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Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Round 2 -- Google strikes back

Given the surprising success of the Amazon Echo -- a smart speaker that responds to your voice commands, plays music, and controls your smart home -- competition was inevitable. With Google Home entering the arena, complete with the backing of the company's ubiquitous search engine, the Echo's place on top is no longer secure.

Like the Echo, the Home functions as a source of entertainment, a personal assistant and a smart-home controller. When we reviewed the Home back in November, it couldn't keep up with the Echo on the latter two fronts. The Home put up a valiant fight, but the Echo had a two-year head start and many more skills at its disposal. At CES this January, the Echo continued to build on its lead with a slew of new integrations.

But over the course of the past couple of weeks, Google's given its smart speaker some significant upgrades, including support for multiple users and voice recognition, as well as a dozen new smart-home integrations and cooking assistance for more than 5 million recipes.

So now that Google Home's had a little time to grow up, which device is better? As we did with round 1, we split the battle into three categories -- entertainment, personal assistance and smart-home control -- to see how the two devices stack up. The Echo won round 1 by triumphing in the second and third categories -- let's see if that still holds true.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo
The Amazon Echo and the Google Home are both always listening, via their built-in microphones that can hear voice input from a moderate distance. The Echo wakes up to the command "Alexa," or you can change the wake word to "Echo," "Amazon" or "Computer." The Home listens for either "OK Google" or "Hey Google." Both do a fine job of hearing you, even across a large room and over moderate background noise. If you turn the volume all the way up on your music, both will understandably have trouble picking your voice out of the racket.
As speakers, both function well enough for listening to music, though neither lived up to the standards of CNET's audiophiles. Check out Ty Pendlebury's detailed breakdown of how the Home does vs. the Echo in terms of sound quality. In short, he recommends that, if you're just looking for a high-fidelity Bluetooth speaker -- keep looking.

On the plus side, both offer means of connecting to your existing sound system. The mini version of the Echo -- the $50 Amazon Echo Dot -- plugs into your speakers. With the Home, you can control any Google Cast-enabled speaker or any speaker connected to a Chromecast Audio streamer.

Bonus points for the Home: you can also control your TV if you have a Chromecast video streamer or a TV with Chromecast built-in. Say the word, and you can watch your favorite show on Netflix or pull up a video on YouTube. Just like with music, you can pause, rewind and fast-forward streaming video with your voice.

Better yet, if your TV supports CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), you can turn on your TV with Google Home by asking it to play something. That said, you can't yet fully control any TV with Google Home. You won't be able to turn your TV off with a voice command, for instance.

Alexa -- the assistant built into the Echo -- integrates with Fire TV, but you need to press a button on a specific Fire TV remote, so the always-listening Echo can't help you with your TV yet through first-party support. Both the Echo and the Google Home can do more with your TV if you have a Logitech Harmony setup, and the Echo also works with universal remotes from dealer-installed setups like Control4. Professional smart homes and Logitech Harmony can both get expensive, so the best option if you want simple voice controls over your TV is Google Home and the $35 Chromecast.

One other big advantage for Home: You can group multiple speakers to play one song simultaneously in multiple rooms of your house. The Echo still can't do that.

Both the Home and the Echo play games, tell jokes, and respond wittily to movie lines such as, "I am your father." The Echo's been around for longer, so it has more fun extras than Google Home. And her version of Jeopardy is also much better than Home's simplistic and over-the-top trivia.

Still, I'm giving this category to the Home because extras aside, the Home's ability to group your speakers and cheaply control your TV makes it wonderfully useful as a whole home entertainer.

Verdict: The Google Home holds the entertainment title in round 2.

Personal assistance
Since Google Home learns more about you through a variety of Google services -- such as Google Calendar and Google Maps -- it should have been able to easily beat the Echo in this category from the beginning. However, the Echo managed to take this duel in round 1, thanks in large part to its breadth of abilities.

Still, the Home uses the Google Assistant (Google's aptly named digital assistant built into the Home and Android phones like the Pixel) to respond to voice commands conversationally, something Google was eager to demonstrate when the Google Home made its initial debut back in May, 2016.

In other words, you can ask Google Home "Who plays Luke Skywalker?" Thanks to the Google Assistant, the Home will give you an answer. Then, you can follow that question with "What other movies is he in?" The Home will infer that the "he" you're referring to is the actor Mark Hamill and provide an answer.

