JBL’s first attempt at a smart speaker is a winning combo for those who tend to live life outside of the home.

If the Google Home seems too stale for your needs, perhaps it’s time to focus your attention on a third-party speaker powered by Google Assistant. The JBL Link 20 is one particular smart speaker to consider if you’re not keen on the permanent nature of Google’s other smart speaker offerings.

Not only is it louder and boomier, but it’s also portable, and it can fall into the shallow end of the pool with nary a worry. And though the JBL Link 20 will set you back roughly $70 more than a Google Home, its added functionality is a great reminder of the benefits of choosing third-party hardware with Google’s software behind it.

A smart speaker for the wild and free

Meet the JBL Link 20, the portable smart speaker with Google Assistant built in.

Though we’re reviewing the Link 20, it’s worth noting that there are two other members of JBL’s family of Link products: the Link 10 and Link 300. The Link 10 is the smaller, cheaper version of the Link 20, while the Link 300 is a larger, less portable version for bigger houses. All three devices can link with one another through the Google Home app for a surround sound experience. There is no auxiliary port to hook up other speakers manually, however.

Unlike the Google Home, the Link 20 doesn’t fit into the backdrop of your typical living room décor. But that’s because it’s not meant to be tethered there in the first place. JBL’s demographic for this smart speaker is the young, the free, and the technologically inclined, and because it’s IPX7 waterproof and offers a built-in 6000mAh battery, it’s meant to go adventuring with you. It’s also great for people who want to consolidate their purchases since the Link 20 also features a Bluetooth-only mode for pairing non-Assistant devices.

On top of the device, the JBL Link 20 offers playback controls, a Bluetooth toggle, and an Assistant button for conjuring up the power of Google. There’s also a Wi-Fi indicator light toward the bottom to let you know the speaker is on and connected to the network, and you’ll see a row of lights appear back on top anytime you engage the device. There’s also a mute button on the back of the speaker, to keep it from listening in when you’re feeling private, as well as a power button for when it’s in battery-only mode.

The real pariah of this whole package, however, is the JBL Link 20’s power adapter. I like that the prongs on the power brick fold up and that the Micro USB cord is removable, but its orange color is a bit striking amongst the muted colors in my household. Still, I like that the power pack is as portable as the Link 20, and it bodes well for the demographic that JBL is after. And if you’ve got a black MicroUSB cable around the house, you can easily plug that into the Link 20 instead to help better conceal it among any knick-knacks you might have in your home.

Setting up the JBL Link 20 is as simple as setting up any of the Google Home devices. All you have do is download the Home app to get started, and Google Assistant will immediately recognize the device on your network. You can then give it a name based on where it’s placed in the house, though I suggest you give it a custom name like “Anywhere” because, with its built-in battery, you can move it anywhere within your Wi-Fi network.

A different experience than the Google Home

The Google Home (left) stacked next to the JBL Link 20 (right).

I like to dance, and tend to prefer deep, progressive bass melodies for mundane life tasks like cleaning the kitchen. The Google Home is fine for these sorts of life chores, but I’d hardly regard it as a music machine. When playing back a well-curated Spotify playlist through the Google Home, its limitations are immediately noticeable.

Conversely, the JBL Link 20 is better suited as a music player, and with its dual 10-watt speakers, it certainly sounds like it, too. It’s very loud. At its highest volume, however, you’ll start to notice a bit of distortion in the music played, though it’s not as noticeable when the speaker is at a distance.

JBL claims that the Link 20’s battery can last up to 10 hours of playback on a single charge. I did not have the luxury of ten consecutive hours of time to test this to capacity, but I was impressed by the fact that even on the second day of intermittent use, the Link 20 didn’t indicate that it needed a charge.

Google Assistant on the go

A handy Google Assistant button on top of the Link 20 reminds you that it’s available on the device.

Like the Google Home, the Link 20 responds to every “Hey Google” and “Okay, Google” commands you shout at it. If you’re physically near it, you can also manually push the Assistant button to conjure it up. When the Link 20 is on battery, though, and the Wi-Fi indicator light is off, that means it’s gone to sleep. The Link 20 goes into standby mode after a period of inactivity — about an hour, according to my anecdotal tests — to help preserve battery.

As long as it stays on the same Wi-Fi network, the Link 20 allows you toddle with it from room to room without having to grab your phone or switch smart speakers. I had no trouble commanding the different devices in my smart home setup either, though you’ll still have to be specific about which room you’re in so as not to have Assistant perform the same command on all related connected gadgets at once. (This is the burden of having multiple IoT-connected ecosystems in your dwellings!) And like Google Home, you can still use the Link 20 to tell you the traffic, read you the news, and even phone a friend with hands-free calling.

A pretty good deal

The JBL Link 20 is for anyone who likes the idea of Google Assistant on the go.

At $200, the JBL Link 20 might seem like a steep choice compared to Google’s offerings, but its benefits more than outweigh the price difference. Rather than a stationary smart speaker that remains tethered in one part of the house, the Link 20 is a portable Assistant with music-playing chops. And since it’s resistant up to a meter of water for up to half an hour, it can help power the ambiance for next summer’s pool party or the winter’s hot tub shenanigans.

Homebodies might want to avoid the Link 20 as their first introduction to the world of Google Assistant, however. If you’re just looking to dabble, consider starting with the $50 donut-shaped Google Home Mini instead. The JBL Link 20 is more tuned for those who already know what they’re getting into, but need more than the original Google Home can offer out of the box.

> Smart speakers: What are they and what are your options? 

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