Do you have a smart speaker? A “smart speaker” is one of the new family of devices that you can talk to and get answers back from, and command to do tasks such as turning on lights, giving yourself reminders, researching information on the internet, and even shop for you.
They are becoming increasingly useful, and as a result, increasingly popular. A recent survey suggests they are in a quarter of US homes already.
People who have a smart speaker are generally delighted with how helpful they can be. Want to know the current temperature or weather forecast? Need to turn up your heating before arriving home? Want to speak to a family member in a far away room in your home? Wonder about the latest news updates? Would you like to turn on a room’s lights at night before entering the dark room with the light switch in the far corner?
There’s a vast and increasing number of different ways you can use a smart speaker. We touch on some of these in our related article and downloadable command guide about getting best use from Alexa units.
Before taking a cautious step into the smart speaker marketplace, however, it is sensible to consider which “eco-system” of smart speaker products you want to use. There are two main systems – Amazon’s lexa and Google’s Home. Unfortunately, the two systems are largely incompatible with each other (although there are plans in the future to improve their ability to interact, and both services can control many of the same devices like light switches and home appliances.).
It is good to think carefully as to which system you choose to use, because you’re likely to quickly find yourself loving it and adding more and more units throughout your house, the same as we have done.
In this article we help you understand the differences between the two systems, so you can choose the best for you.
The market leader, by a wide margin, is Amazon’s Alexa service. While Amazon didn’t invent the concept of voice control, just like it also didn’t invent the concept of eBooks, in both cases it has proven to be the first company to successfully get a product broadly accepted by the mass market.
The first Alexa units were offered in a limited release in November 2014 and became available for all in June 2015.
Being first doesn’t always mean being the best, however – sometimes it can mean the opposite (for example, the pioneering US NTSC color television system compared to the rest of the world’s subsequent and vastly better PAL/SECAM system).
Yes, there are some shortcomings in the Alexa product range and the features it offers, but they are shortcomings broadly shared by the Google products too, and overall, Alexa currently offers more capabilities and functions, and can control vastly more devices than can Google Home.
Amazon deploys their Alexa voice assistant service in a growing number of devices, not just in dedicated “smart speakers”. It is also encouraging third party manufacturers to incorporate Alexa capabilities into their products too.
IIf you’re wanting to simply try out a unit rather than order up a range of products all at once, the best place to start is either with their compact Echo Dot smart speaker, or their Echo Show 5 unit with both speaker and 5.5″ screen on it. These are moderately priced, with lists of $50 and $90, and are often discounted on Amazon’s site.
Google came out with an Alexa competitor in May 2016, and while there have been some confusing naming conventions for its product/service, we think the units are in the process of being renamed from “Nest” to “Home”, and we gather the new preferred name is Google Home, with the service itself being the Google Assistant. That is a clumsier way of describing its range of hardware and software than Amazon, but the devices themselves don’t seem to suffer from their nomenclature.
Whereas Amazon started with the idea of the voice assistant first and has subsequently moved forward into devices, Google seems to have started first with networkable “intelligent” devices such as the Nest Thermostat and then added voice assistant control to the devices, and extended the assistant service outwards from there.
A comparable low cost entry point into the Google Home family of devices would be the Google Home Mini as a small smart speaker, remarkably similar in size to the Amazon Alexa Echo Dot. It also lists for $50. If you’d prefer a screen on your device, Google offers the Home (or Nest) Hub. This lists for $130, which is more than the Echo Show 5, but it has a larger 7” screen. A larger screened Echo Show unit would be the Echo Show 8 with an 8” screen and an identical $130 list price (at the time of writing both the Hub and the Show 8 are on sale for $100).
Features and Comparison
We are comparing both the two different services (the “software”, if you like) and also two different devices the services run on (the “hardware”). The two products are the Amazon Alexa Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini.
In each case, the units are of very similar size. They are flat circular disks, with a diameter of about 3.4“ and a height of about 1.4“. They need external power and come with a power adapter to plug into a wall socket and a power connecting cable.
