June 14, 2024

BlocDeBlocs

Home is a place where we can be happy

Google’s new Home app is now rolling out to everyone

Google’s new Home app is moving out of its invite-only public preview and will be available to everyone starting May 11th, the company announced Wednesday at Google I/O 2023. The smart home controller app has had a complete overhaul, including a much-needed new Favorites tab, an improved camera interface, support for dozens of new device types, and more controls for existing ones. And you’ll now be able to use an iPhone to set up Matter devices in Google Home.

That last bit of news is one of the final pieces of the puzzle for complete platform support of the new smart home standard Matter, following Amazon’s rollout of Thread compatibility last week. Google has been a major player in developing the standard but has been slower than others to ramp up support since Matter’s launch last year. With the arrival of iOS 16.5, you’ll now be able to set up any Matter device with any smart home platform app on any smartphone. Previously, iOS devices could only use the Apple Home or Samsung SmartThings app to add Matter gadgets to a home network.

The customizable Favorites tab is designed for your frequently accessed smart home devices, such as lights, locks, and cameras.
Image: Google

The bad news is that Google isn’t fully porting over its legacy Nest cameras to its new app yet. Only the Nest Cam indoor and Nest Cam outdoor first-gen models are getting full integration with the new app — but not until July and just in the preview app. The Nest IQ Cams, Nest Hello doorbell, and the camera inside the Nest Hub Max will have to wait their turn.

Google is bringing better Home app controls to your wrist. The new Wear OS Home app, which was also in preview, launches May 15th with a host of new features, including animated previews for camera notifications, better on-wrist controls for devices, and access to the Favorites tab from the main app so you can get to that light or lock quickly.

Improved Home app controls in Wear OS include adjusting lighting colors and controlling media from your smartwatch.
Image: Google

An updated version of the Home app for tablets is coming in June with support for portrait orientation, and the new Pixel Tablet is getting a quick access Home Panel available in its new Hub mode. This mode allows anyone in the home to easily access devices like lights, locks, cameras, and thermostats without having to unlock the tablet or switch users. 

The Verge spoke with Anish Kattukaran, director of product at Google Home, ahead of Google I/O to get all the details on the new Google Home app improvements. Here’s a deeper dive into everything Google announced as it attempts to make its app the best place to set up, control, and automate your smart home.

A new Spaces feature in the Google Home app adds quick access to control all devices in a specific category, including cameras, lights, and thermostats.
Image: Google

The Google Home app becomes actually usable

The ground-up redesign of the Google Home app has been a long time coming, not to mention almost seven months in public testing. The previous version was so limited and had so few control options as to essentially be unusable as a way to control your smart home. But with this new app, Google is bringing both form and function. The app launches May 11th and will roll out to all users over the next few weeks. I’ve been testing it for a few months now and will have a full review soon, but here’s an overview of the biggest changes.

Favorites can include cameras, lights, locks, and any device you can add to your home

The app is now divided into five tabs, starting with a new and fully customizable Favorites tab. Favorites can include cameras, lights, locks, thermostats — any device you can add to your home, plus any Actions and Automations you’ve set up. Camera feeds placed here open to a live view, and device status — such as on / off or locked unlocked — is also easily viewable and controllable, giving you an immediate overview of what’s happening in your home.

The Favorites tab also provides quick access buttons to what Google calls Spaces: collections of devices such as cameras, lights, thermostats and climate devices, and Wi-Fi (if you have Google Nest Wi-Fi routers).

The Devices tab is where all of your connected gadgets live, organized alphabetically by room. With the new app comes both new and improved controls for more than 60 device types, including all the supported Matter device types. “You can control all your different smart devices — like your garage door opener, shades, washing machine, and lawnmower — from a single place,” said Kattukaran. Plus, temperature and motion sensors will now report their status in the app.

New and updated device controls give you more control in the Google Home app. As well as vacuums, TVs, and sensors, there’s support for beds, fans, faucets, security systems, smoke detectors, yogurt makers, and more.
Image: Google

The Automations tab allows you to access and edit any Routines you’ve set up and create new ones. There’s the option of Household Routines, which can be edited by any household member, and Personal Routines just for you. 

Household Routines now have many, many more options for triggers (which Google calls starters). Previously, the starters were time-based or voice-based. Now, “when a device does something” is added to the mix.

This allows the Routines to be triggered by events such as motion from compatible cameras, doorbell presses, thermostat mode changes, and lights and smart plugs turning on or off. This can automate one thing, like lights turning on when motion is detected, or multiple things — such as a door locking, a camera turning on, and a robot vacuum starting.

Routines can also now be triggered by appliances such as dishwashers, robot vacuums, and air purifiers turning on or off or volume changes on speakers and televisions. You can also trigger a Routine when a door locks but not one when it unlocks.

1/2

The new Google Home app Devices tab.
Image: Google

While Google has added motion sensors as a trigger, currently, only sensors from Philips Hue are supported, and contact sensors aren’t at all. Kattukaran said both motion and contact sensors will be able to trigger Routines in the new Google Home script editor, originally slated for early this year and now coming later this summer. He added that the team hopes to bring full motion and contact sensor functionality to the Google Home app later this year.

