For decades, we have seen science fiction movies in which people talk to computers. Dave spoke to HAL. Michael Knight was assisted by KITT. Captain Picard directed “Computer.” The computers were smart, personable, and (usually) did what they were told.
When Amazon’s Echo hit the market two years ago, this dream came true – sort of. The Echo was an affordable, futuristic device that responded to voice commands. You could talk directly to “Alexa,” ask her questions, and get immediate responses. The Echo is clearly not full-on artificial intelligence. But this little black cylinder has wowed customers.
Now there’s Google Home, a similar device that rivals the Echo in every way. As these high-tech machines vie for dominance, the natural question is: Which one is better? I’ve tried both Amazon Echo and Google Home, and I can tell you that there are benefits and drawbacks to each.
Here are some highs and lows about both devices. For more details about the two devices, go to http://tinyurl.com/z8tvzcj for my handy side-by-side feature comparison chart.
Both devices were designed to look sleek and sophisticated, like small modernist sculptures. Their simplicity makes them seem appropriate just about anywhere, but they would probably look best on a Swedish shelving unit.
The Amazon Echo is 9.2 inches tall, and it looks like a small black tower with a blue circle that lights up on top. The device has seven microphones, so it easily picks up sound from any direction. It nicely complements the Echo Dot, a separate device that looks like a hockey puck. The Dot is designed to help you deliver voice commands in other locations in your house.
The Google Home is 5.6 inches tall and shaped like a small vase. Its main body is white, but the base’s color can be swapped.
Google Home looks kind of like an air freshener, and Amazon Echo looks kind of like a Pringles container designed for Darth Vader. But both are very slick devices that should look right at home in any domicile.
The million-dollar question: How well do they respond to the human voice?
In both cases, you activate the device by saying its name: For Amazon Echo, you’d say, “Alexa, what time is it?” For Google Home, you’d say, “OK Google, what time is it?” As long as you’re speaking in English and haven’t consumed an entire bottle of wine, both devices should recognize your question and tell you the time.
The big difference is the devices’ frame of reference: Amazon Echo connects you to Amazon Assistant, which is a powerful tool for lots of questions, such as “What will the weather be tomorrow?” and “What year was ‘Dr. Zhivago’ released?”
Google Home connects you to the oceanic knowledge of Google. You will be astonished by how much Google Home knows, and you can even ask follow-up questions. For example, you might ask, “What year did Charles Lindbergh first fly across the Atlantic?” Then you could ask, “Where did he land?” Google Home should remember the previous question and know you are still asking about Charles Lindbergh.
Neither system is going to turn into your virtual best friend. The Amazon Echo answers who, when and what questions, such as weather forecasts, sports updates, and measurement conversions. Much of the time, Echo will politely admit to being confused. Google Home appears to be a bit smarter because of the vast Google infrastructure it leans on.
But no matter which one you pick, each device will sing you happy birthday on request.
Many customers get so wrapped up in the interactive abilities of Echo and Google Home, they forget that these devices started out as audio speakers.
Here’s the bottom line: Bluetooth speakers will never sound as good as cord-based speakers. True audiophiles will balk at all Bluetooth speakers, no matter how high-tech, because they can never capture the clarity of their predecessors.
That said, these are very nice speakers for casual listening, and they can fill a room with music. Both devices can stream music through the usual services – Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn – and each device has its own music service: The Echo connects to Amazon Prime Music and Google Home connects to Google Play.
Google Home is very impressive, putting the “smart” in “smart speaker.” But Echo has a two-year advantage, and Amazon has spent this time cultivating its third-party support.
With Echo, you can connect to Audible, track down your missing phone, play games, and order items on Amazon.com. In smart homes, you can even dim the lights and switch on your security system. With 3,000 individual skills, Echo has come a long way in a short time. It’s incredible how much power you can access by saying, “Alexa …”
Google Home can also connect to smart appliances and a bevy of apps, but it hasn’t refined its network as much as Echo. Google may catch up, but for the moment, Echo is clearly leading the charge.
For Amazon or Google to answer your questions on demand, it has to be listening all the time. According to Amazon, when Alexa detects its wake word and glows blue, it streams “a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word” to the Amazon’s servers and closes once your command has been processed. That fraction of a second gets saved along with your main command.
Google Home operates in a similar way. It constantly listens for the phrase “OK Google.” Once detected, its LED lights activate and the recording is sent to Google’s servers.