Home Automation

Voice agents seem to be on the increase and we are now starting to see interfaces like Alexa built into other devices such as cars, speakers and media players. Over the festive season, I managed to pick up an Amazon Echo Dot and a Google Home-Mini during the boxing day sales. So which is the best?

Neither!

That’s the short answer. It wouldn’t make for much of an article if I told you to steer clear of them all based on my personal opinion though, so maybe this article will help you decide if you’re already thinking of getting one or the other. After some investigation, it turns out that which system you opt-in to is likely to depend on what other online services you use rather than the device itself.

There are multiple videos on Youtube that show both can do some basic tasks like setting timers, reminders and answering questions. Both mini speakers are of fairly similar size and both require a wi-fi connection and the installation of an app on your mobile phone or tablet to initially set-up the device.

Amazons Dot has very visible buttons on the top of the unit to increase/decrease the volume, turn the mic off and manually trigger the Alexa voice agent. The Google Home-Mini has a button underneath, close to the power socket to turn the mic off and there are two invisible buttons at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock underneath the mesh to control the volume (or pause your music if you press them together). I personally find the Amazon buttons easier to use as it’s not always obvious where they are on the Google Home-Mini if it’s sitting on a desk at a slight angle – so that’s 1-0 to Alexa for manual controls. It is a minor victory though as you can control the volume of both using voice commands which I imagine is how the majority of users will control the volume.

As for sound quality, I prefer the Google Home-Mini which has a richer bass to the sound when playing music. Both can be streamed to from Deezer which brings us nicely onto the subject of music services. The Google Home-Mini can be streamed to using a FREE spotify account while Alexa tells you using Spotify requires a premium subscription (so that’s a Google win, 1 all). Rather oddly though if you ask Google to play something from Youtube it says ‘Sorry, Youtube music isn’t available in your country’. This is odd since if you have the Google assistant app on your phone it’s more than happy to play Youtube videos – so if you have an old phone with a jack socket you might prefer to explore this option given the amount of music content on Youtube (more on this next time).

If you’re an Amazon fan, you can always consider Amazon ‘My Music’ or ‘Music unlimited’ (Prime music?). Other services I’ve seen listed are Tune-in (streaming radio) and Pandora music which also doesn’t seem to work in the UK. So the best way for me to get music on the echo dot is to stream to it from another app. So the ability of Google to stream the free version of Spotify makes it the clear winner in the music category. Another good music app is Deezer which currently gives you 15 days to try out it’s premium service and then will presumably drop you to a lesser, more advert-intense version. I was able to stream Deezer to both devices with minimal hassle. Deezer seems like a good alternative to Spotify although since its premium product is the same price, not having native support build into the Echo is likely to encourage more people to sign up to Spotify instead.

So with both systems scoring equal, it currently looks like the Google Home-Mini is the better system for music if you’re not prepared to splash out on a subscription. Still there is more that can be consumed with these devices than digital music and this is where things get interesting and why I said earlier that other online services could help make your decision.

The Echo Dot can be extended with add-on apps (known as ‘skills’) which Echo fans will be very eager to tell you all about. From our perspective, the most useful of these is the Ocado skill which allows you to add items directly to your weekly shop. Google’s Home-Mini will allow you to add items to an online list but then you’re going to have to manually transfer those items to an online shopping basket using your PC or tablet.

The Ocado app will go through your purchase history and attempt to re-order whatever item you’ve asked it for which may well be the Echos unique selling point as it’s a real time saver. I would expect Ocado are already working on a Google version and I would be surprised if Google’s devs weren’t giving them every assistance with this. Of course the Echo is geared up towards making buying things from Amazon very easy, although there are probably other people like me who prefer to have these systems safely linked to a new household account which has no linked payment options.

So extensions to make life easier gives Amazon’s Echo dot a 2-1 lead which I will freely admit is mainly down to giving the whole household the ability to quickly add something to the weekly Ocado shop.

Google’s devs seem to be quite clued-up though. Having looked through the other skills on the Amazon app, a lot of them are for games or relaxing ambient forest sounds. If you ask Home-Mini to play some of these sounds, it will, with no additional apps or skills required. I’m not sure that’s really worth an additional point but I’ll give it as it shows the devs are thinking about things they can do at their end to improve convenience while Amazon seem to be looking to third-party skills developers to extend their capabilities.

So with the scores at 2-all, the next discovery is for Trekkies. The Echo will allow you to change the wake word. You can use ‘Alexa’, ‘Amazon’, ‘Echo’ or ‘Computer’. Trekkies might want to set this to ‘Computer’ and add some additional ambient sounds from the Spacedeck skill. So your score may vary if that’s something you like the sound of but to be honest I’d prefer free Spotify any day.

I’m now waiting to get more devices before I can test the next part which is the intercom facility. Echo supposedly allows you to ‘drop in’ on speakers in other rooms (or at a friends house) as well as allowing you to ‘drop in’ from the app on your phone or tablet. This seems a little quiet on my phone but does work. The Google Home-Mini doesn’t seem to have a two-way intercom but you can use the device (or the phone app) to ‘broadcast’ a message to all speakers linked to your account. This might be more useful if you have speakers in the kids rooms and you want to let everyone know it’s meal time without having to ‘drop in’ on them all individually. So again at this point, your score may vary. I will be more likely to drop-in when I’m at work and more likely to broadcast at home so I’m awarding a point to both and our score is now three all.

You have to remember it’s early days for these systems and both are showing good signs of being developed further. At the moment I only have a single TP-Link smart socket (which can be controlled from their Kasa app). I found adding this to both systems was easily accomplished. The Google home app appeared to be a little buggy but I can forgive it that for it’s clean looks and long list of supported smart-home devices. The Google app doesn’t appear to have scenes yet (collections of smart-switch settings which can be collated under a trigger-phrase like ‘bed time’ to turn off all downstairs lights for example) although it did import scenes from the Kasa app. It’s easy enough to group smart-devices into rooms on both systems so you can say a single command to turn multiple devices on or off simultaneously.

So for us at least, the two systems score equally well, both having their strengths and weaknesses.Hopefully this comparison was helpful to some of you who might be considering whether or not to jump on this particular bandwagon. I’ve only had these for a few weeks but my inner geek was determined to explore the capabilities of both. I am sticking to my original claim that neither device is the clear winner in itself and I also suspect the eventual winner may be the first one that allows you to choose your own trigger word or phrase as that’s a security feature and seems to be what a lot of people are asking for online.

Max.

This article is an update of the original version from my tech blog.

Skills

Posted on

11th January 2018

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