’t require a voice command as a prompt, such as, “At sunrise, open my window shades and turn off my outdoor lights.”

It’s basic, but having a single “OK, Google” command to handle multiple things saves me a small amount of time each day. It probably also means I’m saving money and energy over time because I’m less likely to leave lights on or forget to adjust the thermostat during parts of the day when we need less heat or AC.

Google has also updated the available options for triggers in Routines. Rather than just a voice command, a specific time, at sunrise or sunset, or turning off an alarm, you can now start a routine “when a device does something,” which is a major upgrade. That means you can start an automation when your camera detects motion or when your lights, smart plugs, or any other compatible devices do something. 

Room for improvement

On the other hand, I wish Google’s smart home (or any of them, really) was a bit more predictive. The smart home is likely some time off from this, but I’d love to see Google’s platform advance to the point where it knows exactly what you want and automatically makes those changes on your behalf. 

For example, what if in the morning when I woke up, the shades opened and the lights turned on automatically? Then, as I headed downstairs, what if my electric kettle started boiling and the smart display in the kitchen started giving me a news briefing, all without me saying a word? Yes, I could schedule some of these things today, but I don’t always get up at the exact same time every day. I could use a voice command, too, but it would be even easier if I didn’t even have to ask Google Assistant to read me the news. 

Nest Protect

Nest Protect

The Nest Protect detector still isn’t supported by the Google Home app.
Photo: Google

There are other improvements I’d appreciate. In addition to Nest Secure and Dropcam (both of which are being discontinued next year anyway), the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector still isn’t supported by the Google Home app. The lack of support for the Protect seems particularly odd since it was one of Nest’s first devices. Google has had plenty of time to figure out how to migrate it over effectively. And yet, it doesn’t work. 

That means anyone who uses a Protect smoke detector along with other Google Nest devices likely needs both apps, which is annoying. Fortunately, that’s supposed to change soon, but again, as with motion triggers for Routines, I haven’t seen it yet in the latest version of my Google Home app.

What’s coming

I’m curious to see how Matter works with the Google Home app on my iPhone running iOS 16.5. The software update only just went live, so I haven’t had much time to mess around with it. In theory, it should make it even easier to set up and use smart devices. Despite my feelings about smart displays, I am interested in trying out my Google Nest Hub Max as a Matter hub. I’m also excited to experiment with the refreshed Google Home app a bit more. The updated app and iPhone support for Matter make Google’s platform significantly more appealing.

Things still aren’t perfect in the Google smart home, but many of the pieces we’ve been waiting for are finally coming together. We just had to get through Google Nest’s awkward teenage years. 

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