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You can’t be blamed for mistaking the $49 Nest Mini for its two-year-old predecessor, the (also $49) Google Home Mini. Indeed, the biggest difference between the two smart speakers, which look virtually identical aside from a few iterative design tweaks, might be Google’s decision (which I still find confusing, frankly) to swap out the “Home” moniker for “Nest,” following in the footsteps of the re-branded Google Nest Hub and the recent Google Nest Hub Max.
Still, there are some laudable changes here, though none that demand turning in your existing Home Mini(s) to your local recycling center. Among the improvements: marginally better sound, a new mounting hole, an additional built-in microphone, and a machine-learning chip designed to make Google Assistant faster and smarter over time. The Nest Mini’s capacitive touch controls have also been shuffled and refined, although they might still confuse someone who isn’t familiar with the speaker’s tricks.
So, should you upgrade? Given the Nest Mini’s inexpensive price tag (which will probably see steep and periodic discounts in the coming months, if history is any guide), a better question is: should you buy a Nest Mini to go with your current Home Mini? By all means, yes, particularly given the upcoming Nest home monitoring features that both the Nest Mini and Home Mini will support. More on that in a bit.
If you haven’t jumped on the smart speaker bandwagon yet, the Google Nest Mini makes for a great place to start, particularly if you’re a loyal Google user. Of course, the $49 Amazon Echo Dot remains a worthy Nest Mini competitor, particularly when it comes to Alexa’s dominance in the area of smart home voice control. That said, considering their inexpensive price tags, you don’t necessarily need to pick one over the other—even if you use an Android smartphone.
Set the Nest Mini next its predecessor and you’ll have difficulty telling them apart. They both bear the same telltale oval shape when viewed from the side, the same fabric covering (in chalk, coral, and charcoal colors, with a new sky shade replacing the Home Mini’s aqua flavor), and the same four LEDs peeking through the top of the fabric when Google Assistant is awake and chatting.
Look a little more closely, however, and you pick out some key differences. Turn the Nest Mini over and you’ll spot the new mounting hole, which makes it easy to hang the Nest Mini on a hook or (if you’ve pounded it in far enough) the head of a nail.
It’s not surprising that Google added a built-in mounting option on the Nest Mini, given the wide range of third-party mounting accessories that sprouted up for the Home Mini. That said, the single mounting hole means that cable management is up to you; and trust me, without some help on your part, the Nest Mini’s charging cable won’t hang perfectly straight along the wall like it does in Google’s press photos. Score one for third-party mounts like the Mount Genie that hang the Google Home Mini from an AC outlet, with its excess power cord neatly wound around the mount.
Another small difference has to do with the Nest Mini’s charging port. Gone is the Micro-USB port that sits in the base of the Home Mini, it’s been replaced by a barrel-shaped charging port. That’s a bit of a shame, given that you could swap out the Home Mini’s original charging cable with a third-party, 5V Micro-USB charger, but it’s a safe bet that the Nest Mini’s 15W power draw demands a more robust power source. (It’s worth noting that the third-gen Amazon Echo Dot has a barrel-shaped charging port, too.)
Switches and controls
At a glance (once again), the Nest Mini’s controls look more or less the same as the Home Mini’s, but you’ll find some improvements if you dig a little deeper. As far as similarities go, the Nest Mini’s mic mute switch is identical to the one on the base of the Home Mini, and yes, flipping the switch still necessitates holding the speaker steady with one hand while you slide the switch with the other.
Also unchanged are the invisible capacitive buttons on the left and right side of the Nest Mini that let you raise and lower the volume. On the Home Mini, those capacitive buttons also let you pause and restart your tunes with a long press.
The Nest Mini does change things up a bit by letting you tap the top of the speaker to pause your music. Indeed, that was the original intent with the Home Mini, until it turned out that the top button—which was also supposed to let you summon Google Assistant without speaking the wake word001—could be inadvertently activated by the fabric itself. Google ended up moving the play/p0ause button functionality to the sides before the original Home Mini shipped to customers, and even now with the Nest Mini, tapping the top button won’t wake Assistant.
In another thoughtful change, built-in proximity sensors activate new LEDs on each side when your hand nears the speaker, essentially tipping you off that those invisible side volume buttons are ready and waiting.
While the Nest Mini’s hidden capacitive buttons are certainly clever and lend a cleaner look to the speaker’s design, there’s something to be said for physical buttons with clearly marked functionality—and yes, we’re mainly thinking about the Amazon Echo Dot, with volume and mic mute buttons that sit in plain sight on the top of the device.
Chatting with Google Assistant
Of course, you’ll spend a lot more time talking to the Nest Mini than tapping it. Thanks to the vast pool of searchable knowledge at Google’s disposal, Google Assistant remains the smartest of the digital assistants we’ve tried, regularly doling out answers to questions that leave its competitors shrugging their virtual shoulders. Assistant is even better if you’ve organized your life around your Google account, helpfully alerting you to upcoming appointments, sending driving directions to your phone, or even (thanks to the Nest Mini’s support for Google’s Duo voice- and video-calling app) making voice calls to your Google contacts.
Google added a new machine learning chip to the Nest Mini, allowing it to boost the responsiveness of Google Assistant by handling more of its processing chores locally rather than in the cloud. The chip should also help Assistant get a handle on your favorite commands and requests more quickly.
Over time, the Nest Mini’s machine learning chip may well reap benefits when it comes to speeding up its performance, but in my initial testing, Assistant on the Nest Mini still took a beat or two to respond to my queries, about the same as on the Home Mini (or the Echo Dot, for that matter).
