There are two kinds of people in this world: those that already have a personal robot assistant in their house and those that vow they’ll never have one. If you’re in either of these camps you’ve already stopped reading, which means I’m free to talk about just about anything at this point. If you’re still clinging on of dear life, I’ll do my best to shake you by the end.
I’ve had an Amazon Echo Dot for about a year and a half now. I bought it right after the first generation was originally announced and never looked back. Since then Amazon has continued to add more and more “skills” that made it more and more valuable to me. Then, Google entered the scene.
The look of the Google Home was made fun of when it first hit the scene. Just about everyone was comparing it to an air freshener, which isn’t unwarranted. That having been said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google had modeled the Google Home after an air freshener. It’s meant to be disarming, make itself feel like it belongs in your living room, and I think they succeeded on that front. The Echo is very industrial in its design and the newer Dot looks a little cheap, to be honest. The reason I bought the original dot (apart from its $99 price point compared to the $199 that the original Echo at the time) was to have a more low-key but still premium looking device on my desk. The Home sort of fits in the middle of these worlds and so does its price at $129. Bonus for the Google Home: you can change the colors of the base to match your interior decor.
Doing the thing
Surprising, though it may be, most people care about what they can (or even would) use the Google Home for and how asking it things compares to its competitors. First, I would like to explain what I use them for. I feel as though everyone finds a different use and value in them but this is just me:
- Daily news briefing. Every day when I’m getting dressed before work I ask the Echo (or Google Home) what my news briefing is (or what my day looks like, in the case of Google Home). This is exactly what you make of it but I like to listen to the NPR and Washington Post news broadcasts in the morning to see whether the world has fully collapsed yet and it’s even worth putting the other leg into my pants today. On the Google Home this consists of a weather forecast, your calendar of events for the day (as prescribed by Google Calendar), the news, and then a wish that you have a good day. The Echo is similar but it obviously doesn’t have the integration with Google Calendar and the weather comes at the end on the Echo. I find that either way I end up asking it what the weather is again to see whether I need to wear a sweater or a short-sleeve shirt. I have to give the slight edge to Google on this one for its integration with the calendar. It’s not much but it can be a good reminder that you have a meeting today and probably should go with the button-down and tie, instead.
- Listening to music. Sometimes this happens when I’m getting ready too but I find that it’s nice to be able to just shout at a thing in the room and make it play music at me than to either connect my phone to Bluetooth or set up music from my PC. If I’m in the mood for some Elton John, I shouldn’t have to wait for Bluetooth to decide it’s ready to play ball before I’m singing along to Levon. That having been said, Google wins again on this one. Amazon has Amazon Prime Music and they even have their subscription service but who actually uses that, the app is a dumpster fire. I could also use Spotify with the Echo but it just happens that I have Google Play Music. I guess if you have Spotify this is pretty much a toss up (until you consider speaker quality which I’m going to hold over your head until later). The flip side of this is if for some reason you use Amazon music as your primary music service, you won’t be able to use that with Google Home.
- Controlling my smart home stuff. Cards on the table: I actually bought the Echo with the hopes of being able to integrate it with a smart home system like Phillips Hue (that’s what I use). When I moved into my most recent home I also bought a Nest thermostat to try to save some energy and be able to control my temperature from anywhere. Both of these things are integrated rather seamlessly with my Echo. They both also work really well with the Google Home (the Nest really better have, considering). The only reason I would give any kind of even slight edge to the Google Home is because it will mix up its responses when it comes to what it says when you ask it to turn the lights on/off or change the temperature. It may say, “you’ve got it,” instead of the standard, “okay!” every once in a while, which was kind of fun/cute. Again, this is barely a blip on the radar. Either way, do you have any idea how great it is to already be lying in bed and just say, “turn the lights off,” and it magically happens? It doesn’t get much better than that.
- Grumbling into the night. This is really only something that applies for people like me who seem to have a hard time waking up when his alarm clock says so and rather an hour or two before. I think it probably goes without saying that looking at your phone at 5am is just the way to keep yourself awake (whether or not you had any intent to fall back asleep). In a world where people increasingly use their cellphones for alarm clocks (myself included) it’s nice to have a way to check the time in the dead of night without glancing at the phone. That bright, searing light is a good way to lose an extra hour of sleep. Just uttering, “alexa, what time is it?” into the darkness greets me with an reply of the time so I know whether I need to panic and spring into action or simply roll over and go back to sleep. I can and did do the same thing with the Google Home.
Those are what I mainly use my Echo for and then habitually did basically the same things with the Google Home. The difference with the Google Home, however, is that it’s powered by Google and can do a bunch of Googly things. The Echo can barely answer any questions apart from very targeted and topical questions like, “who is the Governor of Maryland.” At least that was the case the last time I tried. I pretty much gave up after a while. The Google Home, as you would expect, can answer much more complex questions. It has the entire search prowess of Google behind it and can even read off a recipe for Apple Pie, if you’re feeling like that’s something you want read off to you.
One other thing that the Google Home did was something I’ve been wishing my Echo would do since the day I got it; you can make your TV do things. If you have a Chromecast in addition to your Google Home (and let’s be honest, if you have a Google Home, you would probably be the type of person to have a Chromecast), you can ask it to cast things to your TV. Theoretically, you should be able to ask it to cast just about anything you would be able to cast from your phone to the TV. It is super easy to call up your favorite Netflix show or play music from your favorite album.
Surprisingly (and ironically), for the life of me I couldn’t get it to cast anything from my Google Play Movies collection. I tried telling it to play a TV show and it started playing that show on Netflix. I thought I would outsmart it by asking it for a movie that I had in my Google Play collection but wasn’t available on Netflix and it just got confused and told me that the thing I requested wasn’t available. I was a little disappointed but I’m not really all that torn up about it. Does anyone really use Google Play as their primary source of TV & movies?
When it comes to speakers, I have to say that I was pretty impressed by the speakers on the Google Home. It was able to get pretty loud from the set of 4 speakers hidden behind the stealthy fabric base. I’m not even going to pretend to go all audiophile on you right now but it’s definitely a good addition to a living room or office where you would merely need something for setting the mood. When it starts getting too loud the sound starts getting distorted, which isn’t all that surprising for something like this.
How does it compare?
To be completely honest, from a completely objective view the Google Home is a better piece of hardware than the Amazon Echo. Google Assistant is simply smarter than Alexa and I frankly don’t care at all about the fact that I can buy things with Alexa from Amazon. Not only that, but the Google Home seems to have better far field microphones so you can shout or whisper at it from further away. I also really like the tactile feedback on the Google Home. If you tap the top of the unit while it’s playing back something, it will automatically act as a play/pause command. If you make a twisting motion it will act as a volume knob. There’s also a microphone mute button on the back if you want to be sure it isn’t going to go off when you accidentally utter its wake phrase. Echo has similar options but nothing this svelte.
Given the choice between the two, I think I’d have the Google Home. For the sake of true comparison, it’s much cheaper than its direct competitor (the Echo) and even though it came out much later than the Echo seems to be racing past in terms of its overall usefulness and smartness. The only thing I’d change is having a shorter wake word that didn’t necessarily have the word Google in it, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers.