As artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things have begun to infiltrate nearly every aspect of our lives, many of us are inviting them into our homes in the form of voice-controlled digital assistants. These “smart speakers” stand ready to help us find and play music, complete our online shopping lists, search the internet, set alarms and timers, dress for the day’s weather and much more, all with a simple voice command.
The smart speaker arena is dominated by two global juggernauts: Amazon and Google, each of which produces a range of products for channeling their respective digital assistants, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. But which of their most popular models—Amazon Echo and Google Home— is most effective at performing the most common personal-assistant tasks? Below, we’ll pit the two devices against each other to see which one performs better in the following categories: streaming entertainment, speaker quality, digital assistance, smart-home controls and answering questions. We’ll also dive into how well each one handles other miscellaneous voice commands. But first, let’s meet our contenders.
The second-generation Echo is Amazon’s flagship speaker, offering a direct connection to Amazon’s popular Prime shopping and video services as well as a wide array of digital assistant capabilities. The Echo allows users to control other smart-home systems, stream music and other content and tap into the device’s rapidly expanding list of “Skills,” which are similar to smartphone apps and allow the user to complete tasks like ordering pizza, summoning an Uber, sending flowers, checking their credit card balance and more.
The unassuming fabric-covered cylinder stands about six inches tall and provides reasonably good sound for the price. It contains two Dolby-powered speakers with a 2.5″ woofer and 0.6″ tweeter, which are easily sufficient for streaming podcasts or casual music listening, but you’ll want to connect the Echo to a more powerful speaker system for parties or other situations that call for enhanced sound quality.
In addition to the Echo, the Amazon smart speaker line includes the petite Echo Dot ($50), a hockey puck-sized device that’s best used with a second, higher-quality speaker system; Echo Plus, which incorporates a more robust speaker system as well as a Zigbee smart-home hub; Echo Show ($180), a tablet-style unit that includes a 10-inch screen for streaming video; and Echo Spot ($130), a tennis ball-sized orb with a small screen best for tasks like making video calls and monitoring household security cameras.
Despite its ability to interface more seamlessly with other Google platforms, the Google Home is still playing catch-up with the Echo’s superior performance in most categories. It does offer excellent voice-recognition capabilities, allowing different users to access their individual Google accounts with a single command. Users can add events to their daily calendars, get current traffic information through Maps and Waze, set reminders in Keep and of course, seek answers to questions through Google’s category-dominating search engine.
Like the Echo, the Home can be used to manage other smart-home systems, and its “Actions” feature is growing steadily, though it still lags well behind Amazon’s similar “Skills” feature. However, for homes outfitted with the Chromecast Audio system, the Home is easily the best choice for managing music, podcasts and other streaming media.
In addition to the standard Home speaker, Google offers the lower-priced Home Mini ($30), which offers many of the same capabilities as its pricier older brother; the Home Max ($270), which offers premium-quality sound and eliminates the need for a second speaker system; and the video-enabled Home Hub ($100), which provides access to YouTube but no other streaming video services.
Best for Streaming Content: Amazon Echo
Both the Echo and Home are compatible with the majority of popular streaming services, including Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and TuneIn. If you happen to subscribe to Google Play or YouTube Red, it makes logical sense to go with the Home. But if you subscribe to Amazon Prime Music or Audible (or don’t currently have a subscription to another service), the Echo wins the category. With the Echo, you can tack on a Prime Music Unlimited subscription for just $4 a month, giving you an all-access pass to thousands of popular artists and songs.
Best Sound Quality: Amazon Echo
In field tests conducted by Wirecutter, the Echo consistently outperformed the Home in overall sound quality. While testers noted a general lack of bass tones with the Echo, the Home lacked treble and clarity, making it difficult to understand midrange sounds and voices. In lab tests, the Echo responded more powerfully than the Home to sounds between 300 and 1,400 Hz, a range into which nearly all human voices fall. Testers also noted the true omnidirectional quality of the Echo’s dual speakers, which produced clearer sound and reached all areas of a room better than the single, front-oriented speaker of the Home.
Best Digital Assistant: Amazon Echo
Both the Echo and Home produce mixed results when asked basic questions about the weather, the news or other current events, and both can generally manage lists, add items to calendars and even purchase things online. While neither device has managed to achieve anything close to a perfect track record, the Echo has proven itself to be more consistent in the area of digital assistant-style tasks.
When channeled through the Echo, Alexa can deliver the day’s weather forecast, provide a news briefing from a source of your choice, tell you a joke, add an appointment to your Google or Outlook-based calendar and order items through Amazon Prime.
The Google Home system performs roughly on par with Alexa in most of these areas, allowing users to manage their calendars, set reminders, check the weather and translate words and phrases from English to other languages. Naturally, it lacks Alexa’s access to Amazon Prime, but it does offer some shopping capabilities through partnerships with retailers like Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond and PetSmart.
