AutoSlash's first and foremost passion will always be saving people money on rental car rates, but we'll admit to being fans of futurism, too. We're still waiting for fusion-powered cars (though if company founder Jonathan wants to get us all self-driving Teslas, we'll consider that an acceptable substitute), but in the meantime, we're fans of as much Treknology as we can get our hands on.
And there isn't anything more Star Trek than talking to a computer. Fortunately, we don't have to wait another 300 years for that to happen—as we pointed out last month, Amazon's Echo has very much made that an everyday reality now.
One thing we didn't cover last month was Google's answer to Amazon. Thanks to great holiday sales, I was able to pick up both devices—an Amazon Echo and a Google Home—at a great price, and I've really put them through their paces over the past month so I could share my perspective here.
Echoing Through The Halls
While Siri was the first modern digital assistant we all fell in love with, it was Alexa that made the idea of talking to an empty room seem mainstream. Alexa, embodied in the Amazon Echo, made it possible to easily play music or turn lights on just by speaking a short command (and of course order your favorite things from Amazon).
The Amazon Echo definitely feels like the more mature platform. Alexa boasts tens of thousands of skills, which are basically apps for your Echo. A skill can be anything from a trivia game to a virtual bartender to an app that integrates with your microwave and dryer.
But first and foremost, the Echo is a speaker. Especially if you spring for the full-size second-generation Echo (instead of the Echo Dot, which has a much smaller speaker), probably the thing you're going to use it for the most is listening to music—and that's really what I found it best at. I find myself listening to music much more than I used to now because it's as simple as saying, "Alexa, play some jazz" rather than fumbling through my phone for the Spotify app and having to type something in its search bar and hunt for the right song.
You won't mistake the Echo's speaker for a high-end audiophile system, but it's actually quite adequate and not fatiguing to listen to (and I say that as a professional sound engineer in another life). It's not a deep, rich, sparkling sound, but it's flat and reasonably accurate and perfectly fine for some background while you're working or cleaning or whatnot.
Surprisingly, one of my favorite uses has been as a white-noise generator. A review I read pointed out a fantastic Amazon Prime Music track called "Amazing Two Hour Midnight Thunderstorm," and telling Alexa to play that is the last thing I've done every night for the past month. (There are all manner of other ambient-noise tracks and dedicated apps, too, if you prefer a different sound.)
For me, the home automation is a bit of an expensive novelty (I did hook up one desk lamp that's nice to be able to turn on and off from across the room), but the ability to quickly access music and a fantastic white-noise track to sleep by made the purchase 100% worthwhile for me. (I'll also admit to enjoying my daily ritual of the built-in Jeopardy game.)
Take Me Home, Google Roads
Google's Assistant, long available on Android smartphones, has always been pretty smart, so it seemed like a no-brainer for Google to put it in a box with a speaker, too. They did and called it the Google Home.
The Google Assistant (which sadly lacks a personal name like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana) knows its stuff. Just like Android's Google Assistant or even just typing into Google itself, it has a pretty powerful natural language processor that does a fantastic job of not only knowing what you're asking but interpreting petabytes of data on the Internet to quickly summarize the answer.
Like the Echo, though, you'll probably use Google Home mostly to listen to music. To that end, I had mixed reactions about its speaker. It's tuned to have a little more low-end emphasis, but the weak midrange leaves it feeling unbalanced and forced.
The Google platform is both newer and less open than Amazon's free-for-all approach. That tighter control has resulted in far fewer integrations available for Google Home. While it works fine with the uber-cheap TP-Link smart plug I have my desk lamp plugged into, reports are that it supports fewer brands than the Echo does. The choice of music services is similar and growing, but the lack of apps means you can't add third-party players to the device. That said, the more tightly curated list of skills Google is capable of means you won't have to dig through as much dross to find a quality addition.
Google's strength is not only in its knowledge of the Internet but its awareness of your life. If you're like me, you're heavily invested in Google's ecosystem for everything from email to calendar to maps and beyond. The Google Assistant occasionally pipes up with useful departure time and traffic information, and this type of assistance feels natural and conversational, since Google's voice is very natural-sounding.
As smart as the Google Assistant is, if you're used to the version on an Android phone, you might be disappointed to find it doesn't have all of the same capabilities. It's still pretty smart, though.
Music being the primary thing I did with both of my smart assistants, that seems a fair place to start. I initially felt the Echo's speaker was a little weak and liked the extra bass punch the Home offered, but over time, I found the Home more fatiguing to listen to and ended up finding myself regularly asking Alexa to play music instead of Google, even though both were right next to each other. It probably didn't hurt, either, that "Alexa" was a lot easier and more natural to say than "OK Google," too.
On top of that, the Echo's third-party skills gave me one notable advantage: the ability to listen to Sirius XM inside my house. I actually don't much care for listening to Sirius XM music in the car— the audio quality is so terrible that my ears start bleeding after a few minutes—but their far-reaching lineup of sports broadcasts makes it easy to catch the Steelers' home-game broadcast even though I'm out of WDVE's broadcast range. As a TV-less cord-cutter, that's my main link to the action in my former hometown.
On the other hand, Google seems just a little smarter than Alexa—most of the time. I did a completely unscientific test just now of the most random questions that occurred to me. Perhaps this might help a bit (answers may be paraphrased):
Question: How long do I boil an egg?
Google: It can take up to 12 minutes to hard-boil an egg, or longer if you're at higher altitude.
Alexa: First, you poke a hole in the egg, and then you boil it for three minutes for soft-boiled or seven minutes for hard-boiled.
Question: What was the Spanish Inquisition?
Google: "The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition, was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile." (Hmm, sounds like something Wikipedia would write…)
Alexa: It was a book by Henry Kamen.
Question: Is Santa Claus real?
Google: "Of COURSE he's real! I even have a tracker!"
Alexa: "I've heard he's a pretty good guy." (Sorry, Alexa; Google is more convincing for the kids.)
Question: Who was Monty Python?
Google and Alexa both: "Monty Python were a British surreal comedy group who created their sketch comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus, which first aired on the BBC in 1969." (At least both know how to read Wikipedia…)
Question: What's the best beer?
Google: "I have three places nearby for you."
Alexa: "There's nothing better than Budweiser." (Alexa isn't shy about product placement, I guess. Last time I ever ask for her opinion...)
Question: What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Google: "That depends. African or European?"
Alexa: "The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is 24 miles per hour."
Question: What is the fuel efficiency of ethanol?
Google: "Due to ethanol's lower energy content, FFVs operating on E85 get roughly 15% to 27% fewer miles per gallon than when operating on regular gasoline, depending on the ethanol content. Regular gasoline typically contains about 10% ethanol." (Smart—she knows how to look up fueleconomy.gov!)
Alexa: "Sorry, I'm not sure."
Both are fantastic devices, and Google's offering probably makes sense if you are extremely invested with other Google products (especially Google Play Music, which doesn't work with Amazon) and don't subscribe to any Amazon services. For everyone else, though, my recommendation would be the Amazon Echo.