Google has a winner with Google Home, for those who want a hands-free assistant that can answer a broad range of questions that come up during day-to-day activities in the house. It easily beats what Amazon Echo can do.
Google Home — which ships to consumers this week — is Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo, which came out two years ago. Both are hands-free, voice-activated devices designed to be placed in a home and able to play music, provide news, control devices and generally serve as an all-around assistant.
Assistants & asking for answers
Part of that assistance is answering questions people might have. Here, Google Home outshines Amazon Echo because its built-in “Google Assistant” is smarter than the Echo’s “Alexa” assistant. Because Google harvests information from across the web, it can answer far more types of questions than Alexa can, my testing found.
I’ve been using Google Home for nearly a week. It sits in my kitchen, next to my Amazon Echo. I’ve asked both questions, as have my family, as they’ve come up as part of our daily routine.
The videos below illustrate this. In some of them, you’ll hear me ask both devices the same question at almost the same time. If you do it right, you can get “side-by-side” answers. It does have the potential to confuse the device asked first. In any side-by-side examples I show, I also tested each device separately to ensure that they weren’t being confused.
For simple information, both do well
Ask both about the weather, and they are an equal match:
Basic facts are also provided by both, such as the distance from the earth to the moon:
When you go beyond the basics, however, Alexa can’t keep up. For example, Alexa couldn’t answer “Can guinea pigs eat grapes?” while Google Home gave a solid answer:
That question is a perfect example of how Google Home shines for off-the-beaten track questions. It came to mind because my guinea pig started squawking as I came into the kitchen, wanting a treat. I opened the refrigerator, saw some grapes and wondered if they’d be OK.
Actually, I already knew they were OK from previous experience. That experience was that I’d looked it up either on my phone or computer. Could one of these newfangled hands-free devices magically give me the answer, no typing required? Google Home could and did.
Hands-free answers, even for hard questions
As a long-time Amazon Echo owner, I’ve learned that its Alexa assistant generally can’t handle complicated questions. That’s trained me to not even ask. But with Google Home, each success gave me more and more confidence to ask further questions, a positive reinforcement loop and a real edge for the product.
A real intensive bout of questioning happened when my family was watching TV last week. A commercial came on for for the Kia Soul EV-e, a small electric car. We’ve been looking for electric cars and hadn’t realized Kia made one. My wife wondered how many miles-to-the gallon (or the electric equivalent) they got and the range.
We paused the TV and asked our assistants, which could hear us from from the living room:
I was pretty impressed. For my family, this was just a challenge to prove that Google Home could be stumped with more questions. My son, who’d been working on homework earlier, asked how to calculate “percent abundance,” which is some chemistry thing I’ve long forgotten and am thankful I don’t need to know now.
Google Home got it; Alexa did not. Here’s the side-by-side with me asking (and no, Alexa couldn’t get it when asked on its own):
My wife decided to try and stump Google Home by asking for British chef Delia Smith’s mince pie recipe. Google Home again had an answer where Alexa did not:
Companion app provides further information
Of course, completing a recipe delivered verbally is pretty much impossible for most cooking, unless you have a great memory. That’s where Google Home has another great feature. For complicated answers, it sends a link to the companion Google Home app on your phone, so you can consult with the source site in more detail:
The companion apps for Google Home and Amazon Echo both keep a record of all your queries. The difference with Google Home is that you get these types of more information links presented.
For more about this, especially for SEOs and search marketers, see my other story: How Google Home turns voice answers into clickable links.
Welcome home, Google Home
In the end, Google Home won my wife over. “Yes, I’d buy that over the Amazon Echo,” she remarked. Meanwhile, my son gave up on trying to stump it and instead progressed to tricking Google Home & Amazon Echo to continually talk to each other:
How to make Google Home & Amazon Echo talk to each other in an infinite loop is my article on how you can do this yourself, if you have both devices and wish to further contribute to the woeful rise in abuse of artificial intelligence and robots.
I’ve continued asking various questions that have come to mind on the spur-of-the-moment, and Google often comes through.
For example, I missed game six of the World Series while I was out. When I got home, my wife told me how there was a grand slam. But she wasn’t certain if that was the right term for when a run brings in loaded bases (she’s British). I thought it was but wasn’t certain (because I’m fairly sports ignorant).
