Reviewing a product designed to learn over time is like reviewing a newborn baby. So much functionality is dependent on artificial intelligence and machine learning, the only certainty is that it’ll get smarter over time. Who knows what it’ll end up being: A jack-of-all-trades? A specialized savant? Or maybe just a creeper that records everything you say?
Consider the Amazon Echo. At birth, it didn’t have the ability to order you Domino’s, play Spotify playlists, or get things from Amazon Prime. In the past year, its capabilities and intelligence have evolved significantly. That’s thanks to hundreds of “skills” created by developers with the Alexa Skills Kit, partnerships with major companies such as Uber and Sonos, and Amazon’s new Music Unlimited service, which offers deep voice-control features.
At the ripe old age of two, Amazon’s Echo already has offspring in the form of the Echo Dot and Echo Tap. And now it has a neonate arch-rival in the form of Google Home. In the long term, the competition between the two platforms will be great for users of both devices: Two heavyweights in the tech world will be trying to make their voice assistants smarter, more versatile, and more useful than the other one.
As of now, they’re more like twins than not: They both tell decent jokes, they both stream NPR if you ask for news, they both do IFTTT, and they spout recipes and random facts with ease. Because it’s had more time in the world, Amazon’s platform has the advantage in many key areas. But Google Home ($130) trumps the full-size Echo ($180) in a few ways too—and not just in terms of price. They’re both really good, and they’re both going to get smarter. A lot smarter.
Google Home’s Big Advantages
Audio quality: Up until about 75 percent of volume, Google Home sounds really, really good. The bass has surprising bump, and it doesn’t muddy up the midrange or high-end. Things start distorting at the top two volume levels, but audio quality is so impressive through most of its range that it’s really disappointing it can’t be used as a normal Bluetooth speaker (seriously, Google?). Perhaps more importantly, the Google Home Assistant’s voice sounds more natural and warm. She even says complimentary things about Alexa.
Aesthetics: While the full-size Amazon Echo looks like Darth Maul’s spaghetti canister, the Home will look good—or at least inoffensive—in any home. It has an elegant vase-meets-lipstick design, and there are swappable base grilles for customizing its color and texture. The multicolored light show under the top touchpad is noice, too.
Multi-room audio: Using the Home app, you set up a music service for Google Home to use. Your choices are Spotify if you have a premium account, Pandora, Google Play Music, or YouTube Music. Then you ask for a song, artist, playlist, or just “music,” and the speaker streams tunes directly over Wi-Fi. But the big advantage to having a few Google Homes in your abode compared to a multi-Echo setup is that multiple Google units sync up for home-blanketing audio. Set speakers as a group in the Home app, say “OK Google, play ‘Informer’ by Snow on Home Group,” and the song plays on all your dang speakers. By default, if you make a request to a single speaker, it only plays on that speaker unless you ask for group playback. You can also control what plays on other speakers by asking a nearby Google Home unit to play something on another speaker. It’s neat-o.
Does a better job with crowd noise: In an unscientific test that annoyed my neighbors, I played loud audio of crowd noise in the same room as a Google Home speaker and an Amazon Echo Dot. Then, I tried using voice commands with both speakers. The Google Home unit didn’t have a problem picking my voice up over the din, while the Echo Dot only heard me once out of five tries. Google Home’s far-field microphone array worked more consistently for me, even though both Home and Echo had the same impressive range when I spoke without a bunch of background noise at normal volume: About 25 feet down the hall, around the corner, without line of sight.
Chromecast controls: There are Alexa voice controls built into the Fire TV Stick and box remotes, but you can’t bark commands to a tabletop Echo or Dot to play things on TV. (At least not yet.) During the setup process, Google Home recognizes if you have a Chromecast or Cast-capable TV in the house, and you can play YouTube videos on TV by asking the speaker. The options are limited: A recommended YouTube playlist starts rolling if you say “Play YouTube on Chromecast”, and you can request a playlist of topical clips by saying “Play sloth videos on Chromecast”. But you have to specify the “Chromecast” each time. And you can’t search YouTube for a keyword, then pick a single video to play by voice. Google Home just serves up keyword-driven playlists.
