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Amazon Echo vs. Google Home: The choice is obvious

On the surface, it may seem like a difficult choice between Alexa and Google Home, but once you look at them from a practical perspective, the choice becomes clear.

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Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Amazon Echo was launched almost two years ago and it marked the arrival of AI powered virtual assistants that were not tethered to a cell phone. We don’t have screens glued to our faces, we interact with each other through voice and words. Alexa was a very natural evolution of what a real virtual assistant should be. Echo’s always listening microphones gained acceptance in the home; Echo became a household phenomenon. The success of Alexa encouraged Google.  Then, Google Home was launched in October, 2016.

Amazon Echo is powered by Amazon cloud (Amazon Web Services) and machine learning and voice processing capabilities by Amazon were gained through the acquisition of companies like Yap, Evi, and IVONA. Google Home is powered by Google Assistant, a virtual assistant that’s the future of Google Now and is also found in the latest Pixel smartphones.

There are three Amazon Echo devices: Amazon Echo ($179), Amazon Echo Tap ($129) and Amazon Echo Dot ($49). Amazon Echo is the flagship Alexa powered device that comes with high quality quality speakers. Amazon Tap is a battery powered version of Echo that you can freely move around, however you have to tap on a button to wake Alexa; it’s not listening all the time.

Amazon Echo Dot is a smaller version of Echo that comes with a basic speaker and 3.5mm port so you can plug any speaker into it. All three devices pair with any other Bluetooth speakers and headphones so you can easily listen to music on better speakers. Amazon Echo and Dot can also be used as speakers for other devices. You can pair your iOS or Android devices to them and play music from your iPad or Pixel to the speakers of Echo devices.

Google Home ($129) comes in just one size, and it looks more beautiful than the utilitarian Amazon Echo.

I bought and own both devices. I have been using them for a few weeks and I clearly see their strengths and weaknesses. If you are planning to buy one for yourself, or as a Christmas gift, this article will help you to decide between Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Listening to music

Amazon Echo supports several free and paid music services including Amazon Music, Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Spotify Premium, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Audible. Amazon Music is enabled by default and you will need to enable other services in order to access them from Echo.

Google Home also supports a wide range of free and paid music services including YouTube (free and Red), Spotify, Pandora, Tunein and Google Music.

YouTube is the undisputed leader in music, it has a massive collection of online content that Amazon can’t beat. Amazon doesn’t offer YouTube integration with Alexa, so you simply cannot access those songs. Initially I thought Amazon would match YouTube, but I was wrong.

We lived in Germany for a few years and we love European music. Recently my wife threw a party and guests wanted to play some old German songs. When I asked Alexa to play some old German music, she failed to understand and said, “I can’t find German songs”.

When I asked Google Home to play some old German songs, it started playing “Lizzi Waldmüller - Du hast Glück bei den Frauen Bel Ami 1930” from YouTube.

I was utterly disappointed when I asked Alexa to play some Thanksgiving songs and she said, “I can’t find Thanksgiving songs.” Google Home immediately started playing a Thanksgiving Radio Mix from YouTube.

Things were worse on the Alexa side when I wanted to play Indian music. Alexa just failed to either understand the question or find the song. Interestingly, Amazon Music has all those songs, but Alexa is not smart enough to understand and process the information.

It’s not just music from different languages, it can’t even perform basic searches. When I asked Alexa to play the Celine Dion song from the movie Titanic, it started playing the soundtrack instead of playing her song. It seemed Alexa just picked the keywords and really didn’t understand the natural language. On the contrary, Google Home immediately started playing ‘My heart will go on”...

Google makes things really exciting for music lovers. It can play songs that you don’t even know. At the SUSECon 16 party, we were talking about their parody of the Maroon 5 song and my friend told me about a song Peter Levine sang for a new movie. I had forgotten the name of the movie and the name of the song, all I knew was that Maroon 5 performed in a movie recently. And that’s exactly what I asked Google: “Hey Google, can you play the song Maroon 5 played in that movie.” It was a vague question, but Google Home surprised me and started playing “Lost Stars” by Peter Levine. That’s the song I was looking for. Amazing.  Alexa, as you know by now cannot do that.

Shopping experience

Amazon Echo is geared towards getting more people to buy stuff from Amazon.com, but it offers a very subpar shopping experience. I wanted to know more about the latest Nikon D5 camera as I am planning to upgrade my Nikon D750.

Me: Alexa, can you tell me more about the Nikon D5 camera?

Alexa: Did you want me to order Nikon D5 camera.

My repeated attempts led to the same answer from Alexa, like a desperate salesman trying to sell me a camera. When I asked the same question, Google Home gave me an overview of the camera, pulling information from using Digital Photography review through the Knowledge Graph.

