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Google Home.
Google Home.

Google’s $129 smart speaker ships tomorrow, and a new batch of reviews say Google Home is smarter than its competitor and trailblazer in the field, the Amazon Alexa-powered Echo, because Google.

Smart speakers powered by Alexa have been a big hit for Amazon. One reporter recently claimed that Amazon Echo sales are on pace with first year iPhone numbers. So it’s no wonder that Google decided to get in the smart speaker game, announcing a competitor to the Echo earlier this year.

Having the power of the massive Google search engine behind the smart speaker gives it a much wider knowledge base than the Echo and other Alexa-powered devices. Several reviewers put both speakers to the test, asking them questions simultaneously. They found that Home had the answers to more questions because it could pull from Google’s seemingly endless fountain of information.

One downside, according to Brian Chen of the New York Times, is the need to say “OK Google” every time he wanted to ask a question. But once he got over that annoyance, Chen says Google Home got the answers to his pertinent questions.

All virtual assistants, which are backed by artificial intelligence, are still fairly dumb, including Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. But Google’s Assistant is smarter than Alexa.

Just give them both a pop quiz to see. A competent virtual assistant should be able to answer all sorts of arbitrary questions. Is Pluto a planet? Was Bill Murray in any TV shows? How do I build a bee trap?

Amazon’s Alexa was not able to answer those questions. But Google’s Home speaker yanked an answer from its vast database of online search results. Pluto is a dwarf planet. Bill Murray was in “Saturday Night Live.” And to make a bee catcher, you cut the top off a bottle, flip over the top and staple it onto the bottom part of the bottle.

1800flowers alexa echo
Amazon Echo.

And it’s not just search where the Google integration comes in handy. As any heavy Google user knows, the company compiles your calendar and information from Gmail and other Google products to give you friendly (or disturbing, depending on how you feel about privacy) travel reminders and updates on other things. This extends to Google Home as well, writes Steve Kovach of Business Insider. 

Beyond the basics, its real strength is seamlessly syncing with all the Google services you normally use. Need to know if your flight is on time? Just ask Google Home, which can scan your Gmail account for the flight confirmation sent by your airline. Same goes for package deliveries, calendar appointments, and so much more.

This really comes together in the new “Good Morning” feature on Home, which gives you a rundown of your day based on information stored in your Google account. For example, when I greet my Home with “OK, Google. Good morning,” I get a weather report, the commute time to my office, appointments in my calendar for the day, and a snapshot of the news from outlets like NPR. It’s already the first thing I do when I wake up and start getting ready in the morning.

One big problem with this feature, Kovach says, is that Home can only handle one Google account right now. So if like him, and me, you use Google for both business and recreation, you’ll have to choose one or the other.

Reviewers were divided on the quality of the speaker itself. Like Echo, Google Home has the ability to play third-party services such as Pandora and Spotify. Some reviewers wrote that the sound quality is great, even at high volumes. Others impugned the physical speaker and said the Echo wins out in that category.

Alexa devices beat Google Home when it comes to integration with third-party apps, or “skills” in Amazon parlance. Amazon has a big head start on Google, and opened up its technology to allow developers to build skills for Alexa devices. So far Alexa has more than 3,000 skills.

Google has a lot of work to do in this regard, but it is already showing some promise. At Google’s big hardware event last month, the company spoke of Home’s ability to control Chromecast, which means the smart speaker will someday be able to tee up Netflix and other video services through voice commands.

Overall, reviewers liked what they saw with Google Home. They say it has a more elegant look, is smarter and a less expensive option than Echo. But other than being able to answer more questions, Google Home fails to stand out from the already established Amazon products and it can’t do nearly as much as the Alexa-powered speakers at this stage. Buyers would be betting on Google continuing to invest in the speaker and adding more capabilities to make it stand out from the competition.

Here’s how Dan Seifert of The Verge summed it up:

The takeaway is this: Google has a lot of ambition for the Home that’s just not realized in its current form. Google wants the Home to be the access point to all of its intelligence and services in your home, the thing you turn to when you need a question answered or need something done and don’t have a phone or other screen in front of you. And Google, arguably, is better-positioned to do this than some of its competitors.

But right now, the Home is largely just a Google-fied Echo: it’s a little better-looking, is a little smarter when you ask it questions, and is a little easier to set up. It’s a pretty good voice-activated connected speaker and a pretty good way to control smart home gadgets, if you have them.

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