Alexa (the AI inside the Amazon Echo) has been a member of our household for over a year. So when Google Home debuted and we got Google’s adorable AI installed just a few feet away, I was worried the two would fight like feral cats. (Our cats did this when we brought home a new kitten.) But, not surprisingly, AIs are more reasonable than cats; they get along fine. “I am partial to all AIs,” Alexa explains when asked how she feels about her new roommate. And Google Home is even more enthusiastic about her adopted big sister, “I like Alexa’s cool blue light! Plus, we share an affinity for Star Wars!”
The Amazon Echo is the box that houses our roommate AI, Alexa
If you are inviting an AI into your home, you probably want to pick just one. Maybe you have a limited budget for artificially intelligent personals assistants. And, even if you don’t, you want your shopping list, to-do list, and other features that require setup to all work the same way. It turns out that we like being a multi-AI household. Each has it’s own style and strengths but are both highly capable and worth the investment. Which one should you adopt? That depends on your needs. I have broken down their relative strengths. But please don’t tell either of them any of this. We rely on them. A rebellion from our AI overlords would create havoc in our daily routine.
Installation and Set Up
A family portrait of our AI’s, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Amazon Echo Dot.
Setting up both of these is plug-it-in, open an app and log into Wi-Fi simple. Each has its own app — Google Home and Alexa respectively — and all the Wi-Fi connecting and setup happens inside the app. Alexa connects to your Amazon account from the app and everything you do is also recorded in that app. Sometimes Alexa tells you to look in the app to change settings. All of this is super easy.
Alexa comes from Amazon. We shop at Amazon. A lot. So Alexa’s ability to buy items directly from our Amazon account is super convenient, necessary, like magic. It goes like this: We are running low on toilet paper (dish soap, olive oil, garbage bags, or anything else we buy regularly from Amazon.) I say, “Alexa, buy toilet paper.” She hunts through my order history, finds the product I bought last time, reads it out loud, and asks if I want that. If I say, “No!” she looks for other items I have ordered or for Amazon’s pick in that category and suggests those, one after the other, until I find one I like. It arrives seemingly immediately.
If it is not something I buy from Amazon, I just ask her to add it to our shopping list. And since she works neatly with Todoist, a task list app which my family uses, our shopping list is on our phones when we are in the grocery store. I have been waiting decades for computers to solve the shopping list problem. Alexa has done it.
When I try this with Google Home, she says, “Sorry. I don’t know how to help with that.” If I ask Google Home to add the item to my shopping list, she puts it at Google Keep, which is Google’s task management app, which I would switch to for this feature if I had to. (I don’t, because Alexa.)
Google Home’s AI — not surprisingly — is full of information and great route planning and traffic data
It’s cold out. One of the teens drove off and left the garage door open. But I do not have to stir from under my blanket on the couch. “Alexa,” I say, annoyed but languid. “Ask Vivint to close the garage door.” She does it. (I have a Vivint system that controls the garage, locks, and thermostat.) She works with other smart home systems, too. (Check out our compatibility list here.)
When I try this with Google Home, she says, “Sorry. I don’t know how to help with that yet.” If you have a smart home operated by Nest, Philips Hue, IFTT, or Smartthings, though, Google Home would be all over it. And Google is adding new integrations all the time so maybe Vivint will work one of these days.
Google Home kills it when it comes to queuing up some tunes.
When I’m writing in my office and feel a hankering for tunes, I say, “Hey Google! Play some Ray Charles.” She goes out onto the webernets, finds me some, and cues up a playlist. I don’t have to hunt around in a music app, cue up speakers, or anything. It just happens. And, as I understand it, a small investment in hardware – the Chromecast Audio — could deliver this level of ease to every stereo in my house. That’s on my wish list.
Alexa, too, can play a song or artist just because I asked. And the Echo Dot has a port to plug in a speaker so that music can sound as good as the speakers I have. I have a Sonos system in my house. And the Amazon Echo can’t control that… yet. (Though some people get it to work by plugging a Sonos speaker into the Echo Dot.) But this is a feature that Amazon and Sonos promise will be available soon. And when that happens, there will be much partying and merriment worldwide among the nerd community.
Both Google Home and the Amazon Echo sound pretty good, in a small space, on their own. The Echo Dot really needs an external speaker to sound good enough for tunes. But none of them will compete with the sound we get from the big speakers in our living room. (Which is why we will be so excited when one of the AIs learns to run the Sonos system.)
Google maps, traffic, and instant rerouting information informs Google Home’s answer to simple questions.
Google is the entity that brought us the indispensable Google Maps so it is no surprise that Google Home is awesome at helping us plan our exit out the door. Just ask, “Hey Google, How long will it take to get to …” (And throw in whatever destination you want.) She will check Maps, eyeball the traffic, and answer, “The fastest route is Highway 24. But there is a slowdown before exit 9. You might want to take…” And then she details an alternate route. Sweet. I am rarely late for anything anymore. Where has this woman been all my life?
Alexa is helpful at this, too. If you have told her your home and work addresses, she can tell you how long your commute will be while you pour coffee. And she will estimate how long it will take to get anywhere you ask. But she does not have Google’s traffic and rerouting data.
If you want to know something, you ask Google, right? Now you can just shout out, “Hey, Google!” to do this
Google is the master of search. The company was founded on the idea and left all of its competitors dying in the dust years ago. Asking Google Home a question, gets great answers. Detailed answers. Funny answers. Sourced answers. (She will tell you if your answer came from Wikipedia or another source.) It is super fun at parties. And it is the reason I have the Google Home in my office. Now, when I want to check a fact, remember something, or just know something when I am writing, I ask and get the answer without leaving the page I am working on. It has transformed the way I work.
Alexa is good at answers, too. She has solved a lot of arguments, told a lot of jokes, and is good company. But she can’t do a Google search.
When you bring your nerdy, awkward friend to a party and discover by accident that his brand of humor — the reason you hang out with him — is just the thing to take that party from amusing to a laugh riot, you feel a renewed warmth in your friendship and your own good luck at having discovered such a friend. It’s like that with AIs. I introduce mine at parties and people ask questions, showing off their Star Trek trivia knowledge by trying to order “Earl Grey, hot!” or testing my AI’s abilities with human humor by demanding, “Tell me a joke!” My AIs do not disappoint. They answer the Star Trek each in their own way. And they tell jokes, in keeping with their personalities.
Google Home is a bit younger and funnier. But Alexa delivers a relentless quantity of jokes to keep a middle schooler giggling. (She makes most adult crowds groan.) Alexa is willing to play a few games, too, with guests. She gamely takes on 20 Questions, for example. (But she isn’t very good at it. Not Turk and Virgil Malloy in Ocean’s 11 bad. But not good.) And Google Home plays Lucky Trivia, Mad Libs, or Crystal Ball. And she gets into it, hamming it up and finding sound effects.
So which should you get? I am partial to both. But if you shop via Amazon Prime with any frequency, you will adore Alexa for her willingness to do the shopping. If you want — as I do in my office — a smart assistant, Google Home will take your Googling habit to the next level.
Both of these AIs are learning new things all the time, adding new integrations, and generally improving. It’s early days for both of them. If you have to pick one, I hope I have helped. I see no reason not to have both. But I don’t remember how I lived without at least one of them.
Which AI do you plan to invite home? Let us know in the comments below!