When I make purchases from Amazon, I check different prices and read reviews. Alexa can’t do any of that, no matter what you ask, she just wants to sell that product to you. Sorry, Amazon but I am not going to place an order without knowing more about the product or reading at least the top critical reviews.

A hundred dollar question: who is smarter

Whether you are looking for music, products,  or seeking information, it’s a day and night difference between Amazon Echo and Google Home. Alexa doesn’t understand natural language and context. Alexa failed to answer when I asked how big Thailand is in comparison to India, whereas Google gave me a size comparison.

Once you start a conversation with Google Home, it knows what you are talking about. When I asked Google where Thailand was, it gave me the size. Now it knew that I asked about Thailand, and as you would do in the real world, I simply asked ‘how big is it compared to India’ (notice that I didn’t say Thailand) and Google gave me a size comparison. Then I asked ‘what’s the capital city’ and it said ‘Bangkok’. Here is how the conversation went:

Me: How far is it?

Google Home: Bangkok is 8,795 miles away as the crow flies

Me: What kind of food do they eat?

Google Home: Here is a summary of food from Bangkok, Thailand…..” (and google started telling me about Thai dishes.)

Me: Hey Google, can you play some music from there?

Google Home: Sure here is a playlist of top songs from Thailand…

Pure magic!

That conversation is not possible with Amazon Echo; you have to use the keyword “Thailand” in every question; it has no clue of the ongoing conversation.  Additionally, you can’t ask basic questions like size comparison. When I asked, “Hey Alexa, what kind of food do they eat in Thailand,” Alexa said, “Sorry I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” I tried again and asked “What kind of food do they eat in Bangkok”, but instead of telling me the dishes, Alexa started giving me names of some restaurants in Bangkok. It was a frustrating conversation with Alexa. I felt as if I was talking to a primitive robot, however in the case of Google Home, it felt natural, as if you were talking to a person.

Where Google Home excels

Google has the world’s best machine learning and artificial capabilities that beat the Go world champion Lee Sedol. Google has invested immense resources its neural network. Amazon, despite its two year head start with Amazon Echo, is no match to Google. Amazon is primarily an online retailer and public cloud provider, they want to sell more products. On the other hand, Google’s mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. No wonder Google does a much better job at that with Google Home.

Unlike Amazon Echo, Google Home can’t pair with bluetooth speakers or headphones. It can’t be used as speakers for other devices. However, you can use Chromecast Audio to stream music to different speakers. That’s where Google shines. If you have multiple rooms, you can set-up speakers with Chromecast Audio in each room. Now you can play music in specific rooms by telling Google Home to play music on that Chromecast device.

While Alexa can’t play movies or TV shows, you can do that with Google Home, just plug in a $35 Chromecast to your TV and start playing movies and TV shows through Google Home.

However I do wish Google Home offered Bluetooth connectivity so that I could listen to music on my headphones, something I do while working in my home office without disturbing my family.

Google Home comes with a capacitive touch top. You can tap on it to pause and resume music. You can rotate your finger on it to increase/decrease volume. On Echo, you get 4 physical buttons and a light rim. There is no button to pause or play music.

They are more than smart speakers

Although both devices are popularly called ‘smart speakers’, I won’t discount them as mere speakers. Both devices have the capability to interact with other devices, appliances and home automation systems to control them. You can control lights around your house and office, the garage door, the thermostat..and it’s just the beginning.

Amazon offers APIs for Alexa that allow third party developers to integrate their apps, services and hardware with Alexa. Google Home currently doesn’t offer any APIs, but I am expecting that just like Chromecast they will start offering APIs for third party developers and hardware makers.

Both Amazon Echo and Google Home offer capabilities to manage your calendars and shopping lists. While Amazon Echo relies on third party applications and services to offer such features, Google owns many such services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Hangouts, SMS, Google Voice, Google Maps and Google Keep.

Soon, Google Home may have the capability to read and respond to your email, Hangout chats and SMS. It may even integrate Google Voice to receive and make phone calls from Google Home.

Wait, what about privacy?

Both devices are configured to listen all the time, which could be a concern for privacy minded people. Luckily both devices come with physical buttons that disable the microphones. On Google Home you can tell it to stop listening and it will disable the microphones; Alexa can't do that.

Which one to buy?

I have pointed out the pros and cons for each device; you can decide which one you want. I feel that Google Home has a clear edge over Amazon Echo in every department. As a tech enthusiast I have both. I like both. Though I lean more towards Google Home as it offers a very natural conversation and it will gain even more features with future updates.

Which one are you planning to buy?

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