If you’re in the market for a small speaker, you can go for an Apple HomePod with Siri inside or this $2,250 Bang and Olufsen deal, but if you’re looking for the most value, top features, and a solution that lets you spread music throughout your home, you only really have Amazon’s Echo speakers and Google’s Home lineup.
Statistically speaking, you are likely to buy more than one speaker, and depending on the size of your home, if you get three or four, you should be able to cover your entire home with those smart speakers. You can also access a wide range of games, apps, and services, from making phone calls and checking your calendar to sending messages and making phone calls.
Many of the places where Google Assistant and Alexa meet can be fought more or less to a draw.
Both provide a range of at least half a dozen speakers you can mix and match that range in price and sound from the $49 Echo Dot and Home Mini (the Home Mini is actually better) to the $130 Echo subwoofer, as well as amplifiers like the Echo Link and Echo Amp, due out soon.
Both can make phone calls and deliver news customized to your preferences in the Alexa and Home apps; both can control thousands of smart home devices; both have made smart displays like the Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub and interaction with visual interfaces an emphasis this year, claiming to be the modern remote control for streaming music and video on televisions.
Both got recently updated smartphone apps and want to become an ubiquitous part of your life: around your home, in your car, and on your phone.
How do you decide which ecosystem to join? Here are a few key features to consider when trying to decide what speakers to buy.
Google is better at answering questions
How shocking: Google, a company that has collected search queries for the better part of the past two decades, was ranked first among major intelligent assistants in its ability to answer questions correctly, capably answering 85.5 percent of 800 questions in an annual digital assistant IQ test by Loup Ventures.
By comparison, Siri came in second with 78.5 percent accurate answers, followed by Alexa with 61.4 correct answers.
Answering factual questions about the world is important to the subset of smart speaker owners who think their assistant should be able to break the logjam when debating who was the fifth president of the United States or you’ve got a house full of curious kids who want to hear what mountain lions sound like. (Note that Alexa can answer these two queries as well.)
Amazon is a better shopper
How shocking: Amazon, a company that has spent the better part of the past two decades selling the world things, made an intelligent assistant that’s pretty good at telling you what to buy.
This is particularly clear when shopping with an Amazon Echo Show or the Alexa app on PCs, where each item is visible.
On an Echo Show, once your query is on the screen, a carousel of items will appear, and you don’t have to touch the screen to begin looking into something you need to buy, such as examining ratings, price, or Amazon Choice status.
Screen or no screen, Amazon made Echo speakers to work like a giant Dash button. Shopping with an Echo speaker also takes into account your shopping history, so if you say something like “reorder paper towels,” Alexa already knows what to order.
Whole Foods same-day grocery orders have also been enabled for Echo devices.
Once your order is made, you can get notifications from an Echo speaker, which shares alerts with blinking lights and voice alerts that tell you when your package is on its way or if it has arrived. Echo Show speakers show order updates on their screen.
Google’s Android advantage
When you aren’t at home or near an Echo or Home speaker, it can still be helpful to have your assistant available for hands-free interactions on your smartphone, and Google Assistant’s integration into the Android operating system may very well be Google’s biggest advantage over Amazon over time.
Virtually any Android smartphone today can speak with Google Assistant with a long tap of the home button, where you can quickly set reminders that then appear on smart displays like Google Home Hub.
Integration with Gmail means Google Assistant on Android smartphones can answer questions like “When is my next flight?” or suggest reminders based on commitments made in emails.
Google Assistant is also capable of providing multi-modal experiences, where you can, for example, ask for directions with a Home speaker, then have those directions sent to Google Maps on your phone.
Last week, Google brought its assistant to the native Android Clock app. This follows the introduction of Google Assistant queries on Android phones even when they’re locked and an improved visual interface for Google Assistant on Android phones.
Only Google Podcast app users can walk in their home and say “OK Google, pick where I left off in my podcast” to their Home speakers. Smart display speakers that offer interaction with Google Assistant can now save recipes you like; away from the device, you can view them in the collections section of the Google app.
With the exception of the Echo Look fashion assistant device, Alexa deploys no computer vision-related services for Echo device users today. However, Google Lens with Google Assistant on Android is now integrated into the Camera app of the Pixel 3 and other popular smartphones.
Lens can pull text like email addresses, websites, and phone numbers from images or identify landscapes, works of art, or similar fashion styles, as well as naming plants and animals.
Over time, you can bet Google will only continue to tie its assistant to unique and popular features for the Android operating system.
Routines were introduced by Amazon last fall and Google Assistant earlier this year. For both assistants, routines give you the ability to do multiple things with a single command.
They rely on one of the simplest, most consistent findings for smart speakers: People are more likely to use certain features like voice apps if they’re integrated into the rhythm of their daily lives.
Both Amazon and Google want smart speaker users to be able to carry out multiple tasks with a single utterance. You can get your news, weather, and commute info when you say “Good morning” and have your assistant make sure you locked your doors and turned on home security systems when you say “Good night” or “Bedtime.” Google Assistant Routines are able to launch specific Google Assistant apps.
Last week, Google brought Routines to the Clock app on Android devices so your “Good Morning” routine starts right after you turn off your alarm.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant allow you to create customize voice commands to do things. Apple’s Siri joined this approach with the release of Shortcuts in iOS 12 this fall.
Alexa Routines can be configured to control smart home devices, make Alexa say something, read your calendar, send an announcement to your Echo speakers, or tell you about traffic, news, or the weather.