A better app: One of the drawbacks of the Echo’s more-developed skill set is that the Alexa app has to cover a lot of bases. As a result, the Alexa app can be confusing to navigate, and its dull white-on-black color scheme doesn’t help much. The Google Home app, where you can tinker with options, set your preferences, and see a feed of all your requests, is a much more lively companion. It serves up useful links for some of your voice requests, and it has a simpler, more vibrant interface.
Translations: Simply put, Alexa doesn’t do translations. At least not spoken-word translations: It’ll only send a translated word or phrase to the Alexa app, but that won’t help you pronounce 鞋. Google Home gives spoken-word translations for both individual words and phrases, so you can ask it how to say “meatball” in Japanese, “I have a ballpoint pen” in German, or “déjà vu” in French. Google Home also one-ups Alexa by telling you what certain animals sound like.
Alexa’s Superior Smarts
Supports Bluetooth, aux-in, and aux-out: This is a pretty big one if you want to play music stored on your phone or if you’re a subscriber to Apple Music. While Google Home only does the voice-request-over-Wi-Fi thing, you can wirelessly stream tunes the old-fashioned way over Bluetooth with the Echo lineup. You can even go older-school with the 3.5mm-in port on the Echo Tap or the 3.5mm-out jack on the Echo Dot.
Handles multiple accounts: Another possible dealbreaker for multi-user homes is that Google Home only supports a single account. You choose a Google account to link your Home to during the setup process, and all the Home interactions and calendar requests are associated with that account. Echo is much better for multiple users, as you can register several users in a household and switch between profiles by asking Alexa.
A lot more third-party support: There’s a vast universe of Alexa skills already out there, and they’re growing by the day. You can control your home-security system with Alexa, check on your car’s vitals, and open and close your garage door. Given Google’s popularity and the appeal of the Home speaker, it’s practically a sure thing that the Home platform will get all kinds of third-party support soon. Until then, Amazon’s platform has a huge edge in interoperability.
You can order things on Amazon Prime: Both Google Home and Amazon Echo will give you recipes for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and both will convert measurements on the fly, but only one of them will place an order on Amazon Prime when you run out of Worcester sauce. Guess which one that is?
Deep controls for Amazon Music Unlimited: Even though the deep contextual understanding is limited to Amazon Music Unlimited—which is a really good deal at $4 a month for Echo-only listening—Alexa is the best voice assistant by far at picking the music you want to hear. It’ll bring up a song if you only know some of the lyrics, if you request “the latest” song or album from an artist, or create an on-the-fly playlist based on boolean genre and era combinations. Amazon has essentially created a voice-only music interface from scratch, and it’s a glimpse at the future.
Cheaper entry point: While the full-size Echo costs $50 more than Google Home, you can get the Alexa experience in the $50 Echo Dot and the $40 Fire TV Stick. The Echo Tap, which is the only one of these devices that runs on a rechargeable battery and is designed for portable use, costs the same as a Google Home speaker.
Both Platforms Have Weaknesses
Directions: While the Google Assistant does a good job at giving you turn-by-turn directions on a phone, that skill hasn’t been passed on to the Google Home version of the helper. It’ll tell you estimated commute times and nearby attractions, but it won’t tell you to take your first left, walk three blocks, and then hang a right. Of course, Alexa doesn’t do that either, but given Google’s mapping prowess, it’s a bit surprising that Home won’t tell you where to go. It also won’t send direction or map requests to your phone.
Editing lists: Both Google Home and Amazon Echo let you create lists with ease and add to them over time: Google’s automatically appear in the underrated Keep list app, while your Alexa lists appear in the Alexa app. Unfortunately, the only way to edit those lists is to jump in the app and delete completed tasks manually. Asking to delete items from your list only confuses Alexa and the Assistant.
Timers: Initially, it seemed Google Home addressed one of Amazon Echo’s major weaknesses in the kitchen: You can set a kitchen timer on the Echo, but you can’t assign a name like “meatloaf” or “green bean casserole” to the countdown clock to keep track of what’s done and what needs another 10 minutes or so. When you set a timer on Google Home, it asks you to name it, so you can assign “meatloaf” to your timer. However, when the timer goes off, it doesn’t repeat what you’ve named it. That smell in the air is my burnt imaginary meatloaf. And my imaginary green bean casserole is really undercooked.