Why the $30 Nest Mini is an essential part of my home

CNN —  

“Hey Google, play music on Spotify.” I utter those same six words at least once a day to my Nest Mini, usually as I’m stepping into the bathroom to prepare for an epic shower sing-along. Within a second or two, I’m treated to solid audio of my favorite sad indie songs and loud pop-punk jams, as well as the ability to easily ask for the time once I inevitably start taking too long.

These features aren’t particularly unique to Google’s affordable smart speaker that launched back in 2019, but they’re exactly why the Nest Mini has been a fixture in my home ever since I got my hands on one last year. And if all you want is a cheap, dependable speaker that can guide you through your day, play music well and connect to a myriad of smart home devices, it may be a great fit for you as well — especially since the speaker (which launched at $50) often drops to as low as $30 these days.

An excellent and affordable smart speaker

The Google Nest Mini is an attractive and good-sounding smart speaker that lets you do a ton with Google Assistant.

Why the Nest Mini still holds up

A smart speaker that doesn’t get in the way

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One of my favorite things about the Nest Mini is its mesh fabric design, which makes it look more like a fashionable accent piece rather than a geeky piece of tech. My Sky blue model adds a nice colorful pop to my bathroom, but there are also Charcoal, Coral and Chalk options to pick from.

The Nest Mini has reliable touch controls, which have made it easy for me to pause and play tracks by tapping the center or adjust the volume by touching the sides. There are also a total of six white LEDs, which do a good job highlighting the speaker’s tappable areas and indicating things such as volume level while quickly disappearing when you don’t need them. But as with any Nest product, the Mini really comes to life when you use it hands-free with Google Assistant.

Ever since spending a few minutes getting my Mini set up on my Google Home app (available for Android or iOS), I’ve been able to ask it to do everything from set timers to put events and reminders on my calendar. Most of my daily use consists of the basics — asking it to play music, checking the time and getting up to speed on the weather — but Assistant can do a whole lot more than that.

You can have it read your daily schedule out loud, look up random information on a celebrity and check the time in different parts of the world — just to name a few. And if you have any Google-compatible smart lights or thermostats, you can ask the Nest Mini to turn the lights off or change the temperature. It’s the kind of smart home functionality that’s become standard these days, but it’s still pretty handy for a device that often costs less than $40.

More importantly, the Nest Mini’s voice recognition has worked consistently well in my testing. I primarily use Google’s speaker while in the shower, and it has no problem picking up my requests to skip songs, play a specific album or turn the volume down even when I’m talking over the sounds of falling water.

Its audio quality is also impressive for a device of its size, amplifying the bouncy bass, sharp guitars and soaring vocals of my favorite rock songs with enough clarity and volume to keep me singing along (probably much to my neighbors’ chagrin).

Is the Google Nest Mini right for you?

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The Nest Mini isn’t a gadget I expected to fall in love with. To be totally frank, I got it for free as part of a YouTube Premium promotion sometime in 2020, and it spent a good amount of time sitting in the box before I even did anything with it. But once I got it set up as my bathroom companion for getting a good start to the day (or afternoon — time moves a bit differently these days), I can’t imagine not having it.

But while the Nest Mini has been more than enough for my basic needs of shower-singing and occasional weather-checking, it might not necessarily be the best pick for you. As with any smart home device, it’s important to consider what ecosystem you want to be in — if you own a lot of Google-compatible devices, products like the Nest Mini will fit into your home like a glove and let you command your smart gadgets (and manage your Google account) with just your voice. Those looking for larger sound could opt for the Nest Audio speaker.

If you’d rather be in the Amazon garden, the latest Echo Dot and Echo Dot with Clock speakers are in the same price range and have a similar core functionality — except you’ll be talking to Alexa instead of Google Assistant. So if you’d rather be able to buy products from Amazon with your voice, pull up your Amazon Music playlists, control Alexa-compatible smart gadgets or just take advantage of the many fun Alexa skills out there, the Dot family might be better for you. And if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, a HomePod Mini is a great choice.

But as someone who’s pretty platform agnostic and doesn’t own a ton of smart home devices, the Nest Mini has proven to be an attractive, useful and good-sounding little speaker that can do a whole lot while making my daily routine just a little bit more enjoyable.

Looking for a deeper dive? Here’s our original review of the Nest Mini from 2019:

Nest Mini review

The Nest Mini, Google’s second-generation tiny smart speaker, is finally here, two years after the Google Home Mini was released. The new device keeps the $49.99 price point of its predecessor, keeping it on par with Amazon’s third-generation Echo Dot and putting it slightly less than the new $59.99 Echo Dot with Clock.

The Nest Mini is also nearly identical to the Google Home Mini on the outside, but there are some big internal changes, namely to the speaker and the way it processes voice requests.

Let’s dive in.

