Last week, Google finally released Google Home in Australia, a voice-controlled smart appliance that can answer questions, remind you of your schedule, play music and even control your house lights. But how does it fare against the similar Amazon Echo? Let's find out.
In 2014, Amazon released a voice-controlled speaker that could answer questions, play music, and control other gadgets in your home. Nobody expected it at the time, but it was a huge hit, already selling over 3 million units, which is a lot for a device no one ever thought to want before. Naturally, Google decided to jump in and bring its own to the party. Today, we're taking a look at both:
Amazon Echo ($US180 ($227)): Amazon started the voice-controlled hub trend with the Echo, powered by the company's voice assistant Alexa. This device comes with an array of seven microphones that let it hear commands from anywhere in the room it's in, even while playing music. It also packs two speakers in a downward-firing configuration to project audio in all directions. If you don't need the speakers, you can get the much cheaper Echo Dot for $US50 which can hear voice commands, but isn't very good at playing music unless it's connected to external speakers. When Alexa can't answer a question on its own, it relies on Bing search results.
The Amazon Echo has not been officially launched in Australia yet, but it's possible to purchase it online and it reportedly does a decent job of understanding non-American accents.
- Google Home ($199): Google's smart hub is a compact device with two microphones and four speakers. It's powered by the new Google Assistant, which offers all the voice command powers you've used on your phone for years, plus several new features like controlling your smart home objects and controlling your Chromecasts. While the Google Home is a bit cheaper than the Echo, there's unfortunately no budget option like the Echo Dot just yet, which means you can end up spending more money if you want to add units to multiple rooms in your house.
While Amazon may have a head start, Google's been doing AI and voice commands for years, so both devices are pretty powerful already. Of course, Amazon has already proven that it will add new updates to the Echo regularly, but we'll have to wait and see if Google will keep up that same pace.
The Echo Is a More Natural Conversation Partner Than Google Home
Neither the Amazon Echo nor Google Home have a screen in the traditional sense (though both can pair with compatible phones or TVs), which means you have to rely on less common ways to interact with it. On this front, Amazon has a slight edge over Google Home. The Echo and Echo Dot have a blue ring along the top that lights up when you say "Alexa" (the $US130 ($164) Tap lacks this feature, instead you have to press a button to issue a voice command). A slightly lighter blue section of the ring will point towards you as you speak, so you know that it's listening, as well as who it's listening to. On top of this, the Echo makes a small sound whenever it starts listening so you know it's working even if you aren't looking at the device.
In contrast, Google Home has a slanted top, with a ring of coloured lights that turn on when you say "OK, Google." This design may be stylish, but in practice you can only see the visual cue that it's listening from certain angles. Furthermore, Home doesn't make a sound when you start talking to it. So, if you're behind or facing away from the device, you have no idea if the "OK, Google" trigger actually worked. On several occasions I found that I'd be completely finished with a long voice command before I even noticed Home wasn't listening to me. This really breaks the seamless flow that hubs like this are going for. (Update: As one reader pointed out, you can enable a sound in the Google Home app's settings. This is confusingly tucked away in an "Accessibility" section even though this is a standard feedback feature on any other device.)
The hotword itself is also a slight problem for Google Home. Amazon personified its assistant into a nebulous character named Alexa (optionally, you can change the activation phrase to "Amazon" or "Echo" in the app). While slightly silly, it feels more natural to talk to a person named Alexa like she's just sitting in my house. On the other hand,"OK, Google" is more syllables, doesn't roll off the tongue very well, and it just feels weird to call out a company's name every time I want an answer. You can also say "Hey Google," which has the distinct benefit of not activating every other Google-powered device in your house. It's a slight improvement, but it still doesn't feel very natural. Alexa, Siri, and even Cortana figured out that anthropomorphic characters are a more natural conversation partner than calling out a company name. It would be nice if Google gave its assistant a name or at least let users customise their trigger word. On the plus side, Google Home has a bona fide Australian accent which is a big plus (especially if you find US accents grating.)
Google Is Better at Answering Things, Alexa Is Better at Doing Things
You can ask Google Home about your calendar all day, but you can't add anything to it yet.
