After getting their start on phones, voice assistants are coming to the home in a big way.
It makes a lot of sense. Although it’s often embarrassing to start talking to your phone in public, the same social pressures don’t exist in the home where you can be as weird as you like with your new robot pal.
After Google established itself with voice automation on phones, Amazon was the first to build a voice assistant into a static home speaker with the Amazon Echo.
Now Google has followed up with Google Home, a smart speaker that makes use of its own Google Assistant voice technology.
Amazon undoubtedly has the early lead, but we shouldn’t underestimate Google, which has had its own voice control system, Google Now, installed on Android devices since Jelly Bean in 2012.
Google Assistant will build on the work Google has already done in the area and, thanks to Google’s many hardware partners, might see greater adoption should it come down to a Game of Thrones-style brawl.
Amazon chose to go with a very practical design for its line of Echo speakers, opting for a simple black cylinder over anything more outlandish. Its shiny black shell with blue LEDs might be basic, but it’s unlikely to offend anyone.
The Echo also comes with a remote in the US, which is interesting when you consider that all of that basic functionality can be accessed by uttering a few words. Still, should you ever find yourself out of Alexa’s earshot, having a remote with a built-in microphone will prove handy.
In contrast to the functional simplicity of the Amazon Echo, Google’s Home looks much more elegant. It has a rounded base that makes it look more like a vase than a speaker, and Google has also released different colored bases to allow you to customise the look of your speaker.
Google Home also eschews the Echo’s reliance on physical controls with a touch interface which you can use to change its volume, pause and play music, and put it into listening mode. The one physical button on the Home is its mute button, so that you can be completely sure when you want to stop the mics from listening to you.
Both designs have their strengths and weaknesses, but at a push we’d have to give the crown to the Home for its versatility and sleekness.
When it comes to features, Google has the potential to blow Amazon out of the water thanks to the massive library of existing services it has at its disposal, but it’s not capitalising on these nearly as much as we would like currently.
Music and Video playback
Amazon might have Prime Music, but Google not only has its own rival service, Google Play Music, but also offers integration with the Google Cast ecosystem. Both devices support the third-party service Spotify.
Additionally, if you’ve got a Chromecast audio then you can simply ask Google Home to play music through the speakers it’s connected to. Meanwhile the Echo is limited to playing music on its own speaker, and the Echo Dot can only be connected to a single speaker at a time through either Bluetooth or a wired 3.5mm connection.
In theory this should give the Google Home the edge, but in practice its Google Cast functionality could be better. Once you’ve got it casting to a speaker it won’t remember that this is the case and it will default to playing music out of its own speaker unless you specifically tell it to continue to cast the next song.
Meanwhile the Echo Dot will continue to play from an external speaker until you manually disconnect it.
Google Home does however have the advantage of integrating with Chromecast in a video sense. You can easily play shows from Netflix, YouTube and other supported apps using just your voice, however again in practice this could be better since you’re unable to specify particular episodes and it will default to picking up where you left off. Not bad when you’re marathoning a series, but less than ideal if you’re just dipping in.
Google Home integrates with a number of Google’s other services, from planning routes using Google Maps to translating using Google Translate. It will also draw from your Google Calendar, although it’s currently limited to just a single user.
However again, while there’s potential here, Google Home doesn’t make nearly enough use of this functionality. You can get basic directions by car on Google maps, but it can’t handle public transport and while you can have it read your calendar it won’t be able to add to it.
Meanwhile, Amazon has an ever-growing list of compatible apps including Domino’s Pizza, Just Eat in the UK and Uber, allowing you to either have your pizza delivered or request a ride over to the store to pick it up yourself. Support is good, but these apps feel like they add fun side-functionality rather than core productivity services.
Although Google Home has more potential in this area, at the moment the two smart speakers are more or less equal.
On a more practical note, Amazon has recently taken an interest in smart home device manufacturers too, creating partnerships with Samsung to integrate SmartThings control into the Echo, and with Philips’s Hue lighting system.
Though it’s not like Google, owner of Nest, is hurting in the home automation department. Google Nest, for obvious reasons, is also integrated into Home’s functionality.
Devices such as Philips Hue can also be controllable by both smart speakers, where there’s no clear winner in terms of smart home functionality.
When it first launched, Alexa’s functionality was fairly basic and limited to more mundane conversations like asking about the weather or the time. As Amazon continued to develop the software, however, Alexa gained the ability to talk about calendars, sports and what we should have for dinner.
We’re not quite living in a Star Trek-esque future, where the device will understand your every command, but Alexa is advanced enough to understand multiple phrasings of the same question, for example.
Amazon has a strong track record for the past two years, sure, but it’s going up against Google, a company that’s had a strong track record in information parsing for the last two decades.
Although Google Assistant, the software powering Google Home, is new, the technology is based on the work Google has already put into its Google Now voice search functionality.
This prior research, in addition to Google’s impressive search abilities, means the speaker has a lot of information at its disposal. Google Home can, for example, correctly guess a song that’s described in the vaguest of terms.
Echo can play songs by song lyric, which is handy if you forget quite what the name of the song is.
Both speakers are a work in progress in this regard, with incremental updates coming out all the time, but we will say that Amazon’s seems better at hearing your commands in the first place.
The Echo is not an especially cheap bit of kit. The Echo Dot, the cheapest device to integrate Alexa, costs $50/£40. The standard Echo unit costs $180/£149.
Meanwhile Google Home has been priced at $129 (£129 / AU$170), which significantly undercuts its rival’s premium offering, although Google doesn’t currently offer a budget version of its smart speaker.
Amazon’s Echo functionality is proven, and has been refined over the course of its first year of release. It’s on a successful trajectory that, if it should continue, will make the Amazon Echo a mainstream commodity in the next few years.
Meanwhile, Google’s existing services already heavily integrate a number of different external apps and functionality, but although the search giant is planning on making full use of its existing services, including Google Translate, Google Maps and YouTube, this integration isn’t perfect yet.
We’re very excited for the future of both products, obviously, and will continually update this hub as the two products grow, shift, and evolve over the coming months.