When it comes to add-on functionality, however, Alexa’s Skills catalog (at more than 15,000 and growing) dwarfs Google’s Actions offering. Many of Alexa’s skills come directly from other popular service providers and empower users to order pizza, send flowers, operate a universal remote control, complete a 7-minute workout, call an Uber, meditate and find recipes for dinner, among thousands of other tasks. Google’s Actions, while steadily expanding, have only been around for about 18 months and will need more time to catch up to Amazon’s head start.
Best for Answering Questions: Google Home
When it comes to answering questions using internet searches, Google’s powerful search engine gives the advantage to the Home, which successfully answers more questions, provides more context and offers a longer answer than the Echo. In a side-by-side comparison of several digital assistants—including Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Cortana’s Invoke—Google’s Assistant attempted to answer about 65 percent of the questions pitched to it, compared to about 55 percent by Amazon’s Alexa. Of those attempts, the Google Home device answered about 90 percent of them fully and completely, compared to just over 80 percent by Alexa.
The Home also has a superior ability to incorporate previously requested information into its attempts to answer subsequent questions. For example, you can ask the Home “Hey Google, what year was the movie Forrest Gump released?” and then follow up with “Hey Google, who were the lead actors?” without having to include the title of the movie in your question. Amazon has enhanced Alexa’s contextual awareness in recent years, but Google is still more effective at it.
Best Smart-Home Integration: Amazon Echo
Both the Echo and the Home can be used as voice-controlled remotes to manage other smart-home devices in your household, but the Echo is compatible with more of these systems, including Nest, Samsung SmartThings, Philips Hue, Ring, Ecobee, Wink, Lightify, Leviton, Lutron Caseta and more. Additionally, the Echo Plus includes a Zigbee smart-home hub for instant integration. Google Home works with the majority of popular smart-home systems, but lacks compatibility with others, including Alarm.com, Garagio, Honeywell Lyric and Control4 (all of which work with the Echo).
Some of these smart-home devices will automatically integrate with the Echo, while others will require you to add a Skill for that device. Your first order of business is to open the Alexa app and search the Smart Home section, identify the desired device and tell the app to discover it. Once it appears, you’ll give it a name and if you like, add it to a group of similar devices, which allows you to manage multiple devices with a single command.
While the Google Home system is compatible with fewer devices than the Echo, it does allow you to control them with less specific commands. For example, you can simply say “Hey Google, make it cooler” to get the Home to adjust the thermostat, while you’d need to tell Alexa “Alexa, set the Nest to 72 degrees.” Google has also incorporated a “Routines” function into Home, allowing you to complete multiple tasks with a specific command; “Hey Google, good night” might indicate to the Home that it should turn off all the lights in the house and lower the temperature of the thermostat.
Privacy and Security
As digital home assistants have become more powerful—and more ubiquitous—many consumers have raised concerns about the extent to which these devices may be eavesdropping on our private lives. These fears are not unfounded, as recent news reports revealed that Amazon employees are indeed listening to and analyzing thousands of recordings from users, some of which have contained private and potentially embarrassing content. Both the Echo and the Home are designed to be ready to respond to commands 24 hours a day, and although users can enable the mute function if they desire additional privacy, turning the device on and off can be inconvenient and cumbersome.
Even if the content these devices pick up is completely pedestrian and benign—consisting merely of grocery lists, weather inquiries and song requests—some privacy advocates object to what they perceive as constant surveillance by massive companies willing to use people’s personal data for profit. The companies insist that they will not release personal data collected by their digital assistants unless legally compelled to do so, and in fact, Amazon was forced to release recordings from an Echo to assist law enforcement with a murder investigation in Arkansas in 2017.
There’s no denying that the Echo and the Home use the information in your requests and commands to not only tailor their responses to your needs, but also to market more effectively to you. When you ask Alexa to play the latest Taylor Swift song or ask Google to find a recipe for chocolate cake, the devices use that information to build a profile of your household’s needs and preferences. However, both companies are doing the very same thing every time you browse for products on Amazon, search for an actor’s name on Google or use the Maps app to get you to a destination. Google’s reach in this area is more expansive than Amazon’s, primarily because it offers more channels for collecting this information, but refusing to use a digital personal assistant on privacy grounds won’t completely shield you from the power of Big Data. You can also opt to delete all recordings collected by the devices, but be aware that doing so will limit the effectiveness of their future responses to your commands.
Voice-controlled digital assistants are inexpensive and entertaining companions that can help you perform basic household tasks without lifting a finger. In head-to-head competition, Amazon’s Echo wins out over Google’s Home device, in large part due to its superior Skill set. However, Google continues to add functionality to the Home family, and other services such as Cortana’s Invoke and Apple’s Siri are also gaining ground, giving users a wealth of options when choosing a digital assistant to meet their specific needs.