Google has a long history with powerful voice commands, so you'd expect that Google Home would demolish the Echo right out of the box. However, the Home is actually a little disappointing in some areas. You can't set reminders with it, even though you can in everything from Allo to Inbox. (This feature is reportedly coming soon, however.) If you ask for directions somewhere, Home can't provide them, but it will tell you how long it takes to get there. It can, however, tell you helpful things like session times when you ask where a movie is playing.
One of the most frustrating things about Google Home at launch was that you couldn't add anything to your Google Calendar. Presumably this was because Google Home only supported one account at the time. Thankfully, you can now add events to your calendar by saying "Hey (OK) Google, add an event to my calendar." Google Home will then talk you through the process.
If you ask Alexa to set a reminder for you, she'll add the item to your to-do list (which isn't quite the same, but points for doing something instead of nothing). If you ask for directions, she won't read them out, but she will send the address of the place you're looking for to the Alexa app. The Echo can also add events to your Google Calendar if you connect it in the Alexa app.
The Echo is also fantastic for anyone who regularly shops on Amazon. You can add items to your shopping cart with just your voice. If Alexa can find an exact match for the item you're looking for, it will add it directly, but if you say something more general like "add socks", you'll be prompted to choose a specific item the next time you log into your cart on Amazon. It's an impressively streamlined process that will only enable your already out-of-control shopping habit.
Google does have some advantages over the Echo. When it comes to answering questions, Home can handle a lot more than Alexa because it's backed by Google. You can ask for information about medications, get cocktail recipes, and tons of other things Google has cards for. The most surprising for me came while playing the video game Skyrim. I asked "where can I find ebony ingots in Skyrim" not really expecting an answer. Instead, Google pulled a helpful answer from a Skyrim Wikia page, proving just how expansive its Knowledge Graph is over the competition. For getting answers, Google is in another league.
More practically, the My Day feature lets you get the weather, traffic on your commute, and overview of your calendar events, and your choice of news podcasts simply by saying "good morning." Home can also understand the context of multiple questions. For example if I ask "How tall is Jeff Goldblum?" and then ask "How old is he?" Google understands I'm still talking about Jeff Goldblum. It can also translate sentences into other languages, control Chromecast devices, get recipes (which the Echo can only do with third-party apps), and there are some fun built-in games (say "I'm feeling lucky" and Google starts a game show-style trivia game).
These features make for a nicer experience on the Google Home. Once Google catches up and adds some of the features you'd expect it to already have, it will probably be a much smoother experience than the Echo. However, it feels like Google could've spent less time on the fun, goofy features and more on practical things like setting reminders.
Both Have Great Speakers and Microphones, But Don't Turn Google Home Up Too Loud
These speakers are great, and for $US50 ($63) less than the Echo. As long as you don't turn the volume up too high.
The Google Home and the Amazon Echo can both hear your voice commands from across the room. This is especially impressive for the Home since Google's doing the same job with two microphones that Alexa does with seven. However, that performance depends heavily on where you place it in a room. The Echo has a bit more flexibility since its round design means you can place it anywhere and use it from any direction, but the Home works best when it's on the side of a room, so you can see the display on its top more easily.
For listening to music, the Echo edges out the Home, but only slightly. At a middling volume, both speakers produce a clear sound, though the Home has a slightly fuller bass. The difference is noticeable if you're looking for it, but negligible. However, when you turn the Google Home volume too high, the sound gains a distinct crackle that overpowers the higher tones. Fortunately, the volume has to get pretty high before this becomes a problem, but if you want to play music for a loud party, you're better off with the Echo. (The cheaper Echo Dot's built-in speaker is only designed to provide feedback for voice commands. It can play music, but it's just not very good. If you want to play music with an Echo Dot, you should still look into hooking it up to something else.)
Both devices are excellent at picking up voice commands even when music is playing. At a regular speaking volume -- even when the music playing was louder than my own voice -- I found that the Echo was slightly better at picking up my commands than the Home, but only just so. This was also a moot point because when music is loud, the natural instinct is to shout over it. If I raised my voice even a little, both speakers picked up my commands flawlessly.
With only minor differences between the hardware capabilities on both hubs, it's easy to say their hardware is roughly equal, except for one point: Google Home is cheaper than the Echo. (Especially when you factor in international shipping costs for the Echo.) That's a significant discount for a barely noticeable performance difference. If you plan to play a lot of loud music or want to be able to place your device in the center of the room, the extra cost might be worth it, but otherwise the Home's hardware is 99% as good as the Echo for less money.
The Echo Can Control Most Smart Home Gadgets, But Google Home Can Control Your Chromecast
If you have smart home gadgets including Samsung's SmartThings, Nest devices, or Philips Hue lights, the Echo and Google Home are the best way to control them. If you own any smart devices other than the ones from those three companies, Google Home can't do anything with them yet directly (though there are workarounds we'll talk about in a bit). Since Amazon has been working on the Echo for over two years, it can control products like Logitech Harmony , WeMo smart devices, and tons more. Depending on what you own, you may want to lean towards the Echo.
However, the Google Home does have one major advantage: it can control your Chromecast. You can ask Home to play a particular show or open an app on your Chromecast and it will load automatically. If something's already playing, you can pause, stop, or skip with your voice. Currently, the Echo cannot do this.
Given that the Chromecast is wildly popular (possibly more popular than any other smart home gadgets), it's hard to determine which one is better overall. On the one hand, the Echo supports a lot more devices right now than Google Home. On the other, there's a higher chance you own a Chromecast than any smart home device. Until Google catches up, you should take a look at your home's specific needs.
Google's Chromecast is a great way to stream anything in your living room, and mastering its intricacies can really make it shine. There are some hidden Chromecast capabilities many people don't know exist -- here are some of the best ones.
Both Devices Support IFTTT, Which Is All the Third-Party Support You'll Really Need
You can try looking through Alexa's Skills store, but IFTTT is way more useful.
Alexa has a two-year head start on third-party support, so you can do more with it than you can with Google Home. You can browse Alexa's third-party apps (called Skills) on Amazon's store page here. While some Skills add useful features like calling an Uber (which Google Home can do out of the box) or finding out how to make a cocktail with Mixologist, most of them are garbage. For example, some of the most highly-rated Skills include a magic 8-ball app, and a pick-up line generator (really?). Of course, while the Echo only has a few useful skills, Google Home doesn't have any comparable add-on store so Amazon still has the advantage.
If you really want to customise your voice hub, you're better off looking at IFTTT, which both the Echo and Google Home support (through their Alexa and Google Assistant channels, respectively). IFTTT lets you create automated recipes (or applets) that run when you use custom voice commands on either device. For example, I set up a recipe to turn off every Philips Hue light in my house except the bedroom light when I tell either hub "bedtime."
IFTTT connects to hundreds of services, so even if Google Home doesn't support third-party apps outright, it still kind of does. However, Alexa's IFTTT channel has a dozen or so more specific triggers than Google has. For example, you can set your lights to flash whenever a timer you set with Alexa goes off, or to add all the songs the Echo plays to a spreadsheet. Google Assistant's channel can only activate when you say certain phrases. However, Google's channel also supports empty variables so you can create more complex commands. For example, you can say "Tell Slack that I'm running late" and it understands "tell slack that" is the trigger and "I'm running late" is the message it should send.
We're pretty fond of IFTTT around these parts. Last year, the company released an iOS app and we got a stack of new recipes designed just for the iPhone. Now, it's Android's turn. Today the official Android app launched. Here's what you can do with it.
The Verdict: Google Home Has a More Promising Future, Echo Has a Better Present
A lot of the advantages that the Amazon Echo has over Google Home boil down to the fact that Google's product is still relatively new. Every area where the two products overlap, Google does it slightly better or cheaper. The Home costs $US50 less, has great speakers, can control your Chromecasts, and it has access to Google's impressive array of voice commands and search results.
However, the Echo has the benefit of experience. It can control nearly every smart home gadget known to man (but not the Chromecast), it has thousands of third-party Skills to add new features (even if most of them suck), and it has some really top-quality speakers (unless you buy the cheaper Dot). Right now, Amazon's total package looks a little better than Google's, but there's no telling if it will stay that way. Especially until we find out if this is a real long-term product line for Google, or another side gig that will be abandoned in a couple years.
If you're into Google's ecosystem and you're willing to take the chance that the future will be even better than the present, then Google Home is your best bet. (And of course, it enjoys official support for Australians.) However, if you already have a bunch of smart home gadgets you need to control now, or if you'd like the option of adding the cheaper Echo Dot to multiple rooms in your house, Amazon has you covered.