The Activity tab shows activity in chronological order from any devices, clips from supported cameras, and Routines that have run. But the best tab of all — Settings — is the one that finally collects all of Google’s disparate settings pages into one spot. 

Here, you can access device settings for any connected gadget, all your connected services (music, video, etc.), tailor notifications, and adjust the Google Assistant settings. It’s also where you can manage Google Nest’s presence-sensing feature, which adjusts devices based on whether you’re home or away.

A new inbox sends alerts about your devices and services.
Image: Google

A new inbox feature, denoted by a small bell icon at the top of the screen, collects updates about devices and services, like low battery alerts or when a new smart gadget is added to or removed from your home. This could also be where we see notifications for firmware updates, something Matter is slated to bring to Matter-compatible platforms.  

Viewing recorded footage from supported cameras in the Google Home app is improved with the redesign and works on the new tablet app in both portrait and vertical modes.
Image: Google

Camera support gets better, and legacy Nest Cams get some love

The old Google Home app handled cameras terribly — as I discussed at length in my review of the Google Nest Cam indoor. The new app is much more camera-friendly, taking many cues from the Nest app. It opens to live views of your favorite cameras and ports Nest’s excellent vertical video history scrubbing feature, so you can quickly scroll through footage to see what you need to. Kattukaran said viewing a live feed is 38 percent faster, and camera clips are 29 percent faster in the new app.  

The new Home app is much more camera-friendly, taking many cues from the Nest app

There’s still no way to create a clip manually, though, and older Nest Cam models can still only show a live view in the Home app. You’ll need to rely on the aging Nest app for all other interactions with earlier Nest cameras, such as viewing recorded video and adjusting settings, at least until Google finishes porting them over.

Kattukaran said there are no current plans to end of life the Nest app but reiterated Google’s commitment to eventually bring all legacy Nest cameras (though not Dropcams) to the Home app. 

That migration will start in July when users in the preview app can transfer the Nest Cam indoor (first-gen) followed by the Nest Cam outdoor (first-gen) from the Nest app to the Home app. The cameras will have a “near-identical experience” in the Home app to current Nest cameras, Kattukaran said. There’s still no update on when (or if) the new app will support the Nest Protect smoke and CO alarm, which still relies on the Nest app for full functionality.

Finally, Kattukaran provided a small update on the Google Home camera web interface, which is still only available for preview users by signing in at home.google.com. He said the company is still working on improving the experience before making it available to all.

The Pixel Tablet features a Home Panel shortcut button to quickly access smart home device controls.
Image: Google

Would a Pixel Tablet by any other name be a smart display?

The Google Home tablet app is also getting a refresh to coincide with the launch of the Pixel Tablet in June. The update will come to the Pixel Tablet, the new Pixel Fold, and third-party Android tablets first; iPad users will have to wait until later this summer. 

The new tablet app will support portrait orientation as well as landscape and — especially on the Pixel Tablet — may make for a better multiuser touchscreen smart home controller than the aging Nest Hub interface. This is thanks to a new Home Panel feature.

When the tablet is docked on its charging speaker dock, it goes into Home mode. Here, the Home Panel appears as an icon on the lock screen, giving anyone in the home a quick way to access controls for Favorites, Automations, Actions, and Spaces (groups of devices like cameras and lights). “It integrates directly with the Favorites you have defined in the Google Home app so that you’re seeing the devices you use most,” said Kattukaran.

“At launch, the new Pixel Tablet will not be a Matter controller or Thread border router.”

The Home Panel also comes to the Android quick settings drop-down menu (or “shade”) on smartphones, replacing the previous device controls view that offered basic home controls. “Users can control compatible thermostats, lights, and locks, and view camera feeds from the lock screen or Quick Settings menu,” said Kattukaran. Home Panel will begin rolling out in June to Pixel devices and will come to third-party Android devices with Android 14.

Despite this excellent multiuser feature (Hello, Apple?), I’m not convinced the Pixel Tablet will be the perfect smart home control device I’ve been searching for. When docked in Hub mode, it does have some of the Nest Hub’s best features — it’s a digital photo frame, it can take voice commands for Google Assistant (but it’s not a Nest speaker), and it’s got Chromecast capabilities. But Kattukaran said, “The Pixel Tablet is a tablet built for the home; it’s not a smart display.”

That’s for sure. It’s a lot more expensive than a smart display — $499 compared to $229 for the Nest Hub Max. That’s also more than the cheapest iPad ($329), something many people use to control their smart homes. Kattukaran also told The Verge, “At launch, the new Pixel Tablet will not be a Matter controller or Thread border router.” While “at launch” opens up some intriguing possibilities, that does reinforce the fact that it’s not yet a direct replacement for a Nest Hub or speaker, all of which are Matter controllers and several of which are also Thread border routers.

To date, smart displays have been too underpowered to effectively use as touchscreen controllers for your smart home. They’re primarily designed as a visual add-on to voice control. Soup them up with better processors, and they get too expensive to have in every room of your house. With its speaker dock and Home mode, plus access to all the apps of an Android tablet, the Pixel Tablet is a step in the right direction of a fully featured smart home controller. Will it be good enough? I’ll have to wait until I get my hands on it to make that call.

Related: