Two years ago, Amazon quietly released the Echo, a 9-inch tall cylinder speaker controlled by a cloud-based voice assistant that goes by the name Alexa. Thanks to the Amazon Echo’s popularity, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is about to unleash a voice-powered speaker of its own, the Google Home. Next year, Apple could also join the fray and release a similar product, this one powered by Siri.
In this article, you’ll learn the differences between the Amazon Echo and Google Home. We’ll also take a look at what features an Apple speaker may include.
Amazon’s Echo ($179/£150) is one of three speakers that now make up Amazon’s lineup of Alexa-powered home devices. Joining the Echo earlier this year were the Amazon Tap ($130) and Amazon Dot ($50/£50).
We’re mentioning these speakers only to illustrate the challenges Google Home faces as it heads for release. It’s not just competing against one device, but rather three, each available at different price points. Despite this, from here on, we’ll limit our discussion to the Amazon Echo, as it relates to Google Home.
The Echo features seven microphone sensors embedded under a LED ring at the top of the device. These sensors use what Amazon calls “beam-forming technology,” allowing it to hear from any direction.
As a long-time Echo user, I can confirm that it’s a wonderful listener even when there is background noise. It reacts to everything, as long as the questions and comments begin with “Alexa,” which is the device’s default wake word. You can also call the Echo “Amazon,” by changing a setting in the Alexa app.
Although voice largely controls the Echo, the device also contains three input controls on the top. The first of these is the LED ring, which you can turn left and right to change the speaker volume. There’s also an action button and mute button. The former provides a way to disable a timer or alarm. The latter turns Alexa’s ability to listen on and off.
Inside, the Echo includes a 2-inch tweeter and 2.5-inch woofer. This combination makes for a pleasant sound.
The Echo is currently available in black and white. If you want a speaker that blends into the background, I’d suggest the black model. If you’re feeling like a rebel, go with the white.
Alexa, like Google Assistant, processes data in the cloud. Without an internet connection, the Echo becomes a very dumb device. When it is connected online, Alexa can do a lot.
With Alexa Voice Service, you can ask Alexa to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more. To get started, you need to download and install the free Alexa app. From there, you’ll be asked to connect the Echo to your local Wi-Fi network and verify your Amazon account.
Echo provides hands-free voice control for many of the most popular music streaming services, including Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. Because Echo also works as a Bluetooth speaker, you can also stream from other services like iTunes from your phone or tablet.
It’s very simple to use Echo as a music speaker. Alexa does a great job at finding songs and playlists. You can give Alexa Music-related commands, such as, “Alexa…”
- “… turn it up.”
- “… play the Beatles playlist.”
- “… play Today’s Hits from Pandora.”
Having a speaker to listen to music is one of the main reasons for buying an Echo. However, thanks to Alexa, Echo is much more than a reasonably-priced home speaker.
Alexa Skills are apps that work with Amazon hardware to give you a more personalized experience. To date, there are over 3,000 Alexa Skills and counting, courtesy of the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which allows third-parties to create these skill sets.
Alexa doesn’t have these skills automatically. Instead, you must install them from the Alexa app.
For example, you can ask Alexa to order a Domino’s pizza or request an Uber. When you’re bored, challenge Alexa to a game of Jeopardy! When you’re looking for a fancy meal to prepare, ask Alexa to read back the Food Network recipe on the TV right now.
One important aspect of Alexa Skills is the Smart Home Skill API. With this tool, manufacturers can have Alexa communicate with their smart appliances. As a result, you can talk to control lights, door locks, thermostats, fans, and more. The biggest players in the smart home industry have products that interact with Alexa, including Philips Hue, Ecobee, and Samsung SmartThings.
Amazon is so serious about the Alexa Skills program that it’s begun courting would-be hardware partners with its $100 million Alexa Fund. With this fund, venture capital funding is being provided to fuel voice technology innovation. In other words, you should expect the number of Alexa Skills to continue to rise in the coming years.
Amazon provides a few extras for Echo users who are also Prime subscribers. You can enjoy hands-free shopping with Alexa on millions of items on Amazon as an exclusive benefit of your Prime membership. You can also listen to unlimited Prime Music, which also includes original audio series and playlists handcrafted for every interest.