Both units now have some type of artificial fabric covering in a range of softer colors; the earlier Echo units were finished in shiny hard black or white plastic. Google offers four colors they describe as “coral, mango, marine, and violet”, and Amazon describes its colors as “charcoal, merlot, and indigo” (and others as well).
Our sense is that the softer fabrics are designed to make the units seem more part of a home and “kinder/gentler” than hard plastic units.
The Alexa unit has a series of different colored lights that “chase” round the outside top of the unit in light patterns to indicate the unit is active, or has a message, or has been muted, or various other status conditions. The Google unit has a series of small LEDs on the top of the unit which indicate some status conditions. But, depending on the layout of your room and the positioning of your unit, much of the time, the Google status indicators will not be visible to you, whereas the Alexa indicators can be seen from pretty much anywhere.
The Alexa unit has four control buttons on the top – volume up and down buttons, a mute button and a “control” button to force the unit to (re)configure. The buttons are labeled and easily understood.
The Home unit does not have the same buttons. There are pressure regions on the top you can press to adjust the volume, but knowing where they are is a challenge, especially if you’ve forgotten and then want to find them again. (The answer is to use voice commands rather than button presses). It has a slide switch on the back of the unit to turn its microphone on and off.
With the Alexa unit, if you push the mute button, the indicator lights go red until you turn the mute off again. In theory this shows and reassures you the mute has been activated. But because the mute button doesn’t physically break the microphone circuit, we are 100% certain that this can be overridden by software, enabling a high level hacker to override the mute setting and listen in without you realizing.
The Google Home unit has a slide switch which in theory might actually physically break open the microphone circuit, but we rather doubt that is the case and suspect it just sends a logical signal to a control board. Unlike the Alexa unit, there is no indication that you’ve muted the unit.
Voice Controlling the Units
Both suppliers promise that although the units have built-in microphones (of course), they are not active or recording anything until they hear their “wake word” to turn them on. For Alexa, you can activate a unit by simply saying “Alexa…” and then adding immediately after, without a need for pausing, whatever your request or question is. You can also change the wake word to your choice of Amazon, Echo, or Computer. We recommend leaving it as Alexa – the other words are likely to come up in ordinary conversation from time to time and create accidental and annoying activations of your devices.
Google offers you two wake-word phrases, both of which are always available. They are “Hey, Google….” and/or “OK, Google….”. There is also a “hidden” wake-word phrase that works as well. “OK, Boo-Boo”. That will certainly be entertaining for young children, and we suspect is part of Google’s desire to make their service seem friendly and fun.
Both devices allow you to continue a conversation/interaction with your device without needing to add a wake-word to each additional statement you make. If you say nothing for eight seconds after the unit responds to you, however, the device then goes back into standby mode and you’ll need the wake-word to restart it again.
A nice feature of the Google Home unit is that if you set a timer or alarm, when it goes off, you can stop it just by saying stop without needing to add a wake-word. Alexa on the other hand requires you to add its wake-word to the command.
Alexa has only one voice, with a reasonably neutral American accent in a female voice. It can speak 8 different languages. Google Home is cleverer, and can speak almost 20 different languages.
In terms of your smart speaker understanding you, both devices encourage you to do a simple and brief training exercise with it so that it can understand your voice. They both can recognize different people’s voice, and can put your name to your own voice. Google Home will even customize its responses based on who is talking – for example, if you ask Google what’s on your schedule for the day, Google will recognize your voice and understand that it’s looking at your calendar, not someone else whose voice it also knows.
However, even with training exercises there is always the worry that a person with a very heavy accent will not be able to be understood (as is shown in this hilarious video), although both Alexa and Home had no problems with my Dad’s English accent, and also understood my regular American accent.
Here is a video that tests 8 different accents on Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home.
Google Home’s voice sounds more pleasant and natural to me than Alexa’s voice which seems expressionless. I find that Google Home’s voice sounds like a real person, and not just a computer that is programmed to reply with certain pre-planned sentences. (In fairness, my father disagrees with this, so perhaps the difference is small rather than of deal-breaking proportions.)
