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Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Which of these smart speakers is right for you? (w/video)

To get an idea of how annoying it can be to say "Okay, Google" multiple times a day, try replacing the word Google with another brand.

Okay, Pepsi. Okay, Chipotle. Okay, Skittles. You get the picture. It's difficult to utter "Okay, Google," the phrase used to control Google's new Home smart speaker, without sounding like a marketing tool.

That is too bad because Google's Home is otherwise a preternaturally smarter speaker than its closest rival, Amazon's Echo.

Google is releasing Home on Friday in the hope of riding the coattails of Echo, the Amazon gadget that is powered by the virtual assistant called Alexa. Echo became available last year to much fanfare. By posing questions and making requests to Alexa, people have since put Echo to work as a shopping assistant, kitchen companion and home automation tool. Amazon has a bona fide hardware hit.

So Google created a similar smart speaker powered by the omniscient brains of Google search. To see how Home compares with Echo, I grilled both Alexa and Google side by side for six days. I tested the speakers in categories that they shared in common: music, trivia, dining, entertainment and the smart home.

What I found was that while Echo is more capable than Home, partly because a larger number of third-party companies have worked with Amazon to add capabilities to its speaker, Google's product is poised to surpass Echo in the coming years.

Home's link to Google's database of information means it will most likely be able to give superior answers in the future. In addition, music played from Home sounds clearer and its virtual assistant is a better listener than Alexa. So for those deciding between the two products, I recommend waiting to see if Home expands its abilities before making a purchase.

POP QUIZ

All virtual assistants, which are backed by artificial intelligence, are still fairly dumb, including Google's Assistant, Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. But Google's Assistant is smarter than Alexa.

Just give them both a pop quiz to see. A competent virtual assistant should be able to answer all sorts of arbitrary questions. Is Pluto a planet? Was Bill Murray in any TV shows? How do I build a bee trap?

Amazon's Alexa was not able to answer those questions. But Google's Home speaker yanked an answer from its vast database of online search results. Pluto is a dwarf planet. Bill Murray was in Saturday Night Live. And to make a bee catcher, you cut the top off a bottle, flip over the top and staple it onto the bottom part of the bottle.

Amazon declined to comment.

Occasionally there are times when Google gets stumped while Alexa succeeds. Asked who was ahead in the presidential polls, Google's Assistant had no answer. But Alexa said Hillary Clinton was polling at 45.1 percent and Donald J. Trump at 43.1 percent.

Most of the time, however, Google has answers when Alexa fails.

Why would Assistant not produce a response when the answers are out there from a quick Google search? Rishi Chandra, a vice president for product management at Google, said that when Google could confidently answer a question, Home would respond appropriately. But when it is less certain, it won't offer a guess.

"We don't want to presume an answer that may not be right," he said. "We're being really cautious with this feature."

SMART HOME

Google's speaker is called Home because of a vision that the gadget will work with many devices in someone's residence, be it a coffee maker or a garage door opener. Yet on Day 1, the speaker will work with products from only three smart home companies.

Those include Nest, the thermostat maker owned by Google's parent company Alphabet; SmartThings, Samsung's smart home accessories maker; and Philips, which offers smart lighting systems called Hue.

Missing from Home is support for smart home products from companies like Honeywell, TP-Link and LIFX, all of which are supported by Echo.

With Home, I managed to get Google's Assistant to control my Hue smart lights. The setup was relatively easy but ran into some problems: The Home app detected four lights when I actually had two. I wasn't able to hook up my Honeywell smart thermostat or my TP-Link smart plug for controlling my coffee maker with Home because of Google's lack of support for the devices.

Google said that for Home's release, it focused on getting Nest, SmartThings and Hue because they were the largest smart home companies on the market. More partnerships are to come.

MUSIC AND PODCASTS

One major purpose of smart speakers is to play music and radio programs. Both speakers were good at serving tunes and radio programs from popular services and stations, but Home was superior.

For playing music from my Spotify account, both Home and Echo were adept at playing songs from popular artists like Sia, Radiohead and Bon Iver. Home was generally better at understanding requests to play specific Spotify playlists or soundtracks. For example, asking the speakers to play the soundtrack for the film Drive resulted in Home playing the correct soundtrack, but Alexa played the album 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole.

For podcasts, both speakers were adequate — but again, Home was better. Alexa could play better-known podcasts like "Fresh Air"or "Radio Lab," but it failed to play "The Sporkful," a less popular podcast. Google could play just about any podcast I asked for.

Google also came out ahead in this category because of sound quality. Both speakers sound good, but Home sounds louder and clearer, with deeper bass. In my tests, Home also did a better job taking requests while the speaker played loud music, whereas Alexa often seemed deaf.

DINING AND ENTERTAINMENT

On the down side, Alexa and Home are fairly lacking when it comes to requests related to food and entertainment.

The Google speaker does not have the capability to place orders for delivery food. Alexa can order a pizza from Domino's, but otherwise can't do much else for delivery orders. Neither speaker can book a table for a restaurant nearby.

Still, both assistants excelled in detailing places to eat in the area. Asking them to find Chinese food nearby prompted them to list some local Chinese restaurants. Google did better here by also listing the street where the restaurants are.

One task Alexa can pull off that Google can't is list showtimes for movies playing in the neighborhood. Chandra, the Google executive, said Home would add movie showtimes eventually.

As for placing delivery orders, he said Google was working with other companies on designing an experience that works with voice — you wouldn't want a voice assistant listing 50 menu items, for instance.

"If you verbally spit out what's on the screen, then it's not going to work," he said.

BOTTOM LINE

Echo and Home are largely the same in the basic tasks they can perform. The capabilities Home lacks, like movie showtimes or support for other smart home accessories, will probably show up in software updates or future partnerships.

So what really distinguishes one from the other? Right now, Echo's major advantage is its ability to order items from Amazon.com and its broader smart home capabilities. If you like the idea of using a speaker to quickly reorder diapers or toilet paper, or if you are eager to get a speaker to control home accessories like lights and thermostats, Echo is a better product for you.

But if you aren't big on Amazon shopping and can wait a few months to see how Home evolves, Google's speaker may be your long-term bet because of its smarter artificial intelligence and superior audio player. Home, priced at about $130, is also cheaper than Amazon's $180 Echo.

Let's just hope Google eventually gives people more ways to talk to its speaker other than "Okay, Google." (The only other option is "Hey, Google.") It gets so tedious that you may eventually say, "Okay, I'm over this."

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Which of these smart speakers is right for you? (w/video) 11/04/16 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2016 5:32pm]
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