For years I’ve said that automation is the key to great smart homes. Voice controls are nice, but a system that anticipates your needs is better. Despite preferring Google smart home devices, I can’t switch to them entirely. Why? Because Google Assistant routines are trash. Google should be ashamed.
Automation comes in several forms in the smart home world. Traditionally to get great automation, you’d want a smart home hub like Hubitat or Home Assistant. And while it’s true, Hubitat’s automation capabilities outstrip Google or Alexa by far; the truth is most average people don’t need a traditional smart home hub anymore.
Both Alexa and Google can serve as the “modern hub” and tie together smart home devices. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a trend towards Wi-Fi-powered smart home devices and away from ZigBee and Z-Wave (Philips Hue being the major holdout). That turn makes the idea of relying on traditional smart home hubs more difficult in the first place.
Both Alexa and Google offer smart home automation through routines—commands that run on their own based on a trigger your choose. It doesn’t have to be a voice; it could be controlled by schedules like at sunset or sunrise—or more.
What Routines Can Do
So why is automation essential, and what can routines do anyway? If you have a smart home now, think about how you primarily interact with it. Chances are, it’s probably by voice or through an app. If you need to turn a light on, you ask a smart speaker or pull out your phone. Some would argue that’s not much more convenient than flipping the light switch.
The same goes for smart plugs, blinds, locks, and more. Realistically speaking, with just voice or app control, the convenience level isn’t much better than the old-fashioned way of doing things. Automations, on the other hand, change the game. Instead of your home reacting to your commands, it can anticipate your needs.
In my home, I have scheduled automations that fire every day. In the morning, my coffee maker outlet turns on, the blinds in our two home offices rise to let in light. As evening approaches, the blinds lower automatically, and doors lock themselves. And the coffee outlet that turned on in the morning? That powered down before lunch.
Speaking of the doors, we sometimes forget to lock them when we leave home. So four minutes after we unlock a door, it locks itself—no more forgetting. But we don’t just have automations on a schedule. When the sun sets, the lights in the dining room, kitchen, and elsewhere automatically turn themselves on when we enter a room. When we leave, they turn back off. My family doesn’t have to ask; it just happens based on our presence.
That’s thanks to motion sensors in each room and a routine that fires on some basic logic. If the sensor detects motion, it triggers a routine that turns on the lights in that room. When the sensor stops seeing motion, it triggers a second routine to turn the lights back off. Other routines occur when I leave home, or when I come back thanks to a location trigger.
When someone opens our mailbox, a sensor just inside triggers yet another routine to announce in the home that “the mail is here.” In my home, routines trigger due to schedules, voice commands, smart device functions, camera notifications, and more. We still use voice commands, but often we don’t have to because my smart home already did what I needed before I asked.
But that’s no thanks to Google.
Except Google Can’t Do Most Of That
When I’d advise most people exploring smart homes for the first time, I tell them to pick an ecosystem and stick with it. Choose Alexa or Google Assistant; most people don’t need both. I prefer Google Assistant for voice commands and Nest Hub displays for their fantastic photo capabilities. Despite that, I’m breaking my own advice and have Alexa and Echo smart speakers in my home.
Part of that is because of my job—I write about smart homes, so having a little of everything on hand is helpful. But the other part is because while I prefer Google’s smart home devices, its routines are astoundingly awful. I keep Alexa around for the routines.
The problem is, Google doesn’t approach routines the same way Amazon does with Alexa. Over on Alexa, routines are treated as a total smart home solution. But on Google Assistant, routines look more like a “voice command replacement.” You can create routines that fire off several functions from a single voice command, for instance. That can be handy if you want to turn off multiple lights throughout the home with a simple “good night” command.
But beyond that, your “starter” (Google’s equivalent to Alexa’s “trigger”) choices are limited. You can choose voice command, time, sunrise/sunset, and “dismiss an alarm.” That’s it. Compare that to Alexa, where you can select voice command, schedule, smart home devices, location, alarms, echo button, sound detection, and guard. All those extra choices add up quickly.
On Alexa, I can create routines that trigger from the smart sensors in my home. Confusingly those same sensors show in the Google Home app, but I can’t make routines for them or in the Google Assistant app. If converted over to a Google-powered smart home entirely, my smart lights would no longer turn on and off as I move through my home. My mailbox would stop telling me when the mail arrives. My smart locks wouldn’t even lock themselves anymore—unless I turned to another app.
Why Doesn’t Google Fix The Problem?
If Google really wanted to, it could easily make its routines more powerful. This is a company that leads in voice assistant capabilities. The same company that turned photo storage on the side of its head and created a new A.I. that makes its smart displays the best smart displays. Google designed camera software that kicked off a new revolution in night photos. And at the same time, Google created a system that gave Pixel’s phone capabilities superpowers. It’s no stranger to advanced concepts in A.I., smart home, or advanced coding concepts.
Yet while Amazon continually adds to its routine options, like a recent new feature that triggers routines from the sound of a dog barking or a baby crying, while Google occasionally adds new features. Google only recently added basic scheduling and delay options, things Amazon added to Alexa years ago. Alexa will even act on “hunches” and turn off lights or other devices when the system notices you accidentally left things on overnight or when you aren’t home. Google doesn’t have anything like that.
In comparison, Google’s routines and automations are a joke. And it’s frustrating because it leaves me maintaining two smart home systems in my home: one for voice commands and the other for automation. In smart homes, that’s the opposite of what you want. And Google, through its drive with the Matter smart home initiative, talks a big game about a universal system where it won’t “matter” what devices you won.
Until Google’s smart home routines catch up to at least Amazon’s progress, it’s hard to see the truth in that at all. Right now, if you want the best smart home voice commands and the best accessible automations, then you need a home full of Google smart speakers and displays and one Amazon Echo. The Echo will get you the routines, and Google’s hardware can do the rest.
But that’s not the dream of the smart home. No one wants to maintain two systems and hop back and forth between apps. And frankly, that’s Google’s fault. It’s an unforced error that’s preventing Google from truly dominating in the smart home realm. And we’re worse off for it. Google should be ashamed. And the first step is admitting the problem. Google routines are inferior compared to the competition. The second step? Fix it. Sooner than later.