Google is going head-to-head with Amazon. The new Google Home device is pretty much a copy of the Amazon Echo that we reviewed last year. This makes for an interesting battle as these two major companies duke it out in the artificial intelligence home platform.
While the Amazon Echo is a 9” tall, 3” round black cylinder, the Google Home device is a bit shapelier. It is 5 ½” tall, shaped like a room freshener about 4” round at the bottom and 3” around at the slanted top. It has a two-tone look. My review unit has a white top and gray fabric base. The bottom half screws on so you can remove it and replace it with alternative bottoms that have different colors and textures.
The Google Home sells for $129 so it is cheaper than the $179 for the Amazon Echo. Both have similar features. To communicate with Google Home, you simply say “Hey Google” or “OK Google”. Four small circular colored lights on the slanted top show you that Google is listening. Like Alexa, the voice of the Echo, Google can give you news, check your daily schedule, play games, tell corny jokes, play music, answer questions, and control home devices. Both have female voices that are slightly different, but similar in diction and vocal quality.
Set up is simple. Just plug it in, install the new Google Home app on your phone or tablet, and connect to your home Wi-Fi. Unfortunately this Google app was difficult to navigate on an iPhone. It was, however, well laid out and much easier to use on a Pixel or other Android phone.
After doing side-by-side testing, I found that both Echo’s Alexa and Google Home are smart. Home was able to answer some questions that Alexa missed and Alexa was able to answer come that Home missed. In general, Alexa seemed better at sports questions, while Home was better at foreign languages. Since both of these devices are constantly learning, it will be awhile before we can actually determine which is “smarter”.
Control Home Devices
Google Home currently works with Nest, Smart Things, Philips Hue and IFTTT. I tested it with my extensive line-up of Hue lights. It found all easily and controlled them quite well. However, the Echo, which just celebrated its second birthday, controls many, many more devices. Google Home could not connect with some of my other brands of lights and switches that the Echo can control.
The audio quality of both devices is very similar. My untrained ears thought the Home device sounded slightly crisper and had a little more depth, but there is not a huge difference. Google Home can play Pandora, YouTube, Google Play, Tunein, and Spotify. It comes with a free six-month subscription to YouTube Red, but after that you have to pay about $10 a month for it. As you know, Spotify is very good, but also charges a monthly subscription fee.
The free Google Play has a limited number of songs, but lets you upload 50,000 tracks of your own music for free.
In comparison, the Echo can play 2 million ad-free songs with your Prime membership which also offers free-two day shipping and several other perks for $99 a year.
Music throughout the home
This is the one big feature that Google Home has over the Amazon Echo. Two or more Google Homes can sync the music so the same music can play throughout the home. If you have more than one Echo or Echo Dot, each can play different music at the same time, but they cannot sync.
If you add a $35 Chromecast Audio device to any speaker with an auxiliary audio port you can use the Google Home device to create groups and can sync the music throughout your home or in any groups that you specify. I plugged the Chromecast Audio into a Bose radio and used the app to group it with the Google Home device. The results were spectacular.
It is obvious that the Amazon Echo had a two year lead on Google. Shortly after its release, Amazon created the Alexa Fund to provide up to $100 million in venture capital funding for companies working with Alexa’s voice technology. The result of that was a tremendous serge of new products that work with Alexa. Alexa is now being built into everything from ceiling fans to cars. See our article about Alexa at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show to see what a big impact this had. Google Assistant’s Actions on Google program will open up to developers in December. It will be interesting to see how much of a push they put behind this program. What they do here will determine how quickly Google Home catches up to the Amazon Echo.
At $129, Google Home is significantly cheaper than the $180 Echo, yet Amazon also offers the smaller Echo Dot for $49.The Dot is just as capable as the large Echo except it’s speakers are not as good and if you use it for music you will want to purchase a Bluetooth speaker or use a standard speaker with an audio jack.
I must say that constantly calling the Home device “OK Google” was very tiresome. I felt like I was constantly doing an advertisement for Google. In comparison, talking to the Echo by calling the name “Alexa” did not bother me a bit and it made her feel like part of the family. One comfortable thing about the Home is that when you say “OK Google, Good Morning”, she will respond with weather, news, traffic and other personalized daily facts that you have chosen in the app.
Right now the Amazon Echo has a big edge on Google Home, especially if you are an Amazon Prime member. I really can only recommend Home if you are a big Google fan, a constant user of Chromecast devices, or love the music sync idea.
Yet, the price of admission to this new world of digital assistants is relatively low. You can buy an Echo Dot for $49 or a Google Home for $129. Both are fun and extremely useful. As time goes on, I expect each of these devices to just keep getting better and better. It will be interesting to see them each develop and to see who gets the final edge.