The definitive answer to which is better, Amazon Echo or Google Home? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Forget about it. Just a stupid clickbait headline so this article goes viral and I get a gazillion tweets and Facebook likes and LinkedIn bites or whatever they do over at LinkedIn.
After a couple of years of blanket advertising, you know about Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, right? They are small devices that connect to wi-fi in the house and respond to trigger words spoken out loud – “Alexa,” “Hey, Google.” They can answer questions and perform simple tasks. I’ll give you some examples below. I’m going to refer to them as “home assistants.” Catchy name, eh?
It’s hard to talk about the Echo and Google Home because they are capable of so many things, any one of which might turn out to be magic for you, even though most of what they do is irrelevant.
In the early days of the Internet, people were skeptical about whether they “needed” an account to get online. I explained that each person would likely find something about the Internet that they felt was special and life-affirming and wonderful – but it was hard to predict what that would be for anyone in particular. There was a leap of faith to get started.
I want you to take that leap of faith again. It’s time to try a home assistant. It costs almost nothing to try one out and you might find that it is an interesting enough novelty to be worth it, even if it takes a while to become something that feels essential.
You might already have one. Lots of people do – 39 million, according to post-holiday surveys. Growth is being driven in part by the desire to use smart-home devices, voice-controlled light bulbs and thermostats and home security systems. If you’re a technical person or there was something that motivated you, maybe you’re already using your Echo or Google Home powerfully to stay in touch with family or to read your calendar or to summon an Uber. Cool!
If you want an in-depth comparison of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices – features and prices of different models, checklists of what each one can handle, a deep dive into the audio quality of each – I highly recommend the Wirecutter’s in-depth analysis. Have you discovered the Wirecutter yet? Its profile was boosted when it was purchased by the New York Times in 2016. It is doing amazing in-depth product analyses and has become the first place to check for reviews of many different types of devices, basically taking over the role that Consumer Reports used to play for baby boomers in the 70s and 80s.
I’m a geek who is sensitive to the preferences of non-technical people. My wife is happy to use simple technology when it’s set up for her but frankly could care less about how things work.
Let me tell you about where Amazon Echo and Google Home devices fit in our lives. Your experience will be different but perhaps it will be helpful to look inside our house.
We’ve been comparing home assistants for more than a year. We have a full-size Amazon Echo and Google Home next to each other in the kitchen.
Having both types is silly, of course. You won’t do that. You’ll pick one, Amazon or Google, and stick with it.
The original full-size Google Home and Amazon Echo are shown in the above picture, but each also has little hockey-puck sized minis that can cost as little as $25 on sale. The only difference between the full-size devices and the minis is the sound quality – the bigger ones have better speakers. The minis are okay for voice, pretty yucky for music. The first thing many people do with their new home assistant is connect it to Spotify; the bigger ones work better. But if you want to experiment with everything other than music, feel free to get a cheap mini.
How are the home assistants at answering questions?
It took us a long time to start asking random questions out loud. It’s like changing any habit – it may take a while before you remember to use the new device on the counter instead of grabbing your phone. One question is obvious, though, and both are very good at answering it: “Alexa, what’s the weather forecast?” It’s just great to get a quick weather answer. “Hey, Google, how hot will it be in San Antonio tomorrow?”
Now, though, it’s getting to be second nature to ask general questions out loud during dinner conversations. “Hey, Google, when was the movie All The Presidents Men released?” It is just like doing a web search on a phone or computer – you might have to try a couple of times to get a question phrased the right way and it works best for questions with simple, direct answers.
Google Home answers general questions far better than Amazon Echo. Google has devoted vast resources to producing the One True Answer to search questions, originally because that suits our needs on mobile devices with small screens and now because that’s what works best as spoken answers. (The conversion of search results to One True Answer instead of a page of blue links is a fascinating change in our world with big consequences. I wrote about it last year.)
What else do you do with a home assistant?
The kitchen is a good place to start. I am still tickled by setting multiple cooking timers – “Alexa, set a pasta timer for 9 minutes.” “Alexa, set a vegetable timer for three minutes.” “Your vegetable timer is done.” Love it. I don’t happen to use the devices for recipes or conversions or substitutions, but I hear lots of people do.
It’s possible to add to a grocery list by voice in the kitchen, then pull out the phone at the store to read the list. I don’t do that because the Google Home app doesn’t keep the grocery list offline so it can be viewed when there’s no signal for the phone – and I don’t have a signal at the grocery store. I didn’t like looking for the grocery list in the Google Home app, either – it doesn’t seem like the grocery list should be in the same app as a bunch of other controls that are rarely used. I rigged up a solution with Todoist, a to-do list app, and a flexible online tool for stitching together commands for home assistants, If This Then That, but you’re not going to do that.
I’m a music junkie. It’s great to have something in the kitchen for music. Most people will be happy to ask for songs and playlists out loud – “Alexa, play Tom Petty.” It suits me better to choose what to play on the Spotify app on my phone, then hit “Devices available” at the bottom of the Now Playing screen and transfer the song over to the right device.
