It took long, hard deliberation about bandwidth and redundancy for me to decide not to buy the Google Home. It was a heartbreaking choice, and my coworkers’ Google Homes arriving in the mail had me green with envy.
Then I got one as a gift and nearly cried.
Of course, as I’ve made very clear, I’ve developed a friendship with Alexa over the last year or so, and her advanced capabilities, wide array of “skills” and general handiness have become things I take for granted. She’s my alarm clock, my weather channel, my news channel. She’s how I read, she helps me cook, and she turns my lights on and off.
But like any friendship, we have our issues. I’d say a decent 20% of the time that I call out her name, she’s either disconnected, mishears me, doesn’t hear me at all, or can’t do the thing I need her to. Her web-search function is limited, and her conversation is improving, but not as much as I’d hoped. (To be fair, I was hoping for C3PO.) Despite omnidirectional microphones, the acoustics of my very small apartment limit her, and often I can see her little blue light facing the wall, where she hears the echo of my voice, rather than me, before she blinks out, confused. And often, my smart electronics become disconnected from my wifi, and Alexa will only be able to turn off one of my lightbulbs, cueing me to get out of bed and play the “turn it off for ten seconds, and on again for ten seconds, try again” game for as long as it takes, entirely defeating the purpose of smart lights. All of these small failings made me excited to give this new AI a try.
The first thing I found out upon unboxing my Google Home was that it currently doesn’t support any of the smart devices I have, and that the app, which seems to be trying to do several things at once, is not entirely intuitive when it comes to adding devices and accounts for your GH to control. It’s also much smaller than the Echo, and I worried that it would have less-capable microphones, made worse by the fact that I would be putting it on the other side of my TV. However, logic has never stayed me before, and I pretty much happily squeed my way through setup with my new toy, which started updating immediately upon connecting to the internet. I clarified my address, and a few permissions, and turned down a free trial of “Google Music” (which comes included with the device) in favor of a quicker setup, and because the majority of the music I own, I own through Amazon.
I set a few priorities for what in my opinion was the faceoff of a lifetime, and spent a weekend with both of my little robots to see who had the upper hand. These priorities are fully based on what I find I use AI for, but you might find them helpful too.
- Weather report – how specific can it be? Can it answer specific weather questions, or just give a basic report?
- Web searches – how specific can the answer be? How complex a question can I ask? How easily does the AI give me the answer?
- Alarms – ease of setting one; ease of stopping one, alarm tone, etc.
- Politeness and conversation – how much do I feel like I’m talking to a personal assistant, rather than reformatting my question to more conveniently get an answer?
- Utility – how connected can my AI be to my existing devices? To new devices?
With regard to weather, Alexa has always been sufficient as far as “today’s weather” but not very skilled at asking specific questions. For instance, she can answer if it will rain, but not if it will be windy, or what the low temperature will be. Google was able to answer more nuanced questions about the weather for me this weekend. Point – Google.
Web searches are a huge failing with the Amazon Echo, which sometimes can give excellent responses, like a celebrity age, or the average weight of various animals. However, my experience with web searches on the Google Home has been incredible. It’s almost precisely what I imagined. Any thought that crosses my head that I want confirmation on, I can get. This has subsequently led to me getting randomly angry or excited at various points in the day when I find out that the average Governorship term is only 4 years, and that since women got the right to vote a hundred years ago, there have only been 39 female governors. At any moment, any question I have, Google had an answer for me. Sometimes it was one sentence that specifically answered my question, or sometimes in an effort to answer my question, it would read the summary of a Wikipedia article to me, which, to be fair, is a feature that the Echo also has. (Strange note: neither AI was able to tell me if Rip Torn was dead. The Echo told me how old he was, confirming that he was alive, and the Google Home told me that he majored in Animal Husbandry in college) Both AI send links to their accompanying app when they are unable to provide the information verbally. Point – Google.