A Mini that’s still a Mini

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Similar to when the Google Home Hub became the Nest Home Hub, design-wise, the Google Home Mini didn’t change much when it became the Nest Mini. This is still the tiny and affordable entry-level Google smart speaker. You get access to an assistant that can answer almost anything, has fun games, access to streaming services and a decent speaker.

It also keeps the fan-favorite donut-like design. It’s still circular with a mesh top and a grippy rubber bottom. The top mesh casing is now made from 100% recycled plastic bottles, so you still get a sturdy design that feels right in the home, but you can feel better about how it’s made. The bottom is made from 35% recycled materials as well. It seems like a new trend with Google that’s aligned with the larger tech industry.

Google added a wall mount to the bottom rubber portion, a decision, they say, in response to user feedback. It’s a nice solution that doesn’t clutter the design. I tried it, but I’m a person who prefers to have the Nest Mini on a table or countertop.

Surprisingly, Google swapped the power plug on the Nest Mini. It’s now using a proprietary barrel jack rather than a Micro USB port. While I understand they’re evening out power choices between the Nest home devices, universal support is always a nice thing. It’s also a similar move to the power options that Amazon opted for with Echoes. There’s no audio jack on the Nest Mini either.

The backside features a physical switch to mute the microphones. On the top, underneath the fabric, are a number of LED lights. Like on the Google Home Mini, there are four circular LEDs across the center that glow when you call the Assistant and update with volume levels.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Google wisely added two additional LEDs that can guide you to the respective volume up and down buttons. The original Home Mini didn’t have indicators, and at times, it could be tricky to find the exact spot. The Nest Mini uses Ultrasound technology to intelligently light the LEDs when you’re nearby, this way you can always find the buttons. I found this to be hit or miss, but I’m excited to see if this improves.

Three colors carry over from the original Google Home Mini: Chalk, Charcoal and Coral, with Sky, a light aqua blue option, joining the ranks. All colors come with a white included power plug and cable.

Voice detection and sound quality are both improved

Jacob Krol/CNN

After two years, you’d expect upgrades beyond a few design tweaks, and there are quite a few on the inside. For starters, voice detection is much better in noisy environments and with just clearly identifying what you’re saying.

The Nest Mini has three far-field microphones, one more than the original Google Home Mini. It does a better job picking up voices and will automatically raise the volume of the response so you can hear it better. It’s a neat feature and one that works.

On the sound side, Google did a lot of work to make the experience better. Yes, at higher volumes the sound still tends to distort. But at lower volumes, it now appears clear and crisp. This is thanks to the new upward-firing speaker, along with a custom tuning algorithm. Better yet, this tuning is for all audio coming out of the device — meaning it works with any of the supported streaming services.

I will say, for the price, Amazon does a better job with the audio on the Echo Dot with Clock or the third-gen Echo Dot. The sound isn’t as distorted and feels fuller. However, the sound is decent given the Nest Mini’s compact size.

Full access to the Google Assistant

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Probably the biggest appeal to any Nest speaker or display is the on-demand instant access to the Google Assistant. Of course, that power is in full force on the Nest Mini.

We already covered how it intelligently adjusts the volume of its responses to accommodate noise detected in the space. You can also use it to see if there is traffic, make phone calls, get help with a math equation, play your favorite songs, find movie times and even control your smart home. All the normal smart speaker tasks.

While Amazon has more Alexa skills, there are a number available for the Google Assistant that can be explored in the Home app. You can even ask the assistant what it can do to find add-ons that can improve the experience.

The Nest Mini itself lives in the Google Home app and can be grouped with other devices. For instance, two Nest Minis can be paired for a stereo listening experience.

There’s also an onboard Machine Learning chip that can handle most of the requests (i.e., anything you ask the Google Assistant) right on the device. Typically, the Mini would send this to a Google data server, get the results and pass it back down. But I noticed on the onboard chip made commands like weather, traffic, news and fun facts happen a lot faster than the original device. I’m excited to see how this improves.

And obviously, if you’re in the Nest smart home ecosystem, you can use the Nest Mini to listen through your cams and even be notified if someone is at the front door. Like Amazon Echo devices, Nest Mini also allows for an intercom-like experience with other Google Assistant-enabled devices.

Bottom line

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The Nest Mini improves on the overall experience of the Google Home Mini and I’m really happy the price is staying at $49. But nearly two years down the line from the original, I wish Google and Nest gave us a more substantial update. Then again, it seems to be sticking with what works.

An eco-friendly design with better smart features does make for a better product. And when it comes to this versus an Echo Dot or Echo Dot with Clock, it really depends on which ecosystem you’re already in. From a feature set alone, Amazon has introduced more innovations with the Echo Dot with Clock, but it’s also more expensive.

At $49, the Nest Mini is still the easiest way to add the Google Assistant to another room in your house, or an affordable way to start your Google ecosystem.