Routines can also be carried out with Echo Buttons, so you can change the color of your lights when your team makes a big play.
Motion and contact sensor-activated routines introduced this fall means you can automatically trigger actions like playing a song when a person enters a room or just turning on the lights and raising the blinds.
To bring home security automation to Echo speaker users, in September Amazon introduced Alexa Guard, which can alert you when it hears the sound of a smoke alarm or breaking glass. It integrates with home security systems like ADT and the Amazon-owned Ring. Alexa Guard can also randomize lights in your home to make it appear that you’re home. This comes in addition to the Away Mode skill introduced earlier this year. Made by Hippo Insurance and SNL writers, the skill makes it sound like you’re home having some weird conversations.
Alexa is only available in a female voice, whereas Google Assistant can be set to a male or female voice.
Google Assistant currently has six voices to choose from — 3 men, 3 women. Though Alexa is able to speak with a British or Indian accent, there’s only one Alexa voice available in U.S. English.
Alexa is, however, learning to speak like a news broadcaster, The Verge reported earlier this week.
Google Assistant is also expected to get the voice of John Legend at some point.
Making audio groups
Without question, the best part of having a Home or Echo speaker is purposefully spreading the speakers around the house to create a fluid soundscape throughout your home. This is great during parties and days when you want to fill the space.
They’re also crucial for Alexa announcements and Google Home Broadcasts. That’s when you send an audio message to your collection of speakers, so you can say “Dinner’s ready.”
The ability to add Chromecast to an audio group was introduced earlier this week, so you can stream music simultaneously through your TV, speakers connected to your TV, and your Home speakers. Smart displays can also be added to speaker groups now. Support to add Fire TV to an Echo speaker group has not yet been added; however, support for third-party Echo speakers in speaker groups was announced this fall.
Also recently, Google Home speakers have added the ability to respond to Broadcast messages.
Amazon Music updates from Alexa
You can now tell Alexa to send updates to Echo speakers when a favorite artist releases new music — definitely one of my favorite things to be introduced this year. As simple as this sounds, much like Chromecast being added to audio with Home speakers, it seems like the kind of thing that, when you experience it, makes you think, “Yeah, this should’ve been available from the start.”
Recently shared numbers from voice app analytics company Dashbot.io confirmed what has always been the case: Playing music is one of the most popular ways to use a smart speaker.
Amazon Music will display song lyrics when listening to music on an Echo Show, and it can display photos of specific bands like Coldplay that go beyond album art. Amazon Music has grown to several new countries this year.
Just for kids
Experiences made especially for kids are increasingly pitched as selling points for Echo and Home speakers. That’s why Amazon introduced its Echo Dot for Kids in April and FreeTime Unlimited, which brings exclusive features to the table, such as ad-free radio or playlists, alarms from Disney and Nickelodeon characters, and premium skills from National Geographic, Disney, and Nickelodeon.
There’s also Alexa skills for kids with offerings from Sesame Street and SpongeBob, as well as subscription skill trivia games like Double Jeopardy!
For its part, last week Google introduced 25 new titles for Read Along, a way for Home speakers to play sound effects and music while you read a book. Alarms with the voices of animated characters from shows like Lego City and Nickelodeon’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were also introduced last week.
Google Assistant has more than 50 apps and games for kids, ranging from musical chairs to trivia to beatboxing. Say “OK Google, let’s play a game” and Google Assistant will be your gameshow host.
Echo Show vs. Home Hub
You’ve seen the names of both of these devices rather often in this piece, and that’s because they have been a big part of the companies’ product lineups. Amazon’s Echo Show will be able to play music videos and surface content from Amazon Prime Video, Hulu Plus, and Fire TV Recast DVR. Smart displays like Google’s Home Hub will have access to YouTube and YouTube TV.
Further deepening the integration between Microsoft and Amazon, this week Skype video calls were introduced for Echo Show, while smart displays like the JBL Link View with Google Assistant are limited to Duo calls only.
At $149, the Home Hub is cheaper than the $229 Echo Show, but does not include either a Zigbee smart home hub or camera for video calls.
While in ambient mode, the Echo Show can act as a digital photo display for Amazon Prime Photos. It can also display your calendar and reminders, shipping notifications, and news stories chosen by the Alexa team.
The Home Hub can share recipe recommendations and news video recommendations based on activity in the Google News app, a company spokesperson told VentureBeat, as well as showing your Google Photos.
These screen devices also link with Google’s Nest video doorbell and Amazon’s Ring video doorbell for live updates when someone’s at the door. (Both doorbells can also alert you with voice if you decide not to get a smart display.)
The Google Assistant team says nearly half of all interactions with Google Assistant in 2018 involved both touch and voice, and with this multi-modal approach increasing, the ease of use and variety of experiences a screened device delivers could come to define the coming age of conversational computing.
One key area to watch: The Alexa Presentation Language is being deployed on Facebook’s Portal voice chat devices, Sony televisions, and Lenovo tablets. An ecosystem of visual choices could make the difference for assistant makers going forward.
As mentioned at the start of this article, this list isn’t meant to be a wholly comprehensive rundown of every difference that can be considered for someone in the market for smart speakers this year.
To be fair, I can’t say with any sort of certainty which of the two assistants is best. They fight to a draw in many feature areas, both try to demonstrate some personality, and both have advantages and setbacks.
Whether the Home or Echo is best for you is up to you to decide.