The Nest Mini might look similar but upgrades the internals

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Fri October 18, 2019

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 3rd 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

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 microUSB 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.

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

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 3rd 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

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. I haven't had the chance to test this, but we'll soon update this review with our thoughts on two and see if it improves the overall sound 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

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.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.