Google Home ($129) was first teased in May at Google I/O. Five months later, it was officially demoed, with a public launch date of November 4. Here’s what we know about Google Home before its release.
Google Home probably isn’t going to win any design awards thanks to its funny exterior that looks like a two-toned air freshener. At the top, you’ll find two far-field microphones alongside four LED lights. This location also serves as a touch surface, where you can play or pause music, change the volume, or mute the system.
The base of the device is covered in gray fabric, although you can change this using one of the extra bases Google plans on offering. These come in both fabric and metal varieties.
Inside, Google Home features an integrated “high-excursion” speaker that’s supposed to deliver “crystal-clear highs and rich bass.” Better still, Alphabet promises that multiple Google Home devices can be grouped together to enjoy the same song in every room.
This feature is a big deal. Alexa speakers don’t communicate very well with one another. Plus, you can’t use two or more Amazon Echos to play stereo sound.
Google Home’s killer feature could turn out to be Google Assistant. Like Alexa, Google Assistant uses a cloud to answer your questions. Unlike Alexa, Google Assistant uses natural language processing, which is supposed to improve reliability.
As a bonus, the appliance can also access your Google account for information about your daily schedule, assuming that you use Google Calendar.
At launch, Google Home is compatible with Google Music, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn. For those who have never had a YouTube Red subscription, Google offers a free six-month subscription with every Google Home purchase. You’ll need this subscription to listen to YouTube Music on the device.
During the Google Home launch event, Google showed how natural language performs when trying to find a song.
In the example, a user said, “OK, Google, play that Shakira song from Zootopia.” Google Assistant was able to figure out the song was “Try Everything” and began playing it through the YouTube integration. This example suggests that Google Home’s approach is more advanced than Alexa.
Google Home also has a smart home component similar to what you’ll find on the Echo. At launch, Google Home works with Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, and IFTTT. There’s also compatibility with other Alphabet products, including Google Chromecast and Nest.
Chromecast integration allows Google Home to act as an audio receiver. For example, you can throw a song from your smartphone to a better speaker in your home, simply by tapping the Cast logo within a supported app. This process works on any Chromecast-connected device, including televisions.
A specialized Google developer kit helps would-be companies to integrate their products with both Google Assistant and Google Home. The Actions Kit comes in two flavors: direct and conversational.
Direct Actions are for straightforward tasks, such as turning on a light in the bedroom or playing a song from YouTube. More complicated Conversational Actions require some back and forth between you and Google Assistant. For example, you might want to set your Nest Thermostat to a certain temperature for X number of minutes.
Again, this type of interaction sounds more advanced than what Alexa has to offer. However, until Google Home arrives in the wild (and more developers sign up for the service) comparing both products is somewhat difficult.
Up Next: Siri?
Apple is notorious for keeping secrets, so we don’t know what form a Siri-powered device for the home would take. And yet, we probably have a good idea what the device will be able to do whenever it does arrive.
On iOS, Siri works with HomeKit, Apple’s protocol that allows software developers to make applications that work with home automation products. It also lets manufacturers of existing equipment make gateways that connect to HomeKit. In other words, the Siri speaker, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, will almost certainly be able to control home appliances.
In other words, the Siri speaker will almost certainly be able to control home appliances. No doubt, the Siri speaker will also heavily integrate with iTunes and Apple Music. Yes, just like the other two products.
According to Bloomberg, Apple hopes to use more advanced microphone and speaker technology. Some of the current prototypes also include facial recognition sensors, “which may help the device act based on who is in a room or a person’s emotional state.”
Other features may include being able to process Siri commands currently available on the iPhone, integrated mapping information, and more.
Apple’s voice-activated device could arrive as early as next spring.
Which One Should You Buy?
There are many differences between the Amazon Echo and Google Home. The Amazon Echo offers more features overall. However, I would expect Google Home to play catch up very quickly thanks to Google Assistant.
Committed Apple users will have wait to see what the iPhone maker plans on bringing to the market. For everyone else, weigh the pros and cons between the Echo and Google Home and make an informed choice. If possible, buy one of each and see which one you like best.
Which voice-controlled smart home control center do you think will come out on top in this market? Which device are you most excited about? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!