Google also says that it’s added a third far-field microphone to the Nest Mini, making it easier for the speaker to hear you when you’re across the room. In my tests, the Nest Mini outperformed the Home Mini’s listening skills by a tad, hearing me from a good 30 feet away while I was speaking in a normal voice, with a whirring fan nearby. The Home Mini could only hear me when I was closer than 25 feet away—still not bad, but yes, that third mic does make a difference.
Controlling your smart devices
It’s still tough to beat Alexa when it comes to smart home control, with Amazon’s digital assistant nearly ubiquitous when it comes to smart gadgets that support voice commands. That said, third-party support for Google Assistant has taken big strides in the past couple of years, with more and more smart devices supporting both Alexa and Assistant (Apple’s HomeKit is also catching on, albeit much more slowly). Indeed, Google claims that more than 30,000 smart gadgets offer Google Assistant support, including such big brands as Philips Hue and TP-Link.
If you have other Nest devices in your home, it’s a no-brainer to sprinkle Nest smart speakers around, so there’s always one withing speaking distance. Google provides tight integration between Google Assistant and Nest cameras, doorbells, thermostats, and its Nest Secure home security system. What’s not to like about asking Google to turn up the heat using a nearby Nest Mini speaker?
Speaking of Nest, the Nest Mini makes for a great companion to Google’s about-to-be-cheaper-and-better Nest Aware subscription service, which (starting in early 2020) you’ll be able to join for as little as $6 a month. In particular, we’re thinking of Nest Aware’s upcoming ability to warn you if it hears suspicious sounds or anything that portends danger, such as breaking glass, dogs barking, or the whine of a carbon monoxide alarm.
Given the Nest Mini’s inexpensive price tag, you could easily boost Nest Aware’s listening coverage by putting several of the small speakers throughout your house, especially near doorways or smoke detectors.
Music and sound quality
Google says its added a custom driver to the Nest Mini to give it up to twice the bass response of the Home Mini, while software improvements should help to deliver clearer sound with less distortion. Still, you shouldn’t expect great audio performance from small smart speakers like the Nest Mini or Amazon’s 3rd-gen Echo Dot.
After A/B testing the Nest Mini and Home Mini, I’ll say the new driver and Google’s software tweaks help the Nest Mini sound at least marginally better with music. It’s a little clearer and punchier than on the tinny, bass-deprived Home Mini, but don’t expect anything rivaling that of the $100 Google Home, an Amazon Echo Show smart display, or a $200 Sonos One. Instead, “tolerable” is the word that comes to mind when describing the Echo Mini’s sound quality, which is at least an upgrade over plain-old “bad.”
You can pair either of Google’s small smart speakers with a more powerful Bluetooth speaker, but Amazon offers both that option and a 3.5mm analog output on the Echo Dot, so you can connect it to wired speakers. And like Amazon, Google lets you create a stereo pair using two Nest Minis, but Amazon one-ups its rival once again by offering the option of adding a wireless subwoofer to most of its smart speakers—including stereo pairs. Google does have a cool new “stream transfer” feature that lets you ask the Nest Mini to move any tunes that it’s playing to another Home, Nest, or Chromecast-enabled speaker.
We also like that the Nest Mini is compatible with most of the major music streaming services, including YouTube Music (natch), Pandora, and Spotify, and it’ll show up in the Spotify desktop and mobile apps as a Spotify Connect device, so you can use Spotify’s own app with the speaker.
Besides (modestly) improving the Nest Mini’s sound quality, Google also added a feature that boosts the speakers sound when you’re listening to the news or a podcast while, for example, the dishwasher is running, or if a similar rush of ambient noise happens to rear its head. I sat the Nest Mini next to a tower fan and cranked its fan speed while NPR was playing on the Nest Mini, and indeed, the speaker bumped up the volume a tad, although the boost wasn’t all that dramatic.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Nest Mini’s intercom and voice-calling abilities. Just say “Hey Google, call kitchen” to call a Home or Nest speaker in the kitchen, or “Hey Google, call Joe Turner” to dial one of your Google contacts (with help from Google Duo).
Nest Mini or Echo Dot?
Even with its improvements, the choice between the Nest Mini and Echo Dot is a tough one. Both smart speakers are the same price, roughly the same size, and feature the same basic functionality. Neither will blow you away with their sound quality, and both Alexa and Google Assistant have their own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. The Nest Mini’s capacitive touch controls are undeniably neat, but the Echo Dot’s physical buttons are more practical. Google Assistant is better at answering random questions, but Alexa gets the nod when it comes to smart-home ubiquity.
Ultimately, it comes down to the smart assistant in which you’re most invested. If you’re all about taking control of your smart home with Alexa’s myriad skills, you’ll probably want to stick with the Echo Dot, regardless of any improvements Google cooked up for the Nest Mini. By the same token, those who heavily depend on Google services or who protect their homes with Nest devices should go with the Nest Mini.
Also, keep in mind that there’s nothing stopping you from picking up one of each, particularly given how inexpensive these mini smart speakers are. I’m sure I’m not the only one living in a mixed Alexa/Google Assistant household.
Just like its predecessor, the Google Nest Mini smart speaker is capable, easy to use, and whip-smart thanks to Google Assistant. Its improvements over the Home Mini are small yet notable, including slightly better sound, a mounting hole, and refined capacitive touch controls. And that third mic helps it hear you when you’re across the room. Most importantly, though, this small yet clever smart speaker retains the original’s $49 price tag, which makes adding one (or another one, or yet another one) to your home an easy-to-swallow prospect.