For travelers, Google Home and Pixel are the most relevant. A white $129 speaker slightly larger than a can of beans, Google Home can spit out the status of the S&P 500, create a shopping list and control your lights, television and thermostat through smart-home automation devices like Nest and Philips Hue. But let’s focus on the implications for travel.
There are plenty. Google Home can respond to questions such as “Where’s the nearest Mexican restaurant?” It can tell you what $300 is in euros, and that the Burj Khalifa is about 2,717 feet tall. It can tell you about your coming trip by searching your digital calendar, and give you local traffic and weather conditions. It can book a ride if you say “Call an Uber,” or display photos from your honeymoon in Bali on your Chromecast-connected television screen.
To use Google Home, just say, “O.K., Google.” The LED light ring atop will illuminate, a sign that it’s listening. On a chilly morning, I sat across the room asking it for travel information.
“O.K., Google, how do you say ‘hello’ in Japanese?”
“Konnichiwa,” it said.
“O.K., Google, when is the best time to visit Paris?”
“According to U.S. News Travel,” it replied, “the best time to visit Paris is from June to August, when the weather is just about parfait.”
I asked about United States Customs and Border Protection’s expedited clearance: “O.K., Google, what is the cost of Global Entry?”
“One hundred dollars,” Google Home said.
Next, a few rapid-fire questions. “Is there Zika in Puerto Rico?” Google Home answered yes and mentioned some advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Would I need a visa to visit Singapore? I wouldn’t need a visa for a tourist visit up to 90 days, it said, quoting the United States Department of State, but I should make sure my passport was valid for at least six months beyond the date I planned to enter. All of this was faster than typing a request into Google and searching for a reliable source (Home chooses sources based on programs and formulas that Google writes, like those used to power Google Search). And Home’s ability to understand my voice was notable considering how frequently Siri, the iPhone virtual assistant, and I misunderstand each other.
I moved on to flight questions. “O.K., Google, what time does United Airlines Flight 97 arrive?”
Home identified the flight, naming the cities and departure time. However, it didn’t give an arrival time. It simply said: “United Airlines 97 from San Francisco to Houston is on time and departs in five hours and 26 minutes.” I asked again. It failed again to give an arrival time. I tried a flight search. “O.K., Google, what is the price of a business class flight from New York to Singapore on Qatar Airways departing Dec. 29 and returning Jan. 2?”
“Flights on Qatar Airways from New York City to Singapore leaving Dec. 29 and coming back Jan. 2 start at $4,004. The shortest flight is about 22 hours and 25 minutes long,” it said. Correct, and fast.
“O.K., Google, when was Central Park created?” “According to Wikipedia,” Home began and rattled off part of a Wikipedia entry about the founding of the park.
When I asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the New York Public Library?” Home replied, “I don’t support directions yet.” A Google spokeswoman said this was mainly because directions could require a long voice response. Over time, Google said, it will probably allow users to send directions to their phone for step-by-step navigation.
Time for some music. “O.K., Google,” I said, “play me Frank Sinatra.”
“All right. Check out this Frank Sinatra radio mix on YouTube.”
“Some day, when I’m awfully low,” Sinatra crooned as “The Way You Look Tonight” began.
I leaned back. “O.K., Google,” I said, “clean up my room.”
“Let me try,” it said to my surprise as a magic pixie dust sound effect emanated from its base. “Did anything happen?” Home asked.
“Sorry,” it said, “I guess I can’t.”
Another way Home can be handy for travel is by telling you what is on your calendar. “O.K., Google,” I said while tidying up the room, “when am I going to Puerto Rico?” It provided the dates and details.
None of this makes the gadget essential for travel per se. But you can get answers while folding laundry, call out items to add to your shopping list while standing in front of the refrigerator (you don’t need to be in the same room with Google Home) and order an Uber hands-free while walking out the door. If I were using Google Home to control my lights and thermostat too, it would be a no-brainer at $129.
Pixel, the Google phone, has some travel-friendly features. You can ask it for the location of the nearest sushi restaurant, then tap the mike and say, “Remind me to leave for sushi at 8 p.m.” Parents can use it on road trips with their children (tell the phone’s “assistant” you want to play Mad Libs). And the phone’s camera has received strong reviews. Speaking of photos: free, unlimited storage for photos and videos, stored at full resolution in Google Photos.
In October, Google announced new, free features for Google Photos, including short animations created from users’ videos. And in November, Google rolled out an app called PhotoScan, which I recently used to scan hundreds of old prints. Details about these and other updates to Google Photos are at blog.google.