As well as the voice quality, there is some difference in sound quality between the two units, for example, when playing music. The Alexa unit is more muffled – it has a more boomy and artificial bass than the Google Home unit.
We were able to correct that by adjusting the bass, midrange and treble controls for the unit within the Alexa App, and it ended up sounding okay, but it was unfortunate that its default setting was so far away from a flat frequency response. The Google unit didn’t need any correction out of the box, but if we did want to adjust it, the Google Home app only allows for bass and treble adjustments, no mid-range.
Using the Units to Control Devices
Both units can be used to control a variety of compatible smart devices. These range from simple things like switched wall plugs and light switches, to more “clever” things such as security systems, thermostats, and kitchen appliances.
It is very hard to get accurate counts of the number of different devices that Alexa and Google can control, although our sense is that Alexa can control at least twice as many third party devices as can Google. But the two numbers (each in many thousands) are both so high as to make the point no longer a meaningful differentiation.
Interesting, many third party devices are making themselves compatible with both eco-systems. We can turn on some of our lights using the exact same command from either unit.
We have more devices that are compatible with the Alexa system, but only because we’ve had Alexa units for a longer time and so strategically bought devices we knew would work with Alexa. If we were starting afresh, we expect we could build the device network we have with either system, or indeed, with careful selection of products, build up a network of devices that could be controlled by either.
Of course, in the real world (unlike the weird testing world my Dad lives in) there’s no point in doing that, and you’re best to concentrate on one or the other system.
Using the Units to Answer Questions
When asked basic questions, the Amazon Alexa seems to be “smarter” than Google. We think both devices get their answers primarily from Wikipedia, but when Google Home is asked “Who won World War II?”, it responds by saying it doesn’t know that yet (even though the war had a clear outcome, 75 years ago). Alexa, on the other hand, responds with a lengthy and in-depth response, fully satisfying the question.
Both units know where they are, more or less. We asked each “what time will the sun rise tomorrow”. Google replied tersely with the sunrise time, Alexa replied more fully, advising the date, location, and time of sunrise. Interestingly, the two units disagreed about the sunrise time, but only by a minute, which makes us think that while Alexa believes itself to be in our town, Google might think it is a bit further away.
Neither unit did a very good job of giving directions, but we felt the Alexa unit was slightly better, especially if asked an ambiguous question like “Give me directions to Costco” – a question with multiple answers because there are three around us, all with reasonably similar distances and travel times.
Listening to Music
Both units will play music from various streaming sources or some of your online music libraries. If just asked to play a generic style of music, the Google unit offered up music compiled from YouTube and the Alexa unit offered music from Amazon Music.
We found the Alexa unit to be more capable than the Google unit, accessing a broader range of radio stations. When we asked both to play my Dad’s favorite radio stations (Classic FM and King FM) Alexa would play both but Google could only play King FM (because he had added another “skill” – see below – to Alexa to play more radio stations).
I became a bit obsessed with weather for a while, because of the possibility of snow and the potential for that to close my school.
The two units would sometimes give wildly different weather reports. Not only that, but depending on how you phrased a question, the unit might answer differently – it seemed that different questions would somehow access different weather databases, perhaps.
It was amusing to ask both units a simple question “Is it raining?” It was raining at the time I asked the question, and had been for a while. The Alexa unit correctly replied “Yes, there is light rain, expected to stop in five minutes”. The Google unit replied “No, there is zero chance of rain in Redmond at present”.
We could criticize further the units and their ability to predict the weather, but that would be akin to shooting the messenger. They’re only as good as the databases they access.
There are lots of reasons why Amazon views its Alexa product range as a strategically vital part of its product mix, and the ability to integrate a new channel for receiving product orders is obviously an important driver of their focus on Alexa.
It should go without saying that if you ask Alexa to buy anything for you, it will “helpfully” order it through Amazon.
