Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: The battle begins

Editors’ note, October 4, 2016: This piece has been updated after Google’s event showcasing new details of the Home.

Alexa’s not the only game in town anymore. Google announced the Google Home in May. After its October 4th launch event, the company showed the always-listening virtual assistant in detail, complete with lots of highlights of how Google Home can best its primary competition — the Amazon Echo. Just like with Echo, you can use your voice to tell Home to add an event to your calendar, set the temperature of your thermostat, or stream your favorite song.

Google Home is due out November 4, and you can preorder it today for $130. However, the $180 Amazon Echo has been around since 2014, and since then Amazon has captured a significant amount of consumer attention around virtual assistant devices. It released three additional Alexa products: the Echo Dot first- and second-gen, as well as the Amazon Tap. The online retailer has aggressively expanded the capabilities of Alexa, adding new, free features weekly, including the ability (“skills” in Amazon parlance) to control various internet-connected household devices. I can also say from experience the Echo aces its roles as a personal assistant, music hub and smart-home control point.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo

Google Home Amazon Echo
Price $130 $180
Responds to voice commands Yes Yes
Always listening Yes Yes
Wake word “Okay Google” Alexa, Echo, or Amazon
Music streaming options Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, others Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, others
Smart home partnerships Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue, IFTTT Nest, Ecobee, SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Lifx, Big Ass Fans, IFTTT, other devices via “skills”
Customizable appearance Yes No
Output to stereo system Yes, via Chromecast No (yes with Amazon Dot)
Synced audio playback to multiple devices Yes, to any Google Cast device No
Personal assistant highlights Search Google, get a personalized daily briefing, check traffic, add items to calendar, make a shopping list, make a to do list, check flight status, track a package Add items to calendar, make a shopping list, make a to do list, check flight status, track a package
Other features Cast to your TV with Chromecast, launch and control Netflix and YouTube via Chromecast, send photos to your TV via Chromecast Order a pizza, play a game, arrange an Uber pickup. Echo has an ever-growing list of 900+ skills and counting

Why Google Home will win the fight

But Echo isn’t perfect. Until now, there just wasn’t anything else like it. Google Home, complete with Google’s new Google Assistant for conversational give and take, has the potential to outdo Amazon Echo. Here’s how:

1. Multi-room audio

The various Amazon Echo devices don’t sync with each other. You can’t use two Echos to create stereo sound, and you can’t ask a song to play on multiple Echos throughout your home simultaneously.

With Google Home, you’ll be able to command any Google Cast-enabled speaker, any speaker with a Chromecast Audio streamer plugged in and even your TV if you have a Chromecast video streamer. Home will be able to play a song on any of those devices individually, or you can create groups and fill your house with music for a party.

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The speaker inside Home.

James Martin/CNET

On your TV, Home will be able to pull up YouTube videos, and soon, Netflix will support voice casting, allowing you to stream shows with a voice command. You can also tell Home to show you your photos on your TV, and if you say “Show me the photos from my wedding” Google’s assistant is supposedly smart enough to find those shots without any extra help on your part.

You’ll need extra Chromecast devices to take advantage of everything Home can do. Handily, if you have more than one Google Home, only the one that hears you the best will respond, to prevent overlapping commands. For now, with Amazon Echo, you have to be very careful with how far apart you place your always-listening devices to prevent this. Soon, though, Amazon will match Google on this front, with an update also designed to prevent crossover commands.

We’ll need to do some first-hand testing to see if the native speaker in the Home is better than the one in the Echo. Given Home’s ability to command and sync multiple devices, it’s at least in position to outdo Amazon Echo as an entertainment hub.

2. Conversational voice commands

“How far is it to the mall?”

“What’s traffic like on the way?”

At the Google I/O developer conference back in May, a child asked Home a series of questions. Home picked up on the context of the first question to answer the next. During today’s event, Google showed just how helpful the assistant integrated within Google Home could be.

By integrating with your phone (Google also introduced a Pixel phone today, in case you missed it) Google Home can tell you about your morning commute and give you alternate routes. Home can give you a daily briefing complete with highlights from your calendar. Home can also search Google, so if you want to play a song but can’t remember the name, Home can help. And, yes, it still has a contextual awareness. During Tuesday’s demo, the presenter asked for Adele’s real name, then asked “How many Grammies she had won?” Google knew who “she” was and answered accordingly.

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Like on the Echo, you can hit the mute button on Home if you don’t want it listening.

James Martin/CNET

Alexa, the personal assistant built into Amazon’s Echo devices, doesn’t offer the same give and take, but communication isn’t entirely one way. Alexa will ask you for clarity after you give a command — if I ask Echo to turn down the temperature, Alexa will ask, “Which thermostat?” Echo can also play games like “Jeopardy!” with questions and answers that feel conversational, but Alexa won’t recognize anything beyond pre-programmed responses once you start down a certain path.

Similarly, Alexa often won’t recognize or respond to questions outside of established commands. Echo will simply say it didn’t understand the question, or sometimes won’t respond at all. With the full power of the Google search engine built-in, Home could be much more flexible in terms of the commands you can give that will elicit a response.

Beyond conversational awareness, Home will leverage Google’s extensive software platforms such as Maps, Calendars and Search, and stands to significantly outdo Alexa’s capabilities as a responsive assistant.

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The many colors of Google Home.

James Martin/CNET

3. Customizable appearance

You’ll be able to personalize the design of Google Home with different colors and materials. This won’t be the feature that wins me over, but if we’ve learned anything from the robust market for smartphone, tablet cases and accessories, it’s that consumers love tailoring the look of a device to make it their own. For a piece of hardware that might sit in a visible spot in your home, this customization is especially important.

Why Google Home won’t be better than Amazon Echo

1. Echo has a big head start in the smart home

When we use Echo in the CNET Smart Home — our living lab for smart-home testing in Louisville, Kentucky — we don’t have to deal with multiple apps and passwords to hand off voice control of our lights, our thermostat, and our garage among different users. Anyone in the house that knows the right phrase can control smart-home devices that work with the Echo. That and the breadth of device support both underscore the appeal of Echo as a smart-home control point.

Google Home will work as a smart-home control point too, and the always-listening aspect should afford it the same benefits of usability. At launch, Home won’t have anywhere near the catalog of compatible devices as Alexa. To start, Home will work with the popular Nest Learning Thermostat and other smart-home products from Nest Labs (owned by Google parent Alphabet), as well as SmartThings (owned by Samsung), Philips Hue and IFTTT.

You’ll be able to change the color of your Philips Hue bulbs with a voice command — something you can’t do with Alexa right now. SmartThings makes sense as a Home partner, since it’s owned by Samsung and Google regularly works with Samsung on Android phones, but SmartThings Second Generation Hub is a pain to use and unreliable, so this isn’t as exciting an integration as it might have been earlier in SmartThings life. IFTTT, an online service that facilitates automation between various connected home devices and online services, opens up some interesting possibilities, especially if you can create customized commands.

Amazon already works with all four of those platforms above, and many more including smart thermostats from Ecobee, smart light bulbs from Lifx, and various other connected devices from Belkin. Plus, Alexa adds new devices often. Google will need to expand its smart-home capabilities rapidly, and at a regular pace to stay competitive.

Ideally, Google will also have a free software development kit for the Home, like the Echo, which would encourage third-party developers to add new services and device compatibility to Home. Such an approach has spurred rapid adoption of Echo by various smart-home product makers. At the moment, Google isn’t offering many specifics about how it will expand Home’s usefulness. Google did promise to work with developers and integrate with “all major platforms.” Given the pedigree of the company, it’s certainly possible Home can catch up to Echo on the smart-home front, but it needs those partnerships to materialize before it can compete seriously as a home control device.

2. The personality of Alexa

What’s in a name? I’ve been an Android guy for a while and I love the responsiveness and accuracy of Android’s existing voice search, triggered by the words “OK Google,” to say nothing of the potential of the new Google Assistant. But I like Echo’s wake word, Alexa, much more than Google’s more utilitarian phrase.

Say “Alexa,” and the Echo lights up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Calling Echo “Alexa” and seeing a blue ring at the top light up in response imbues it with personality. “OK Google” doesn’t have the same charm. Google’s adaptiveness might make up for some of that, but I’m holding out for alternative wake-word options on Google Home. Through both its announcement at Google I/O and its launch in San Francisco today, Google hasn’t indicated that there’d be many other choices other than a possible “hey, Google” option. Regardless, Home will need to match Alexa’s charm.

3. The breadth of skills

Adding to that personality, Amazon’s compiled quite the list of quirky, fun, and useful applications for Echo. Again, Alexa seems to add a new skill almost every week — it now has more than 3,000 options. Alexa’s grown as a smart-home tool, but also as the life of the party. Alexa can lead you in a game of Bingo or Tic Tac Toe. Alexa can lead a group in a Batman-themed choose your own adventure game. It’ll even hail an Uber when it’s time for your guests to go home.

Google Home will need to work hard to catch up in terms of extras.

The battle to come

We haven’t tested Google Home yet, but based on what we know from our hands-on time today in San Francisco, and on what the company showed off, Home may be able to best the Amazon Echo as an entertainment hub and personal assistant. That’s quite a feat, as we’re big fans of the Echo and especially fond of the $50 Echo Dot that plugs into your speakers. But Google’s contextual awareness and ability to answer complex questions should put it over the top if it works as promised.

That said, it doesn’t look like Google’s going to launch with anywhere near the smart-home capabilities of Alexa, so I might still prefer the Echo overall. Regardless, the competition is real now, and hopefully that forces Home to aggressively expand its connected catalogue and Alexa to improve its conversational awareness. The battle is on and the stakes are high, as Gartner reported people could spend as much as $2.1 billion on smart speakers by 2020.

Check out the rest of the news from Google’s San Francisco event (and what Google didn’t announce).

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5 October 2016 | 5:06 pm – Source: cnet.com

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