I asked Google Home, one way, and it didn’t know. I tried a slightly different way, and I got an answer. The Amazon Echo couldn’t answer either way. Here’s the successful answer:
Google Home’s answers aren’t always right
Google Home isn’t perfect, of course. There are times that it just can’t answer a question. On the odd occasion, the Amazon Echo can answer when Google fails, as when I asked “What’s the World Series score?”, as shown below:
Asked another way — “Who’s winning the World Series” — and both were able to answer:
Perhaps a bigger issue is when Google Home confidently answers a question even though the answer isn’t right. For example, when my new Lego catalog arrived yesterday, there was an article about how the new Disney Castle is the second tallest Lego set of all time. I wondered what the tallest was and asked:
Google Home pulled an answer about the Taj Mahal from an IGN article, saying it was the biggest. That’s true. But it’s not the tallest. That’s the Eiffel Tower set of 2007.
That answer was bad because it didn’t answer the actual question. Here’s an example where Google Home gives a flat-out incorrect answer, that of Barack Obama being “King of the United States.”
Ironically, that’s an answer from Search Engine Land, where we documented how Google was mistakenly giving the wrong answer for this question from another source. By doing this, we became the new source. It’s just one of many examples we’ve covered where Google’s guesses about answers drawn from across the web go wrong.
In short, Google Home’s strength in drawing answers from across the web, without human curation or review, can also be its weakness. But overall, I’d say as with regular Google itself, it’s more likely to get things right than wrong.
Beyond answers, Echo is stronger
Beyond answering questions, I’d give Echo the edge, an advantage that largely comes from being a platform that has matured over the past two years.
While Google Home can control devices, Echo seems able to handle a wider variety. In my home, Echo can talk with two different types of connected lights I have, as well as a non-Nest thermostat. Google Home couldn’t see any of these.
I love how Echo delivers up news from a huge variety of sources, over 300. Google has about 50.
Echo also really shines in having a deep library of “skills,” where third-parties have enabled Echo to do certain things like test your Harry Potter knowledge, play the “Name Game,” have you do random exercises and yes, the always amusing skill to make your Echo fart.
Activating Echo to ask questions is easier, in terms of syllables and words. Echo responds when you say the “hotword” or “wake word” of “Alexa,” a single word of three syllables. You can even change that to “Echo.” Google Home wants “OK Google,” two words and four syllables. I know it’s just an extra word and syllable, but it still adds a slightly annoying amount of delay when asking for what you want. It’s also not something you can change, but Google is also testing using “Hey Google,” which at least saves a syllable.
Personally, I feel the sound quality from Echo is better than Google Home. We often play music out of Echo because it so easy to do and the speakers are so nice. Google Home sounded flatter and less rich to me. But others might disagree, and this certainly isn’t a review of its sound quality.
Another nice touch with Google Home is that if you have two of them, you can have music play on both. You can also speak to one and tell it to send music to another. This worked fairly well in my testing, telling my upstairs Google Home to play something downstairs. You can also send to Chromecast units or devices with Chromecast built-in, though this failed to work with my Vizio TV that has Chromecast support.
If you’ve been considering a home assistant, Google Home is a compelling choice. Even being brand new, it stands up well against Echo in many ways. It’s especially good if you expect you like the idea of a device that allows you to easily ask all types of questions.
Google Home is also $50 cheaper, $129 in the US versus $179 for the Amazon Echo. Amazon does offer the Amazon Tap for $129, which is basically a smaller version of the Echo that has an internal battery, making it portable. The sounds on that is great, but the disadvantage is that you have to push a button to ask questions. It’s not a robust replacement for a true hands-free assistant.
There’s also the Echo Dot, which is cheap at $50. It does the hands-free assistant stuff as well as the regular Echo. But it has a tiny speaker that’s not great for playing music, though it can be connected to a sound system.
Echo has the advantage in being a robust device that’s even smart enough to recognize that different people may use it, so that you can switch to access different music lists or shopping lists. It can even read books that you already own, no audiobook version needed (if you don’t mind a robot-sounding voice).
While Google Home isn’t as robust in some areas, there’s every reason to expect it will grow. That’s especially because it’s already launching with a solid foundation.