There are ways to break out of the Amazon “eco-system”, and in 2019 Walmart announced a partnership with Alexa so you can order from Walmart, too, but the default will always be to buy through Amazon, and you need to add new skills and use different voice commands to direct your orders elsewhere.
Google on the other hand has no overriding ties (yet!) to any specific merchant, and so if you ask its Assistant to buy something for you, it will ask where you want to purchase it from.
But, much as both companies would love us to buy things through their units, neither I nor my father have ever done so. We both want to look at pictures of products, to compare prices and features, to look at different sizes/quantities/shipping times/colors, and so on. Maybe one product has an unusual short term special – that’s something we’d not see if we simply voice commanded the immediate order of a specific product, but which would probably be offered up on a screen of product information.
None of the comparison and ordering process is easy or quick using either device, whereas it is simple and straightforward on a computer.
This might change in the future – who would have guessed, ten or twenty years ago, that we’d be buying products online rather than in store so much. But we sort of doubt that, due to the limitation of voice only descriptions as compared to the richer multi-media experience on a computer screen.
This is an area where the units with screens have potential to improve – in general Alexa’s Show device with a screen feels very much like the screen is a hastily added afterthought rather than an integrated part of its interface.
For now, unless you know exactly what you want to buy (and of course, for some things you might know this) or you are reordering something you’ve bought before, we don’t recommend either unit for ordering items.
A computer has programs that you run on the computer to make it actually do things. A smart phone has apps to do the same thing. An Alexa unit has “skills” – these are the same as apps and programs, and can be developed by pretty much anyone wishing to add some new feature or function to an Alexa device. Alexa is adding more and more skills – so many that it is hard to know exactly how many there are at present, but in September 2019 it was widely claimed to have broken through the 100,000 number and with more being added every day.
Google units have “services” and “actions” which are a bit mysterious but broadly analogous to Alexa skills, and indeed, due to the market dominance of Alexa, some people are now referring to the Google extensions as “skills” too. There is less consensus as to the number of Google extensions out there, with one claim in early 2019 fancifully reporting Google’s claim there were over 1,000,000 actions available. Our sense is that a Google “action” might be nothing more than each different way of expressing a command or question to Google, rather than adding new features and functions to the units.
On balance, our perception is that Alexa is more readily extended than Google and more generally flexible.
Summary and Recommendation
Industry reviewers seem more or less evenly split in terms of their preferences for either the Amazon or Google range of smart speakers and related products.
We ourselves struggled to clearly identify a favorite. For example, I thought the speech on the Google unit was more realistic, but my father disagreed. Sometimes we would ask Alexa a question that it couldn’t answer while Google could, and sometimes the opposite applied. In theory, a Google benefit is the ability to use it to buy products from a broader range of stores than Alexa with its tight links to Amazon, but we never voice-order product anyway.
On balance, we both narrowly ended up preferring the Amazon Alexa product range, for these reasons :
- Compatible with more third party devices
- A much larger installed base seems to suggest it will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, the more broadly supported and faster evolving product family
- Alexa’s “skills” give it a broader range of support and make it easier for developers to add new functions than with Google’s “services”
- Visual feedback with its colored light ring and easier controls with four labeled buttons
- A broader range of Alexa products to choose from when buying Alexa equipped devices
- Slightly lower prices in general for comparable products
Having said that, the difference between the two alternatives is very marginal, and you’ll not be wrong, whichever you choose. We recommend you try out an Alexa Echo Dot or an Alexa Echo Show 5, and be ready to soon feel the need to buy more. Our “in home intercom” system that the units allow is invaluable, and being able to ask Alexa anything, anywhere in the house, is also becoming something we increasingly rely on, so we have added Alexa units everywhere in our home (well, not yet bathrooms!).
For me personally, my Alexa unit gives me better weather reports than my Home unit, and as a high schooler, that’s very important when trying to figure out if school will be canceled the next day because of snow or not!
This review was largely written by my 15 yr old daughter, Anna, and only slightly tweaked subsequently by me. Well done, Anna – I hope you (the reader) agree!