Which voice-controlled smart assistant is the best? Andy Shaw compares the two main players
Voice-controlled smart assistants are a serious contender for this year’s must-have gadget, and while Amazon got in first with Echo, Google has now jumped in with Home.
A bit of competition is a wonderful thing, particularly for consumers, but how do you know which one to buy? To find out, we put both Amazon Echo and Google Home to the test, to see which one we’d invite into our homes.
Both devices are standalone units that contain a bank of built-in microphones and a speaker. The microphones listen out for you to say a specific keyword (“Alexa” for the Amazon device and “OK Google” for Home), at which point you can talk to your assistant, asking it questions that it can respond to. The information comes back to you through the device’s speaker as a computergenerated voice. The main difference between Echo and Home’s assistants and the now-familiar OS-based versions such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana is that there’s no keyboard or screen to fall back on, so all communication between you and your machine is via voice.
Both devices are tied to their parent company’s online accounts, so if you use a lot of Google services and never buy from Amazon, you’re more likely to get on with Google Home. Equally, if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber and frequently take advantage of your free next-day delivery, then the Echo may be the more obvious choice. Many of us will be caught between these two stools, however, so let’s dig deeper into the products to find the best option for those who dabble with the services of both companies.
Integration and services
A voice-controlled assistant is only as good as the information you’re prepared to give it access to. Google has email, calendar, maps, documents, an unrivalled search engine, Chromecast connectivity and a whole lot more. Amazon has an enormous shop. Both devices link seamlessly to musicplaying services, including their own services and big names such as Spotify.
Google Home provides intelligent access to the vast collection of Google’s products. For example, if you want to know what you’ve got going on during the day, simply say “Tell me about my day” and Home will pull all your appointments from Gmail and Calendar, and even check the weather without you needing to ask separately. It can tell you where your calendar appointment is taking place, and give you a rough estimate of how long it will
Google has email, calendar, maps, documents, an unrivalled search engine, Chromecast connectivity and a whole lot more. Amazon has an enormous shop
take to get there. It’s more contextually aware than the Amazon Echo and has access to a greater number of personal sources to create that context.
- Links seamlessly with your Google accounts
- Feels less commercial and more helpful than the Echo
- If you just want a speaker, there are better options for the price
- We don’t really know how much it’s listening in
And if you already own a Chromecast, you can tell Home to send content from your phone or tablet to your TV. Whether you want to watch selected films and programmes from Netflix, BBC iPlayer or Now TV -if it works with Chromecast, it’ll work with Google Home.
However, at the time of writing, it isn’t particularly clear how many other tools and services will be connecting to Google Home. Amazon, on the other hand, has had its voice-recognition tools open to developers for longer, so anyone can link their services and devices to it with a minimum of effort. This has created an immediate infrastructure of what Amazon calls ‘skills’, which are like apps that you can install on the device, and there are all kinds of functions available, from weather forecasts to party games.
You can already get headline summaries from The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sky News, check trains with National Rail, search flights with Skyscanner and hear recipes from Jamie Oliver. You can even order food from Just Eat and, of course, create Amazon orders.
But it won’t be long before a similar number of external apps and services are available to Google. Home was launched with much fanfare about it being the central hub of a voice-controlled home, and it can already control a fair smattering of smart-home products, such as Nest thermostats. But Amazon’s list of supported automated home devices is more impressive and, as well as Nest, includes Honeywell, Hive, Netatmo, Samsung SmartThings, Tado, TP-Link’s Kasa and LIFX lightbulbs.
- Integrates well with Amazon shopping
- Already has lots of compatible ‘skills’ (apps)
- Doesn’t have Google’s breadth of integrated services
- Inferior speaker to Google Home
Music is an obvious function that suits voice-controlled assistants, and both devices offer radio services and work well with Spotify.
We prefer the audio quality of Google Home to Amazon Echo, although neither device can rival high-end Bluetooth speaker systems.
The privacy concerns surrounding these always-on, always-listening units are valid and well publicised, but both Google and Amazon say their devices only listen when given permission, when they hear the “Okay Google” or “Alexa” commands, so your private conversations won’t be snooped on or recorded.
You can also mute their microphones at any time by simply tapping the button.
Aside from a few teething problems, Google Home is a remarkable home helper. Amazon Echo feels like small fry in comparison to the Google device’s technical achievement and lofty aims. Not only does Home provide a more fleshed-out and complete experience when compared to the ongoing shaping of Amazon Echo, it feels like it has more of a purpose.
That’s not to say that the Echo doesn’t do its job well, but because it ultimately feeds back into Amazon’s services and only lets you purchase goods through Amazon, you can’t escape the feeling that its main aim is to sell you products.
Home, on the other hand, isn’t built around making you buy stuff, it’s simply designed to be a device that makes your life easier. And we couldn’t recommend it more highly.