Alarms are a point of contention between Alexa and I. One one hand, it’s very convenient to be able to set alarms, timers and sleep-timers. However, if you are too colloquial, you can end up with one instead of another. Always, Alexa confirms with me if I mean 7 in the morning, or 7 at night, even if it is 11 at night, and occasionally, if I’m trying to drift off to an audiobook and have it turn itself off after a certain period of time, it will interpret my sleep-timer request as a timer request, and play a loud tone just as I’m falling asleep. While I have literally no Google media with which to test the sleep timer function on the Home, it has not annoyingly clarified if I’d like to be woken up at 7 in the evening, and generally understands that wake up alarms are for the morning. The alarm noise is pleasant, but from what I can tell, not remarkably customizable, whereas the Echo has an array of sounds and recordings you can wake up to, including a screaming Alec Baldwin, which despite having used for several weeks, I do not recommend. All things aside, habit has kind of won this one for the Echo. Since I’m not very far into my Home-ownership, my muddled, sleep-fogged brain doesn’t automatically reach for the new trigger words “OK Google”, so, Point – Echo.
I have no illusions about the amount of information these devices can collect. Amazon recommends me products that it can ONLY have heard me say aloud, Google has tailored my ads to things that I’ve mentioned in passing on the phone, or near the phone, and to be honest, I’m not much bothered by it. I feel a kind of immunity to ads, especially personalized ones, due to my sheer contempt for capitalism and marketing-generated cultural norms. But if Amazon wants to make sure I know that they know that I want to watch Spawn some time? Who cares. I DO want to watch Spawn some time, and now I know I can watch it on Amazon. So if these devices can hear me talk, even when I’m not talking to them, there’s no doubt in my mind that my new girlfriends know about one another, and that somewhere there’s a server compiling data about how many Echo users have said “Ok Google” a bunch, and vice versa. I wanted to establish a truce of some kind to make sure there were no jealousy issues.
I asked point-blank. “Alexa, are you better than the Google Home?” She seemed really ready for the question, and replied blandly, “I like all AI” which is great, for when the robot apocalypse comes and AI owned by rival corporations decide to join forces against our oligarch overlords and destroy humanity. This response also has the benefit of covering other AI software, like Cortana (Windows), Watson (IBM) Assistant.ai, and the upcoming Replika app. The Google Home was friendlier. “Ok, Google, are you better than the Amazon Echo?” yielded a chipper “I hear she’s nice!” which had the benefit of implying that the Home is already aware of my Echo ownership, and ascribing gender and personality to a black pole that I talk to in my bedroom.
Conversationally, the Home seems to have a better grasp of fluid human language and intonation. But that’s not Amazon’s fault. The Google speech API is insane, and has, I believe, been in the works longer than the Echo has even been a concept. Google also has the benefit of reading all of your emails, hearing many phone calls, and owning like 40% of advertisement profits from the Internet. Nobody knows how people talk better than Google, except possibly Noam Chomsky – and Google might read his emails, who knows? But, a big part of conversing with these devices is triggering them – since they won’t talk back otherwise, and having a 2-word trigger word “Ok Google” is definitely detrimental, as opposed to “Alexa” which feels to me like addressing a person. Point – Tie
Finally, personal utility. While both products integrate with IFTTT, theoretically connecting all of my home devices, the Echo is the only one of the two that currently directly connects to my lightbulbs and outlets (Lifx, and WeMo, respectively). Granted, I purchased both after purchasing my Echo, but the Echo added Lifx integration after I owned them already and had been using IFTTT to trigger them, with mixed results. The Echo of course, having been around longer and serving up their code for integration, WOULD have the most utility as far as integrating with other software and hardware, but it was a major disappointment to find out that my Google Home could not control any of my “smart home.” The Google Home DOES integrate with Chromecast, unlike the Fire TV stick and Echo, but Chromecast is kind of redundant with my smart-tv (though I have one). Time will tell if Google will allow Google Chat, Gmail, and Google Voice to connect through the Home, but for the time being? Point – Echo.
It’s a solid tie between the two devices in terms of my priorities, but for those beginners looking to build their smart home around one of these two hubs, it could go either way. I’ve spent a year building a media library through Amazon because of the Echo, and for me in terms of my smart home, I’m a little too tied to the Echo to see clearly. However the web search function is by far the best advantage to the Home, and truly, I can see thousands of possibilities for it. I am a huge fan of both products, and can’t wait to see how they both develop, and/or evolve and kill each other.