Surprisingly, the Echo kept up with the Home on this front. We asked Alexa to tell us the weather. Then, we asked, "How about Friday?" and Alexa understood and responded without needing to hear the word "weather" again. The Google Assistant understands a little more context than Alexa, but not by much.
The Echo also lets you set reminders and make to-do lists, and the Google Home still falls short at a few of those sorts of basic tasks. It doesn't, for instance, let you change anything on your calendar yet. It also doesn't integrate with Gmail or Google Docs, nor will it send directions to your phone. You can make a shopping list, but you can't make any other type of list yet, or even set reminders.

That said, Google recently added support for multiple users (up to a maximum of six), making it a much better personal assistant for the whole family.

Your family members can each spend a few minutes training Google to recognize their voices. Once they do, Google should do a pretty good job of telling you all apart, provided you don't sound too similar. From there, if you each ask it for traffic info or a calendar update, the Home will customize its responses depending on which one of you is asking. The Echo can't do anything like that.

Both Amazon and Google are making a play for the kitchen -- both devices work with the Anova connected sous vide cooker. Here too, Google goes a step further, as the company just announced the ability to search for more than 5 million recipes on your phone, then send them to the Home for step-by-step directions.

The Google Home is still not perfect as a personal assistant, but there's a lot of room to grow if it ever integrates more seamlessly with Google's other apps. Right now, as an assistant that can get to know your whole family, the Home's ready to take this category from the Echo.

Verdict: The Google Home overtakes the Echo as a personal assistant in round 2.

Smart home controller
Alexa's sheer breadth of skills -- more than 10,000 at this point -- made Amazon's two-year head start in building a catalog of compatible smart home devices seem insurmountable. Skills are basically third-party, voice-enabled apps for the Echo. Google doesn't have anything similar for the Home, and given that the Home launched with just four compatible smart-home platforms -- SmartThings, Nest, Philips Hue and IFTTT -- I didn't think the Home would be able to keep up with the Echo in this vital category.

An always-listening device makes it much easier for a family to control the smart home. We found that out firsthand in the CNET Smart Home, and it's a big part of why the Amazon Echo is a central part of our living lab for testing connected gadgets.

We did that before the Home existed, though, and the Home puts up an admirable fight for smart-home supremacy as the Google Assistant is more flexible than Alexa about how you word your commands.

For a bulb called "desk lamp" in the Philips app, Alexa will respond only if you tell it to turn on the "desk lamp." You can create a group for all lights or office lights, then command Alexa to turn off the office lights and it'll work. Without those groups, Alexa won't respond to any other names for the lamp, including "desk light."

With Google Assistant, I nicknamed the desk lamp "Lampy," and assigned it to the office. I could then control it by commanding Google to turn on the "desk lamp," "lampy," "desk light," "office light," or "lights." Google doesn't get any extra credit for the "office light" command since assigning the lamp to the room is similar to adding it to a group for Alexa, but I appreciated the Assistant automatically grouping it with the rest of my lights and helping me out with the difference between "light" and "lamp."

Google's integration with IFTTT is also better than Alexa's. With IFTTT -- the online rule-maker that stands for "If This Then That" -- the Assistant lets you craft fully customizable commands including multiple options for how you might want to say the command. You have to use the word "trigger" to activate a customizable command with Alexa.

Flexible phrasing aside, the Echo is still ahead in the race to control everything. The Home closed the gap with a recent push, adding significant names to its roster of compatible devices like August, Lifx, and Wink, but all of those already worked with the Echo, and it's got plenty of others that Home still needs to add. I'm glad to see the Home making a real push on this front, but the Echo's still the champ in the smart home.

Verdict: The Amazon Echo holds its ground as a smart home controller in round 2.

Final count
With the personal assistance category swinging to the Google Home, the six-month-old upstart now holds the upper hand in the battle against the two-year old device it was designed to emulate. Still, despite Google's 2-1 victory in round 2, Alexa is far from finished. The Amazon Echo is still the better device if you prioritize smart-home controls, and Alexa is still a great, versatile digital assistant.

Amazon also has more options for Alexa-enabled devices -- including the $50 Echo Dot. Amazon will look to press that advantage with the recently announced Amazon Echo Look (an Alexa device with a camera) and a possible Echo device with a screen.

As Google works to catch Alexa in versatility, I'll be curious to see if Alexa makes a move to counter the Google Assistant's multi-user support or conversational prowess. For consumers, the competition can only be a good thing as both companies need to continually improve their devices to keep up with the other. With Apple reportedly working on an Echo-type device of its own, one thing's for sure: the game is on.

via cnet
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