Smarter Voice Assistants
The Amazon Echo and Google Home have received more upgrades over the past year than your average consumer gadget. The Echo has long been our Editors’ Choice, but considering both smart speakers can do a heck of a lot more now than they could even just a few months ago, how do they stack up today? For the sake of this article, we’re setting our Editor’s Choice, the $99 Amazon Echo, against the $129 Google Home.
Alexa vs. Google Assistant
Both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have developed into excellent voice assistants. They have dueling sets of features: Alexa supports slightly more smart home devices, for instance, while Google lets you upload your own music to its cloud.
Alexa is much more configurable if you’re willing to stick to its specific syntax, while Google Assistant is easier to use, less frustrating, and more fluid. Hollering different combinations of words at Google is more likely to result in a useful response. But if you learn and memorize Alexa’s phrases, you can dig down to find more obscure information sources and more skills with big third-party brands like Lyft.
Google’s speakers, by default, sound better. But the 3.5mm output jack on Amazon’s models opens up a huge world of third-party speakers you can then enable with little effort. Alexa is also available on more third-party speakers than Google Assistant, including the excellent Sonos One.
This split has opened up in our office. Some of our editors who are big on smart home are Alexa loyalists, while my family has grown very happy yelling, “Hey Google!” That’s why we’re declaring a tie among the two voice assistants right now. To help you decide which speaker is right for you, here’s how they compare.
Alexa and Google Assistant vs. the World
Alexa and Google Assistant are the only two voice-enabled home assistants worth considering right now. While Apple’s Siri is useful on iPhones and Microsoft’s Cortana works well on PCs, they both fall far behind Alexa and Google Assistant when it comes to answering a wide range of queries and accessing third-party skills by voice on home entertainment devices.
The latest Amazon Echo (pictured below) is much better looking than its predecessor. It’s a squat cylinder, about six inches high, with several removable fabric and wood covers so it can fit into a range of home designs. The top of the Echo has a volume ring that lights up whenever Alexa is activated. It has two buttons: one that turns the microphone off, and a multipurpose Action button.
By comparison, the Google Home measures 5.6 inches tall and 3.8 inches around. It comes in white, with swappable fabric and metal bases in seven colors. The Home’s aesthetic is inspired by candles and wine glasses, with a top half made of smooth, hard plastic that lights up with LEDs in four colors when it’s listening. It also has a touch interface you can use to play and pause music, change volume, and activate Google Assistant. On the back there’s a physical Mute button.
Neither design is going to blow you away, and they now both have the swappable-base approach. It comes down to whether you prefer Amazon’s neutral colors and woods or Google’s bolder colors and metal. I think Amazon’s approach is a little more on-trend at the moment, especially with its light wood base.
The Home provides richer, more well-rounded sound than the Echo does, although it doesn’t get as loud—there’s a 3-4dB difference in maximum volume at a one-foot distance. The Home delivers much better sound quality than the Amazon Amazon Echo Dot or Tap.
Both devices support iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn. The Echo also supports Amazon Music, while the Home supports Google Play Music and YouTube Red.
Google now lets you upload your own music library to its cloud. Amazon used to, but you can no longer sign up for that service (and existing users will be cut off in 2019). That makes Google’s cloud a better bet for people who have music collections that aren’t found on the major streaming services.
The Echo has a 3.5mm out jack so that you can connect it to a more powerful speaker. The Google Home does not. However, both the Echo and the Google Home can be used as Bluetooth speakers for your phone, and both support multi-room audio.
If you’re looking for the best possible audio quality, the Alexa approach would be to get a cheap Echo Dot and hook it up to a nicer speaker via the 3.5mm out; the Google approach would be to buy the high-end Google Home Max or JBL Link 500.
Top-Rated Alexa and Google Assistant Smart Speakers
The speakers use voice activation to control music playback, searches, and supported smart home devices. The Echo has multiple wake word options, but only one female voice. You can alert her with, “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer.” Google Home (pictured below) only has one wake word option, “Hey Google,” but it now has both male and female voices.
Google Assistant is much better at handling free-form, web-based queries than Alexa is. Alexa tends to be a stickler for wording, and for particular sequences of words. Alexa also leans heavily on Wikipedia for general knowledge queries, while Google’s search is more comprehensive. One area Alexa beats Google, predictably, is shopping-related queries—she really wants to help you buy things from Amazon.
Both can do things like spell words, set timers, and read you the news. Google Assistant is more conversational: It will often remember what you were talking about or let you carry ideas throughout a conversation. For instance, if you ask, “Who was the leading actor in Taken?,” you can follow up with, “What other movies was he in?”
The smart home brand gap between the Google Home and Amazon Echo has largely closed, but there are still a few brands that Google Home lacks: Blink, Carrier, Haiku, and Netatmo, for instance. But the Google Home will connect to anything that has a Chromecast attached to it.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant let you combine your devices into rooms, so you can say things like “turn on the living room lights,” and both support Routines, which let you combine multiple actions into one command.
Both Google Home and the Echo link up to TVs using their associated streaming sticks. If you buy a Chromecast or a Fire TV Stick, you can tell them to open Hulu or play a show. Google Home has one big content advantage: It integrates with YouTube, which keeps appearing and disappearing from the Amazon Echo Show because of a power struggle between Google and Amazon.
Wi-Fi, Skills, and Calls
The Echo and Home connect to your home Wi-Fi network. In testing, the Home had weaker Wi-Fi connectivity than the Echo. We were able to use the Echo in some places the Home just couldn’t reach.
And while the Home now has more than 1,800 third-party skills, letting you order pizzas from Domino’s and cars from Uber, Alexa has more than 24,000. Many of those Alexa skills aren’t worth much, but there are still more local bus systems, radio stations, and sports stat skills on Alexa.
Both the Echo and Google Home now let you make outbound voice calls to regular phones. Google Home devices can’t receive calls. Amazon’s Echo can receive calls from other Echos, and it can also receive calls on your home phone line with a $34.99 Echo Connect box.
Google has superior multi-user functions. The Home can recognize up to six people’s voices and seamlessly switch between their accounts and preferences. You have to tell Echo specifically, “switch account to X,” to switch accounts.
Amazon’s device ecosystem currently has a wider range of products in it. You have the small Echo Dot, which is paralleled by the Google Home Mini; the Echo, parallel to the Google Home; but also the screen-bearing Echo Show and Echo Spot, which Google won’t have counterparts for until the middle of this year. Google Assistant, on the other hand, is installed by default on most Android phones, which is a reach that Alexa can’t match. The one thing to be aware of is that you can’t mix ecosystems—if you’re in with one, that’s it.
For more than a year since we first published this story, we thought the Echo and Alexa were in the lead, but right now, we see distinct advantages to both ecosystems. If you’re more of a “set it and forget it” person, go with Google, whose syntax will remain simpler. If you like to dive into learning and configuring things for maximum power, Alexa will be a faithful companion on that journey.