Welcome to the future. The one-time science fiction trope of talking to your computer is now reality, thanks to the rise of something called far-field voice communication that's found in connected home companions like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Amazon was first out the gate two years ago with the Echo (powered by an AI called Alexa), and Google Home joined the party last fall. These products are more alike than different: Both rely on a cloud-based artificial intelligence, chatbot-style voice engine, the ability to control smart home devices, and both get smarter over time without any involvement from you.
Amazon's Alexa benefits from a growing ecosystem and long-open developer community--And soon you'll start seeing Alexa inside non-Amazon-made products. Meanwhile, Google's Assistant benefits from Google's breadth of services and resources, including its machine learning and so-called Knowledge Graph--but it is only now ramping up a developer community to compete with what Alexa can do.
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So how do these dueling AIs fare when given similar tasks and questions? We figured we'd tell you what it was really like to live with these technologies and integrate them into our lives for the past few months.
Music: Winner, Alexa
Both Alexa and Google integrate with existing music services, but Alexa has more options than Google Home. Alexa ties into Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify Premium, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and Audible.
Google Home supports Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, and Pandora.
So what does this mean in the real world? Out of the box, we found Alexa more well-rounded, though she definitely benefited from the fact that we were Amazon Prime members and automatically got access to the generous music selection there.
If we asked to hear songs by Lindsey Stirling, Alexa played songs by that artist. Google Home responded by playing a Google Play Music station that included songs by Lindsey Stirling, among other artists. A pleasant mix, but not the same.
Alexa can also play audiobooks via Audible. While we wish her voice was more natural, it was cool to have this option, and it's an appealing extra feature that Google Home lacks.
As for audio quality, the $130 Google Home simply sounds better than on the more thin-sounding $180 Amazon Echo. But the $50 Amazon Echo Dot is a funny compromise; it's surprisingly good for the price, and it connects to external speakers as well, if you want better sound.
Digital Helper: Winner, Google Home
Don't get us wrong, Alexa wants to be helpful, but it's frustrating when you ask questions only to have her say she can't understand what we're asking for or that she doesn't know the answer. And that happens a lot.
We encountered far less of this with Google Home. And Google has a critical skill up its sleeves that leaves Alexa in the dust: Google actually remembers your conversation and doesn't treat every interaction as if it were the first time you've ever met. Ask Google a question, and then follow-it up, and Google Home can often follow the conversation so you don't have to keep repeating things.
For example, we successfully asked Google Home, "What is Adele's real name," "How many Grammy's has she won," and "Play one of her popular songs," without saying Adele's name every time.
Alexa is far less capable. She nailed the first question--reciting Adele's real name. But she stumbled as soon as we weren't specific in the follow-up questions. "Sorry, I can't find the answer to the question I heard" is a common refrain, almost regardless of what you ask Alexa.
Indeed, Google is generally much more helpful. Stumble across a medication on your shelf that you can't recall what it was for? No problem—ask Google Home and you'll get a result. Ask how far it is from California to New York by car, and you'll get an answer. You'll even get an answer to how long it will take to drive from point A to point B.
Alexa, by comparison, had no idea how to help with medication. And while she can tell you "the distance from New York to California," she'll only tell you the straight-line distance. Ask for driving distance, and she's as stumped as if you had asked a 4 year old the same question. Ditto for drive time, unless you've set up "commute addresses" in the Alexa app; even then, Alexa is more limited than Google.
The list goes on. Google Home draws from an impressive range of sources, whereas generally, if the answer isn't a fact-based question that's easily found on Wikipedia, Alexa gives up without trying.
Fun Easter Eggs: Google Home
This was almost a draw. Both will surprise you with fun and unexpected responses that are bound to elicit chuckles at home. And both do more than you might expect—play games, sing songs, roll a die, tell jokes, and weigh in on Star Wars vs. Star Trek (c'mon, geeks built these things, so why wouldn't this age-old debate be in there?). Alexa even has an array of snappy comebacks (try saying "My name is Inigo Montoya", in homage to The Princess Bride).
Where Google Home excels, though, is in its extra flairs. Both can sing Happy Birthday, but Google is likely to throw in a line like "Happy Birthday to the person whose birthday it is." Ask to play a game and Google Home launches into game mode, complete with campy music.
Expandability and ecosystem: Winner, Alexa
Amazon's Alexa benefits from having been on the market and continuously refined for over two years before Google arrived. Likewise, the ecosystem has benefited from Amazon's open developer community. The result: Alexa has hundreds of "skills" you can enable that let Alexa interact with a wealth of products and services.
Google is just starting out. It works with Google-owned Nest and ChromeCast, along with Honeywell, Ecobee, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wemo, and Lifx.
