Amazon Alexa vs Google Home under one roof

When the iPhone was launched, industry commentators predicted that everything would have a touch screen. And then Alexa came along, and those commentators predicted nothing would have a screen – everything will be Internet-enabled and voice controlled.

And the latest version of Alexa – has… a screen! Sometimes I think Amazon’s product strategy includes Jeff Bezos’ sense of humour.

We have had a Google Home device in our house for a year now. Actually, my son bought it and it stays in his room. Everyone in our house has an Android phone, and the Home device tries to be extra clever by automatically linking our phones to the speaker. I remember the first time I worked from home after he bought the Google Home and I kept hearing something upstairs. When I went to investigate, all my alerts were being announced by Google Home in his room!

My favourite use of his Home device is when I wake him up in the morning by asking Google to play some music that he doesn’t like, at maximum volume.

The Home device is pretty neat – it’s the mini device, but still has a decent music quality well beyond what its size implies. It’s loud enough to wake up a teenager at full volume without distortion.

We’ve also got an Amazon Alexa device at home in the living room. This is a full-size device (not the Alexa mini). I bought Alexa recently, for a cool project at work and wanted to use it more often “to get to know it properly”. But my Endava co-workers got progressively annoyed about me using it in the office, even at minimum volume.

I brought Alexa home, immediately switched off the ability to order products online, and left it on the sideboard.

The first comparison is about setting up the devices. Google wins hands-down with its simple approach. The Alexa device always takes a couple of attempts to change the Wifi password through the Alexa app, and on one occasion I considered a full factory reset. I accept that most of these devices won’t travel as much as mine, but people do change their Wifi networks and Alexa makes this difficult.

For speech recognition and easy tasks, both devices are similar. For using third party applications, Google is frictionless – it just works. With Alexa you need to start configuring “skills” and integrations.

Similarly, I was in the living room early this week when Alexa announced she was going to restart because of an update. Thanks Alexa, but I didn’t need to know. One of the kids said it was the robot equivalent to having a [human] guest round who had trapped wind – there are some things we don’t need to know!

Its been interesting to see how the family uses Alexa. I’ve stopped looking at my phone for weather reports – if I’m near one of the devices I prefer to ask them verbally. The same applies for shorter questions or trivia – we couldn’t remember the capital city of a South American country last week, so we asked Alexa.

Before we had the devices, I didn’t understand the use of them when a mobile phone can handle the same function. My Samsung phone allows me to say “OK Google” followed by the question. But it’s not nearly as easy as Google Home or Alexa. Sometimes my phone asks me to log in before reading the result, or the time delay between saying “OK Google” and the question is too short, so my phones wants me to repeat the question.

I find these assistants useful to have around. The Alexa device was £35 because it was a refurbished device. The newer versions have screens. Facebook has just launched a home device with a screen and camera, to act as a video phone. (Basically, a modern version of the Amstrad E3 Superphone). The screen defeats the object of these voice-enabled assistants which should be simple, frictionless and ambient.

Both devices can other connected devices in the home. It’s easy to see how these types of devices will become pervasive and used to control other appliances within homes. They can already do this, but its not as frictionless to install, configure and set up. Especially when they each start announcing they are restarting after installing firmware updates.

Am I worried about privacy? Absolutely. And that’s for another article coming soon.

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