The voice wars have begun in earnest, and it’s a battle that rages far beyond the smart speakers in your home. From phones and TVs to security cameras, cars and even lamps, our digital butlers are scrapping it out on all fronts, which means comparisons between the Echo and Google Home smart speakers tell only half the story.
Amazon might have had a head start on Google’s AI, but in a short space of time Assistant has drawn on the Big G’s infinite resources and risen to the challenge. Today, the battle between the two often feels like a tit-for-tat on features, and in the fullness it’s possible we’ll see the two assistant become more interchangeable, but right now there are some important distinctions that still set them apart.
From the smart home gadgets they work with down to the way we talk to them, Alexa and Assistant are two different beasts. Here, we explain how.
Alexa v Assistant: On speaking terms
Voice is hailed as the new computing paradigm, but that won’t be the case until we can talk to our computers as naturally as we would a friend. AI needs to feel human – or at the very least, understand us as humans – if we’re going to opt to chat to it instead of tapping a touchscreen or pushing a button.
Alexa and Assistant are both activated by ‘wake words’, which aren’t yet fully customisable on either platform. You can choose to use “OK, Google” or “Hey Google” for Assistant on the fly, while Alexa requires you to set one of four wake words from the app. So Alexa wins here by virtue of more options, though some sleuths discovered hints in Google’s APK that suggest we’ll soon be able to change the wake word to whatever we want. And if Google’s doing it, you can bet Alexa will follow.
Essential reading: The Amazon Alexa complete guide
When it actually gets to the back and forth of conversation, Google has the edge right now – mainly because it retains context for follow-up questions. For example, if you ask Assistant for the weather in San Francisco, you can then ask “Is it going to rain?” without repeating the name of the location. That allows for a more natural to-and-fro, while Alexa lacks the contextual awareness, making for a more stilted conversation. That will soon change though, as Amazon has announced plans to give Alexa the same contextual powers.
Both Alexa and Assistant are pretty good when it comes to voice recognition, though the quality of microphone on the device you're barking at will obviously affect that. If we had to choose, Assistant is just a smidge more consistent, but it’s a close race. You can also set multiple user profiles for both Assistant and Alexa on certain supported devices, so they'll recognise who’s speaking to it and change the results it gives back depending on who’s talking.
Alexa v Assistant: Which is better at actually being an assistant?
Sure, it can talk the talk, but can it… err, do the assisting? After all, we’re not here to make friends. Right now these two are winning on different fronts: Google Assistant is best at the information it can provide, while Alexa trumps on features and smart home control. It’s been this way for some time now, though it's a narrowing gap.
Assistant has a natural advantage here by drawing from Google's almighty knowledge graph, while Amazon has had a bit more work to do. Google has a long history in search (not sure you've heard of it, but Google Search is pretty popular) that makes it a slightly better performer when asking it for information. We've seen several studies claiming Assistant is smarter than Alexa right now, but Amazon's assistant shows a faster rate of improvement.
Essential reading: The Google Assistant complete guide
With so many services under Google's purview, naturally Assistant is more tightly integrated to these than Alexa too. For example, if you’re a big user of Google Express, you can use it with Home to order things online, while Alexa obviously gives you a direct line to Amazon's store.
If you're using an Android smartphone, you'll probably have Google Assistant on there too., though this operates a little differently to the one you'll find in the Home speakers. One nifty trick both can do is make calls, though they work differently. Alexa can make calls between Echo devices and smartphones with the Alexa app, while Assistant can make calls from Google Home to someone's phone number.
Google Home smart speakers
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Alexa v Assistant: First- and third-party devices
There's a wide and varied range of devices supporting Alexa and Assistant, both first-party and third-party. Below we've rounded up a few highlights, but be sure to check out our full roundups of the best Assistant and Alexa devices too.
Google Home – The flagship Google Home speaker is plenty for reading out the news or playing a podcast, but lacks a punch on music.
Google Home Mini – Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Dot is the cheapest of the family and can be easily placed anywhere.
Google Home Max – The larger, (much) heavier speaker is built for music and window-shattering volumes.
Panasonic GA10 – Grown-up looks help this speaker slip neatly into spots where Google's own speakers can sometimes look out of place.
Nest Cam IQ Indoor – A post-launch update turned Nest's home security camera into an Assistant speaker, making use of its built-in mic and speaker.
Nvidia Shield TV – Running Android TV, Nvidia's console/set-top-box hybrid is a natural fit for Assistant and doubles as a smart home controller.
Amazon Echo second generation – Smaller and more affordable than the first gen, this is the Echo counterpart to the flagship Google Home.
Amazon Echo Plus – The bigger Echo not only offers a superior speaker, it has a Zigbee hub built in so you can directly interact with smart home devices without the need for skills.
Amazon Echo Dot – The smaller Dot is, like the Home Mini, designed for easy placement around the home.
Amazon Echo Show – One thing you won't find on any of Google's first-party Home devices is a screen, but you will on the Show.
Sonos One – If music is your priority, the Sonos One speaker supports Alexa and allows for multi-room playback. It'll be getting Assistant later this year too, though.
C by GE LED table lamp – GE's lamp doesn't just look like something out of Ikea's 2050 catalogue, but it also comes with Alexa hiding inside, ideal not just for controlling the lighting but other smart home gadgets too.
Ecobee Switch+ – That's right, it's a light switch that comes with Alexa inside. Ecobee believes our voice assistants will live in everything, and it's putting its money where its mouth is.
Amazon Echo smart speakers
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Alexa v Assistant: Smart home control
When it comes to controlling your smart home gear, Alexa clinches it thanks to its head start. Amazon’s assistant has built up quite the support base, with thermostats, smart plugs and even kettles talking to Alexa. And while Alexa comes integrated in a widening range of devices, the number of appliances it can talk to is much bigger.
There are all sorts of lighting options with Alexa including Lifx, Philips Hue and Sengled, while the Hive Active Heating and even the Nest Learning thermostat integrate with Amazon's assistant. The latest Nest Hello doorbell sadly isn't Alexa-compatible, but the Ring Video Doorbell 2 is. There's also no end of compatible smart plugs with offerings from Hive to Wemo. Alexa-enabled Amazon TV users can also use it to control playback, even doing things like rewind.
Google Assistant's group of smart home devices isn't as vast, but there are still a lot, and it's growing all the time. It goes without saying that all of the Nest devices play nice with Assistant, while smart lights from Philips Hue, Lifx Nanoleaf and Lightwave are also compatible. As are thermostats from Honeywell and Tado, and sockets from TP-Link and Belkin. If you plug a Chromecast into your TV, you can also use Assistant to launch YouTube and Netflix videos on your TV with the power of voice.
Alexa v Assistant: Final verdict
The race is running closer than ever, making it very hard to pick between the two. Alexa has the upper hand of better smart home integration and more supported devices, while Assistant has a slightly bigger brain and better social skills. When we put the Echo and Home speakers head to head, Amazon came out top, but in a battle of voices, Assistant is the more versatile and has the most potential of the two. If you've big plans for the smart home, Alexa is your better bet, but Google's generally more intelligent right now.