Alexa supports Honeywell, Lutron, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wemo, Insteon, Lyric, Nucleus, Wink, and more. Lots more. Both make it easy to get a device working, after which you can control it with your voice. "Lower temperature." "Turn off switch." Neither can work miracles, though: For example, a Wemo switch could turn off the heater attached to the switch, but not turn it back on, even when the switch got power again.
Google Home is stronger on the entertainment front thanks to Chromecast support. But Alexa supports a wider swath of devices across other categories, which is why it gets the nod here. We expect Google Home to catch up thanks to news that Google opened its Google Assistant Actions to third parties. But even so, it's not as open as Alexa's platform.
Daily life: Winner, Google Home
Again, the two are almost neck and neck, exhibiting their own unique strengths. Alexa is better at shopping, weather, and to-do lists. Google Home has the edge with alarms, calendar, and personalization.
Daily snapshot. Google Home's My Day is friendly and useful. Simply say "My Day" and you'll hear Google reply Good Morning to you by name with the time, weather forecast, and "have a good one" before launching into the news. This is a terrific feature, and we like it ever so slightly better than Alexa's Flash Briefing.
Calendar. Home has the home advantage (pun intended); it connects to your Google Calendar and just works. Google Home recites your day, fluidly and smoothly, with conversational transitions between events.
In contrast, if you ask Alexa for your calendar, she says you have to link that via the Alexa app's Settings page. But we simply couldn't find a way to do that.
Weather. Both Alexa and Google Home provide weather updates. Often, the results were similar, though Google Home got into greater detail in its weather previews. When we tested the two side-by-side, Google surprised us by giving the wrong information, failing to note that it was currently raining or that rain was in the forecast--both points Alexa nailed on rainy San Francisco days. Ironically, a week later, their accuracy flip-flopped. Go figure.
Shopping. Alexa not only has a shopping list you can add to by saying "Add to shopping list," but also lets you easily shop from Amazon via your Alexa device.
Google Home similarly lets you add to a shopping list that's maintained in the Google Keep app. But you can't shop from Google Home. A Google Express tie-in would be a natural fit, but it's not there yet.
To-do list. Alexa has a to-do list feature that operates similar to the shopping list. In fact, on the app you can easily move items between the two. Google Home has no equivalent yet, and that omission is both mind-boggling and frustrating. Sure, Google Home integrates with IFFT recipes, and now that Actions are open to third-party developers, we're sure to see something fill the void. But the lack of a to-do list is a surprising native omission.
Let's go out: Alexa has the edge here. Alexa benefits from Amazon-owned IMDB, which makes it easy to know movie facts and showtimes. But don't ask to get a ticket—that request led to Alexa asking if we wanted to buy a Fandango gift card. At least Alexa gave us showtimes; Google Home just acknowledged the nearest theater. Dinner reservations? Forget it: Neither device made the dinner reservation as we requested.
Commute times: No doubt thanks to Google Maps, Google does better here; it can actually tell you how long it will take to drive to a specific destination. But ask Alexa how long it will take to drive from Roosevelt Field shopping mall to Valley Stream, and she says, "I don't know, but I found a Roosevelt Field in Garden City."
Alarms: Google Home wins hands down, since Google Home lets you have more than one alarm--something many of us consider a necessity. And you get snoozing, too. Alexa only supports one alarm. And if you're cranky in the morning, the best thing about Google Home is it won't take umbrage when you yell at it, "Hey Google, shut up." Not polite, but it gets the alarm off. Alexa is baffled by a response like that, and keeps alarming.
Best friend material: Winner, Alexa
While Google Home may sound more fluid and conversational, Alexa is easier to bond with. After all, do you feel more cozy with a gadget that has proper name like Alexa, or something you need to activate by saying "Ok, Google?"
Personality and voice: Winner, Google
So Alexa is Best Friend Material. But Google Home wins the personality contest. Google Home is more fluid and less robotic, and it has the better sense of humor. Google brought in comedy writers from Pixar and The Onion to help imbue the AI with conversational humor. And it works—the humorous touches surface when you least expect it in everyday interactions, and this makes it easier to believe Google Home is a more capable, full-blown conversational partner.
Alexa does well enough, but her language feels stilted, with intonations and inflections that are off in a way that makes talking feel less... human. We swear we've noticed some improvements since we began this experiment—ask Alexa to sing, for example—but she still lags behind Google Home.
The biggest problem with both of these new AI assistants? Neither of them sound like the computer in Star Trek. That ubiquitous computer voice (performed by Majel Barrett Roddenberry) is the science fiction ideal of what these AIs bring to reality. It sure would be fun if one of them could figure out how to bring that voice to life. At least a recent update now lets you get Alexa's attention by saying, "computer!"
Easter Egg alert. Of course, both Amazon and Google love Star Trek. Try channeling your inner Captain Picard by asking for, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." Alexa responds with something like, "Unable to comply. Replicators are offline." Google, for its part, will reply: "The usual coming right up, Captain."