The Google Home devices work particularly well with Android phones because of Google’s Chromecast system. Virtually every phone app that makes sound has a “Cast” button in the upper right that sends the output to Chromecast-enabled devices like the Google Home. It makes it easy to listen to podcasts with Pocket Casts – a single click transfers the podcast to the kitchen speaker.
Home assistants are also perfect for listening to Audible books. Oddly, the Audible app on Android doesn’t have a Cast button, but if I say, “Hey, Google, play Audible,” it automatically starts playing my latest book at the place I left off without any fuss.
What about buying things?
Amazon expects you to buy things with your Echo. We don’t do that. No philosophical objection, it just doesn’t feel natural. If you’re ordering exactly the same thing that you’ve ordered in the past, the Echo will offer to repeat the order. Even simple orders, though, seem to have opportunities for error that make us prefer to order from a screen. Is it the right quantity of paper towels? Has the selection changed so another quantity is a better deal? Will the order arrive in two days with Amazon Prime shipping or might it come in a week from some offbeat Amazon supplier?
And it doesn’t make sense to order something through the Echo for the first time. Unless you can state what you want very precisely, the Echo will start to read a list of products, which is a terrible experience.
Maybe someday we’ll get used to placing orders with the Echo and figure out what works – but not yet, after a year of having one nearby.
How about home automation?
Two-thirds of the people who buy home assistants say they want to use them for home automation, “smart home devices,” the “Internet of Things.” I wonder how many people actually succeed with that? It is a wildly active time in technology for wi-fi connected devices – home security systems, smoke alarms, remote controls, thermostats, vacuum cleaners, and more.
The reality is that the whole area is a mess and normal non-technical people should stay far away. There are a multitude of proprietary hubs and standards that do not communicate with each other; there are too many apps, each with its own confusing interface and separate way to connect to an Echo or Google Home; manufacturers are going in and out of business, making devices that appear and disappear in an eyeblink. What I’m mostly hearing today is a backlash from tech enthusiasts who are bailing out of their smart home experiments until things settle down.
If you want to dip your toe in the water, look into Philips Hue light bulbs. You’ll have to buy a hub, the Hue Bridge, either separately or as part of a light bulb kit. You’ll install the Hue app on your phone to get started, then connect the Hue app to the Echo or Google Home app on your phone. It’s a pretty good experience. Philips has a decent head start and it feels like Hue will be supported for a while. The bulbs are expensive but lots of bulbs are expensive now as we convert over to a new generation of bulbs that use almost no electricity and will last nearly forever. (If you have too much money, you can get Hue bulbs that can change color on demand or cycle through colors. Perhaps I’m too old. I’m pretty sure I never want my living room to be lit in red or blue.)
When everything is set up, you can say “Hey, Google, turn on the lights in the family room.” “Alexa, turn off the bedroom lights.” The lights react almost instantly. We’ve resisted every other home automation device but turning lights on or off by voice has been a knockout winner in our house. It only makes sense in a few rooms where voice control is easier than just flipping a switch. (Think about being able to dim the lights while you’re watching TV, or turn lights off without getting out of bed.) I’ve stopped after three rooms – living room, family/TV room, and bedroom. It’s reasonably simple and reliable, a nice way to experiment with home automation.
We’ve got Google Minis in three rooms, plus the full-size Google Home in the kitchen. There’s always one in earshot to turn lights on or off or answer a question. I can listen to NPR or a podcast in the bathroom. The minis are so cheap that it’s tempting to scatter them around.
I’ve also got an Echo Spot by the bed. That’s Amazon’s softball-size clock radio with all of the features of every Echo device. It’s a beautiful and smart design. I set the alarm by voice each night, turn it off or snooze by voice in the morning (or with a tap or swipe). I can’t say I’m using its full potential. The screen goes mostly unused other than displaying the time.
Although I’m inexorably sliding into Google’s ecosystem, I don’t use Google for calendar or contacts. I don’t ask either the Echo or the Google Home what my next appointment is. They can make phone calls, which must be cool but I’ve never looked into it.
Each device is capable of eleventy thousand additional “Skills” (Amazon) or “Actions” (Google), like apps for a phone. Third parties and developers are working hard to find things for you to do with your devices – games, connections to other devices, health, travel, weather, you name it. This is Amazon’s showcase for Echo skills, and this is a comparable Google list. If you find one that makes you happy, goodness, I couldn’t be happier for you. Personally, we use absolutely nothing except what I’ve mentioned here.
The takeaway, though, is that the Google Home and Amazon Echo have earned a place in our daily routine just to do a few simple things. We may get rid of the Echo and commit to Google Home eventually. Google Home is really just a specialized version of Google Assistant, the AI-powered heart of so many Google services; Google Assistant is improving so quickly that I think Google Home is the better device just because it is so good at answering questions.
If you’ve been on the fence, try one. Buy an Amazon Dot or Google Home Mini, see what it’s like, force yourself to remember it’s there until it starts to feel natural. Time to jump in.