Like Rome and Carthage, Google and Amazon continue to try and seize footholds in each other’s territory. The latest strike comes from Google, who revealed a new speaker during its Google I/O keynote in Mountain View, California. Dubbed Google Home, it’s meant to function as a direct competitor to the Amazon Echo, the smart speaker that can respond to users’ questions and commands. Amazon certainly has the head start in this competition, having launched the Echo well over a year ago. The Echo was also an impressive device at launch — as our initial review should indicate — meaning the Home will need to amaze consumers when it’s released in the fall. That said, how do the two products currently stack up one another in terms of design and features?
As if to highlight the inherent differences between the Home and Echo, Google’s device features a plain white body, in contrast to the Echo’s dark chassis.
The Home is buttonless but features LED lights on the top to indicate when the device is working. It also touts a modular base, so users can swap out the default white base for a colorful one that matches their living space. The petite, curvy device certainly seems friendlier than Amazon’s tiny monolith. Of course, the Echo is beautiful in its own way, with a sturdy build and matte black finish that convey dependability. Judging purely by aesthetics, consumers will have to decide which device suits their decor better.
Like the Echo (but unlike Amazon’s new Tap speaker), the Home must be plugged in to function. This means you’ll have to consider its placement in your home, and you won’t be carrying it around, but Google promises tethering it to an outlet makes it a better speaker. When we reviewed the Amazon Echo, we noted that while it won’t win any audiophiles’ hearts, it’s a full-sounding speaker with a respectable amount of bass and loud enough to fill up a fairly large room.
Google says the Home can pack a lot of punch, sound-wise. Mario Queiroz, Google’s Vice President of Product Management, promised that Home will offer “rich bass and clear highs,” but until we have a chance to test the device, these claims remain unproven. Considering its smaller size, Google will have to have put some serious engineering effort into the speaker if it wants to best the Echo in the sound quality department.
The Echo and Home are more than just pretty speakers. They are meant to be proto-AIs, helping users control smart home devices and process tasks hands-free. The Echo can integrate with your Amazon Prime account, giving you access to all the music, movies, and apps you normally have access to. The Home, meanwhile, will naturally tap into Google’s suite of apps, including Google Play. Of course, the latter will also integrate with Google’s Nest smart home appliances, allowing you to, for example, turn lights on or off in specific rooms in your house. The Echo already works with a lot of smart-home devices and is fairly agnostic when it comes to different brands, and Google hasn’t yet announced what manufacturers the Home will be compatible with (or if they’ll have to work with Thread, the Google-backed protocol).
The Echo’s built-in AI assistant is Alexa, a more natural-sounding alternative to Siri. Alexa can carry out a variety of functions, such as playing music, adjusting volume, skipping tracks, and so forth. She can also answer questions, set timers and alarms, and make shopping lists.
The Home makes use of the plainly titled Google Assistant, a no-nonsense helper who, from what was shown at I/O, seems like the next evolution of personal computer assistants. Google Assistant can, like Alexa, perform a number of personal tasks, from playing music and checking for traffic, to scheduling appointments. Google Assistant can also answer questions, and this is where it’s poised to really shine. Google has branded this new personal assistant as being “conversational.” It can not only respond to inquiries and give the appropriate response, but it can retain that information and respond to follow-up questions.
For example, if you were to ask “Who is Neil Young?” the Google Assistant could then provide a basic summary of the Canadian musician. You could then ask “What is his best album?” and Google would search critic’s reviews and other databases for an answer, knowing that you’re still talking about Neil Young. It seems like a minor development, but back-and-forth dialogues with virtual assistants weren’t really possible in the past. Moreover, the assistant can tap into Google’s massive database of information, allowing it to quickly move on from one bit of information to the next.
The Amazon Echo is certainly one of the most intriguing devices we’ve seen in the last year or two, one that offers a lot of functionality while requiring minimal effort. However, the Google Home seems like a worthy competitor to. If Home works as advertised, it should offer users a more intelligent helper, one that can respond to increasingly complex demands. However, Echo is far ahead in terms of third-party support, meaning it already lets you order a Domino’s pizza or a dozen roses from 1-800-Flowers. Regardless of how it turns out, the gauntlet has been thrown.