By now you’ve probably seen Amazon’s Echo in action, either in person, in a commercial, or in sly product placement, such as on the TV series Mr. Robot. Amazon has all but locked down the smart-speaker category, making it impossible to talk about Google Home without comparing it to the Echo.
So on our first day with Google Home, a WiFi-connected speaker that responds to voice commands, everything it did felt like a rehash. When you say, “OK Google,” a ring of lights blink on, indicating that this isn’t a random decoration or oversized air freshener. It’s a computer masquerading as a speaker, and part of a genuine revolution in how we interact with the internet.
Like Echo, Google Home can answer questions too pointless to justify reaching for your phone. It can set timers, a minor function that became indispensable once we started cooking. It can also play music, pulling specific songs from Google Play, Spotify or YouTube.
If you already own an Echo, this is all very boring to read about, since you’ve likely already been fully seduced by the lazy delights of talking to your new computer. Whether you’re using it for useful stuff, like to dim the lights (assuming you have connected lightbulbs, such as Philips Hue bulbs) or you’re forcing it to respond to inane personal questions, smart speakers are the most irresistible new class of consumer tech in years. They happen to be terrible speakers at their price point, with audio that’s muffled and muddy at any volume, but their voice-computing capabilities more than make up for what should be a fatal flaw.
If you don’t have an Echo, Google Home will probably be just as appealing, for all the same reasons. It’s just fun to talk to the internet, and there’s no immediately clear reason to pick Google’s smart-speaker over Amazon’s, except maybe the hardware design, and the price (Home is $60 cheaper than the full-sized Echo).
For us, there is no death match between Echo and Home. The duel is over. Echo is lying in the dirt, the crowd is roaring, and the Emperor’s thumb is pointing unmistakably down. What killed Echo for us at this time is its artificial intelligence, or lack thereof. As of this writing, Google Home is leaps ahead of Echo in voice searches.
We asked Echo what a brown dwarf is. Echo was completely stumped. We asked the same question of Google Home, and it read back a substantial, but still pretty succinct description of the specific class of infrared-emitting star. That entry was pulled from Universe Today, a site Google Home seemed to lean on for nearly any space-based question we posed.
This is the right way to approach voice searching — not by randomly fishing around the internet for answers, but putting queries in different silos, with questions within a given category all drawing from the same source. That Google has a better handle on searching the internet isn’t a surprise. What is surprising, though, is that the company hasn’t better communicated just how much better Google Home is at voice searches than Echo.
Small as this distinction might seem, we can’t help but feel a little sorry for Echo owners who don’t know what they’re missing. Few things in consumer tech are more frustrating than a gadget that doesn’t work as promised. And Echo, as of right now, breaks its central promise constantly. It whiffs on question after question, either failing to find an answer, or maybe declining to provide one when the answer might be too long to effectively recite.
That’s not to say that Google Home has a perfect batting average. Some questions are too complicated to be answered with a few sentences. And it understandably lacks cognition, so it doesn’t always catch the real drift of your question. Ask it how a given celebrity died, and it might give a surface-level answer, pointing to a heart attack, without explaining that the fuller cause of death was drug-related. But if you prod the speaker with increasingly pointed questions, it often gives up the goods.
Unfortunately, Google Home doesn’t stand a chance. Sure, in the isolated gadget Colosseum that is our house, the battle of the smart speakers was won decisively, and by virtue of search engine smarts. In the wider world, though, Amazon is quickly winning the voice-computing war.
This became obvious during the recent Consumer Electronics Show. A shocking number of devices came embedded with Alexa, the same voice-command operating system found on Echo. From alarm systems and refrigerators to DVRs and TVs, Amazon’s software was everywhere. Google, meanwhile, had virtually no news regarding its equivalent platform.
Going forward, this is a major blow to Google Home. It’s also, strangely enough, a blow to the Echo. New products that use Alexa don’t generally require an Echo to accept voice commands, so the value of a smart-speaker might be evaporating just as quickly as it materialized. And companies like Lenovo announced Alexa-running Echo clones that may have better audio quality than the Echo. If those claims stand up to testing, Amazon’s pioneering speaker might be obsolete in a matter of months.
But that’s the larger picture. For now, and so long as Amazon doesn’t release a software update that improves Alexa’s powers of search — something that could happen any time, and without warning — Google Home is the superior smart-speaker. It’s smarter, cheaper, and arguably more stylish than Echo. Sure, it doesn’t have as many friends, but who needs friends when you have the internet? [$129; store.google.com]