BATTLE OF THE SMART SPEAKERS: (and Their Respective Assistants)
At the start of the year, I wrote about smart home automation, and the two main choices: the Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home (Google Assistant). At the time, I found Alexa to be the clear winner. Now that it's June, I wanted to see how the smart assistants are fairing.
Meet the Contenders
Joining Alexa and Google Assistant are Cortana and Siri.
Amazon, by far, offers the most devices with which to use Alexa. Aside from the devices made by Amazon, Alexa is available in several other speakers, TVs, phones, computers, headphones, cars, and nearly all smart home devices.
The Echo Show brings you everything you love about Alexa, and now she can show you things. Watch video flash briefings, Amazon Video content, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, browse and listen to Audible audiobooks, and more. Echo Show has eight microphones and beam-forming technology so it can hear you from across the room—even while music is playing. Echo Show is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive audio powered by Dolby.
The Echo Spot brings you everything you love about Alexa, in a stylish and compact design that can show you things. Just ask to see the weather, get the news with a video flash briefing, set an alarm, see lyrics with Amazon Music, see your calendar, browse and listen to Audible audiobooks, and more. Personalize your Spot with a collection of clock faces to suit your style or set a photo background from Prime Photos. Plus, make calls to friends and family or make video calls to anyone with an Echo Spot, Echo Show, or the Alexa App.
The Amazon Tap is a portable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled speaker that gives you rich, full-range sound. Just tap the microphone button or enable hands-free mode and ask for music, hear the news, search for information, order a pizza, and more with the Alexa Voice Service. It is powered by dual stereo speakers with Dolby processing for crisp vocals and extended bass response. Amazon Tap provides 360° omnidirectional audio. Small and easy to travel with, you can enjoy great music and Alexa wherever you are.
A rather odd addition to the Echo family is the Echo Look: with Echo Look, you can take full-length photos of your daily look using just your voice. The built-in LED lighting and depth-sensing camera let you blur the background to make your outfits pop, giving you clean, shareable photos. Get a live view in the Echo Look app or ask Alexa to take a 6-second video so you can see yourself from every angle. View recommendations based on your daily look and use Style Check for a second opinion on what looks best. Style Check keeps your look on point using advanced machine learning algorithms and advice from fashion specialists. Submit two photos for a second opinion on which outfit looks better on you, and find out why your outfit was selected with feedback based on fit, color, styling, and current trends. Over time, these decisions get smarter through your feedback and input from our team of experienced fashion specialists.
Finally, the newest addition to the Echo family is the Echo Dot Kids Edition: now Alexa is a kid-friendly DJ, comedian, and storyteller. Just ask and Alexa will play music, answer questions, read stories, tell jokes, and more—all with younger ears in mind. It comes with 1 year of Amazon FreeTime Unlimited, a kid-friendly case, plus a 2-year worry-free guarantee—if they break it, return it and Amazon will replace it for free. FreeTime Unlimited also gives kids access to over 300 Audible books, including Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan. They’ll enjoy hundreds of hours of fun and educational content, like hearing stories from Disney characters, playing No Way That’s True from Nickelodeon, quizzing their knowledge with National Geographic, waking up to special alarms featuring characters they love, and more.
In my original review, despite being more attractive than the Echo, Google Home lost due to its lackluster feature set. However, over the last few months, Google Assistant has begun to outshine Queen Alexa. Not only has Google started outselling Amazon, but according to a recent survey, Google Assistant is more accurate (81% correct responses) than Alexa (64% correct responses).
Google has finally added the ability to create routines to Google Assistant, which has been a major drawback compared to Alexa. Google is also trying to make your kids more polite: when you enable the new pretty please feature, your Google Home speaker will listen for words like “please” and “thank you.” If Google Assistant doesn’t hear them, it’s supposed to ask for “the magic word.” When it does hear them, it compliments your child by saying “thanks for saying please,” “thanks for asking so nicely,” or “you’re very polite.” Google is making the Assistant more conversational as well: it will continue to listen to you for 8 seconds, so that you can ask follow-up questions without having to constantly say “hey, Google.” In a further effort to make the Assistant more conversational, Google added six new voices to the Assistant, including that of singer John Legend. These voices were created through WaveNet, which the company says helped not only record John Legend’s voice, but then incorporate it into the Assistant voice repertoire to work for any question.
Perhaps the most impressive new feature to the Assistant is Duplex: a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out real-world tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments (e.g. making dinner reservations or a salon appointment). For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.
Microsoft has thrown their hat into the smart speaker race with the INVOKE by Harman Kardon. It features 360-degree adaptive technology, featuring 7 microphones that recognize all of the details of your voice commands from any direction. It uses HARMAN’s beamforming, echo cancellation, and noise reduction algorithms to ensure Cortana can hear you clearly, even in challenging environments. Cortana has been available on Windows, iOS, Android, and Xbox, but now she joins you in a smart speaker. INVOKE delivers exceptional sound, and with Cortana’s intelligence, you can voice control your music and smart home devices, create reminders and lists, manage schedules, get answers to questions, make and receive hands-free calls with Skype, and more.
Apple’s pricey HomePod is truly a gorgeous piece of technology: it has has a small touchscreen on its top, seven tweeters in its base and a four-inch woofer towards the top, as well as six microphones used for voice control and acoustic optimization. Like the INVOKE, the HomePod is designed to deliver the best possible sound. When you set it up and play music, it goes through a number of steps to tune itself. First, it tries to create a model of the room it’s in by detecting the sounds reflecting off walls. It does this in two passes: the first pass builds a model to a high degree of initial confidence, and the second pass refines the model.
Where it fails, though, is with the speaker’s version of Siri. According to The Verge, “You can’t ask Siri to look up a recipe. You can’t ask Siri to make a phone call. (You have to start the phone call on your phone and transfer it to the HomePod to use it as a just-okay speakerphone.) Siri also can’t compete with the huge array of Alexa skills, or Google Assistant’s ability to answer a vast variety of questions. You can’t ask Siri to play something on an Apple TV, as both Google and Amazon’s assistants can do with their respective TV devices.”
A Comprehensive (if slightly outdated) Comparison of Virtual Assistants
Medium did the heavy lifting for me:
Which to Choose?
It all depends on what you want to get out of your smart speaker. If home automation is your primary concern, then I would choose one of the Echos. If you want a personal assistant, then I would choose Google Home. If sound quality is your primary desire, but you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to get it, then I would choose the INVOKE. However, if you are a diehard Apple fan with money to burn, then go for the $350 HomePod.