Google makes it to third base with Home digital assistant

A worthy challenger to the Echo, but no home run

Review There's really no way to write about Google Home, the search giant's digital assistant, without comparing it to the Amazon Echo.

In fact, without the Echo's unexpected and extraordinary success, it's hard to imagine the Home would exist at all.

So let's get it out of the way: the Echo just narrowly nudges the Google Home right now. But not by much, and Google's effort is actually better in some respects. It is also easy to see how the Echo's advantages may fall off over time.

In short, Google has given the Echo a run for its money right out of the box.

But let's step back briefly. What are we talking about really? Even though there has been a lot of excitement about the Echo, it has still not become a ubiquitous technology.

There are those completely opposed to the idea of a box in your home listening out for voice commands and reacting accordingly by doing things like playing music, setting timers, providing useful snippets of information, even connecting to smart-home devices and turning on lights or turning up the heat. If you are one of those people, there is nothing about the Google Home that will change your mind; you are better off clicking out of this article right now and finding something else to do with the next five minutes.

Then there are those who have an Echo but are intrigued to know what Google has brought to the game. And the answer is: competition. We can expect to see continued and rapid improvements in this area thanks to Google's arrival. That's good for customers of both products.

Ecosystem

But what you really want to know is: should I buy more Amazon Echos (or the mini-Echo called Dot) for my house? Or think about shifting to Google? And the answer is to wait. Why? Because what will end up differentiating the two will be the alliances and interactions they achieve with other manufacturers.

As just one example: you can ask Google's Home to play music on a system in a different room – but currently only through Google's Chromecast streaming device. You can't do that at all with the Echo – but Amazon and Sonos have announced that next year you will be able to.

Will Google also work with Sonos? Who knows? Will Amazon work with Chromecast? Possibly, but probably not. Do you already have a speaker system you want to use or are you thinking about buying one? The same approach – and uncertainty – can be applied to the whole range of other things that these digital assistants hope to connect to and which prove to be their real worth.

The ecosystem is going to be the ultimate determinant of market leadership. That said, it's worth reflecting on the fact that Google Home has drawn so close to the Echo out the box. Amazon's black cylinder does has an advantage currently, but it is not light years ahead.

Newbies

And then the final group of people is those pondering whether to buy a digital assistant, possibly for the holidays.

And to them, the interesting answer is: go ahead. Do it. The technology is mature enough to warrant it.

There are bugs in Google Home, however. For example, it seems to have trouble working properly with music service Pandora. Several times it simply stopped playing songs after one or two songs. Sometimes it says it is going to play a radio station... and nothing happens. This is, obviously, rather frustrating.

Also, just like the Echo in the early days, Google Home often struggles with requests and gives a stock answer like "sorry, I don't know how to help with that." Those struggles are fewer than when the Echo launched, but the Echo does have the edge here – mostly thanks to tens of thousands of customers using it now for well over a year. The Echo can handle many more variations of the same question.

That said, the Home shows real promise here: when you hit on the "right" question, Google's response is often as good, if not better, than Amazon's. So long as Google is planning to learn from Home usage (rather than continue to rely mostly on its existing huge search database), it is easy to see how it could surpass the Echo.

Some quick and dirty examples. Ask the Home what sounds a pig makes and it will play a clip of a pig snorting. Ask the Echo/Alexa and it tells you it has added a link in its app. Ask Home what is Spanish for 'sandwich' and it will joyfully tell you – complete with mild accent 'emparedado.' Ask Alexa and it says "I'm sorry I can't pronounce that, I have written it down" and it sends you to the app again.

Duel

That said, when asked how Alexander Hamilton died, the Echo gave a useful and relatively detailed rundown, whereas Home simply stated it was "by duel."

The two devices were on a par when it came to a wide range of other requests: from shop closing times to setting timers to turning smart home equipment on and off (although we note that only the Echo works with the Ecobee smart thermostat; both work with Nest). Both also worked passably well with personal calendars. And both provide useful weather and news updates, seemingly from the same sources. Oh, and setup for both is easy.

Where Google has fallen down is in not meeting the hype that it itself developed. When it launched last month, Google painted a picture of vastly superior intelligence and analysis: you would ask it questions and set up complex interactions and it would handle it easily. There is little evidence that that level of complexity exists right now beyond carefully choreographed demonstrations.

For example, I asked Google Home to play the latest episode of the BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. Amazingly, it figured this request out without needing any further input and started playing the latest episode. But then when I followed up with "no, not this episode, can you play the Desert Island Discs with Harry Rabinowitz," it drew a total blank. The intelligence is only going down one level.

So those are the software and ecosystem capabilities. What will be a key decider for many people looking at the devices will be things inherent to the device itself. Here again there is a split and it will fall to individual taste.

  • Cost: The Home is $50 cheaper than the Echo and costs $130. This might be a decider for some but let's be honest, these devices are not essentials so we suspect the price differential is less a factor than everything else.
  • Look: The Home is shorter and a little stubbier. It is white and has changeable color bases. The Echo is a taller, thinner, black cylinder. Getting personal, both this reviewer and, critically, his wife, prefer the Home in this regard.
  • Sound: Again, it's a personal thing. The Echo has slightly better speakers (tested by cranking them up to max) but the Home has a warmer quality to it which makes music more pleasurable. That said, the spoken word is a little cleaner and crisper on the Echo, so radio sounds a little better.
  • Mic: The microphones are critical with this device, for obvious reasons. The two edge cases are when there is a lot of residual noise in the room when you ask the device to do something, and when you are in another room shouting out a command in the hope it will be heard and acted on. In both cases, the Echo performed better. But not so much that it was a problem for the Home.
  • Wake word: You wake up the Echo by using the wake-word "Alexa." This provides a pleasant, personable feel to the device which is nice. The Home, however, is woken by saying "OK, Google" or "Hey Google." Frankly, for this reviewer, constantly saying "OK, Google" feels a little uncomfortable and constantly reminds you of the company rather than feeling like a personal assistant. It feels impersonal. This may seem like a small thing, but when you have to say it every time, having a person's name to say feels much less like an imposition. This single factor alone may give the Echo the edge in usage.

In short, Google Home has done amazingly well right out the gates. It trails the Amazon Echo, but only slightly, and it has the potential to steam ahead, at least in terms of intelligence of answers, as the system gets much wider general use by the public.

This reviewer prefers the Home on a device level but not enough to be evangelical about it, and can easily see why others may prefer the Echo. The big decider will be in the next 6-12 months when it becomes clear how much each company can persuade other manufacturers to work with its system.

Amazon is clearly out ahead in this respect, but can Google catch up or will it go the Apple route and decide that the best solution for everyone will be to buy lots of interoperable Google products? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I have left both devices in the kitchen of the family home to see which one gets more attention.

The Google Home is available now, in the US, for $129. The Amazon Echo is $180. We'll let you know when Google makes it available in the UK. ®

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