The world is so full of tech that sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Some of us struggle to grasp the basic features of the iPhone X, let alone brief ourselves on whichever smart home device is next to hit the market.
You’ve probably heard about the Google Home and Amazon Echo devices ― the latter of which is commonly referred to as “Alexa” ― and you may be wondering what they’re all about. Essentially, they’re smart speakers that respond to your voice for hands-free help around the house. They can do anything from answer random questions to recite the day’s weather to play music and control a home’s smart lights (which are exactly what they sound like). While these speakers obviously aren’t necessary for daily life, tech enthusiasts say they’re fun gadgets to have around and can become fairly indispensable once you start using them.
Here’s what you need to know:
There are two main smart speakers: Amazon Echo and Google Home.
The Amazon Echo is the original smart speaker, which Amazon first released in 2015. The small, cylindrical device is designed to sit on your countertop or bookshelf, and the voice that comes out of it is called Alexa. (The voice that comes out of the Google Home speaker is named, much less affectionately, “Google Assistant.”)
HuffPost consulted four tech experts, who said the Echo shines in its ability to control smart home devices like smart lights, smart thermostats and smart door locks. You can turn on the lights with your voice or unlock the front door by asking Alexa to do so, for example. (Of course, this involves owning smart lights, thermostats or door locks in the first place.) However, the Echo isn’t so great at answering everyday questions like “What movies came out recently?” The Echo integrates with Amazon products like Amazon Fire TV, and of course it lets you order stuff from Amazon directly with your voice.
Google released its Google Home smart speaker last fall, making it the newer kid on the block. (Apple will release its own smart speaker next year, but that’s another story.) As the Echo integrates with Amazon products, so the Google Home integrates with Google: You can vocally control your Chromecast TV, use Google Search and access your Google Calendar and Gmail, though experts say those last two functions could use some work. It can’t control as many smart home devices as the Echo, nor does it do so as efficiently. It also has fewer “apps” than the Echo, something we’ll get to later, but the experts we spoke with said its setup is significantly simpler.
Smart speakers aren’t must-haves, but they’re definitely fun.
“Right now, you definitely don’t need one,” said David Pierce, a senior writer at Wired who has reviewed both the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Show. “But you should get one! Once you get used to all the small things they can do, like play music or tell you the weather or convert tablespoons to cups while you’re mid-recipe, it’s hard to go back ... They’re playthings. But they’re fun, useful, awesome, maybe slightly privacy-problematic playthings.”
And truly, neither Amazon nor Google’s gadget is “better,” according to our experts, though one might be a better fit for a given user.
“Both speakers perform different tasks really well and really poorly,” said Alex Hernandez, editor-in-chief of tech site Techaeris. “It will come down to what you want to do with your smart speaker.”
Here’s a breakdown of each speaker’s biggest strengths, per the experts’ opinions.
- Amazon Echo is great at controlling your smart home.
The Echo “can control a wider range of smart home devices” than Google Home, said Alex Cranz, senior reviews editor at Gizmodo.
That is, of course, if you have smart home devices to control.
- Google Home is great at answering your questions.
Our experts agree that Google Home’s main draw is its ability to answer complex questions like “What were last week’s lottery numbers?”
Google Home is “supremely smart thanks to Google’s dominance in search,” said Nick Pino, a senior editor at TechRadar. “It can tell you things like how much airplane tickets cost, or when movies, games or music originally came out ... Alexa pretty frequently doesn’t know how to answer your questions.”
Plus, they say Google Home is better at understanding your voice.
With Echo, “you have to be very specific in how you word your requests, and they can often come out sounding like word salad. You can be much more natural speaking to the Google Home,” Cranz said.
- Amazon Echo has more “apps.”
While Google Home has a more basic set of functions ― turning on the TV, playing music and the like ― you can expand your Amazon Echo’s abilities by selectively enabling a whole slew of “skills,” like reading your Twitter feed aloud and ordering Domino’s pizza on command.
“[Echo] has some really fun games and apps,” Pierce said. It’s also “awesome for buying the random junk you always forget to buy at the grocery store because you can just yell, ‘Alexa, buy more toilet paper!’ from the bathroom.”
- Google Home has easier setup.
Because of its more streamlined function, the editors we consulted said Google Home has an easier setup process and less complexity overall, which may be a draw for some users.
With the Echo, “it takes a lot of work to enable all the skills you need to do all the fun stuff,” Pierce said.
Ultimately, our experts did prefer one gadget over another.
The two are similar in price: Amazon Echo normally retails for $99.99, and Google Home is $129. (This year’s best Black Friday sales bring the prices down to $79.99 and $79 respectively, making them essentially equal.) Each of our experts said it was a tough call, but in the end, three of the four say they prefer Google Home, at least with the functionalities each device has right now.
“Google Home is the better choice for me personally because I want my [artificial intelligence] to give me answers to questions, and I don’t have a huge amount of smart devices I need to control,” Hernandez said.
However, that doesn’t mean it’ll be true for you, too. When deciding between the speakers, Pierce said you should think about whether you favor Amazon products (like Amazon Fire TV and Amazon.com) or Google products (like Chromecast and Gmail) in your daily life.