We turned our Alexa house into a Google home for a month – here's what happened

After living in Amazon's world for so long, how would Google compare?

A month living in a Google home

For almost five years now, my family has had a fifth member: Alexa. It's my kids’ buddy, telling them terrible jokes, sharing fart skills, playing Would You Rather and other games. Alexa has become something of a third parent, announcing every night at 7:15pm that there are 15 minutes of screen time left, dimming three lights during story time, and switching them off when the kids are asleep.

It's there in the morning, telling us the weather forecast, what’s on our jam-packed calendar for the day, and occasionally providing the kids with a fun fact to wow their classmates with. It was the only AI my children had ever known. And then it was gone.

Read this: The best Google Assistant devices

About a month ago, I yanked Alexa out of their lives, replacing it with a little-known alternative named Google. The howls of indignation were pretty loud, especially from my 11-year-old son, who has known Alexa for almost half his life (really!), and associates Google entirely with schoolwork (they use Google Classroom at his school). But I soldiered on: Echo Dots became Google Home Minis, the Echo Show in the kitchen became a Google Home Hub, my bedside Spot became another Home Hub, and the living room TV got a Chromecast to replace the Fire TV, along with a WeMo mini smart plug so we could power it on with voice.

To get the full Google smart home experience, we also switched out various devices with compatible Nest products – including a Ring Video Doorbell and Ring Alarm for a Nest Hello and Nest Secure. The August Lock made way for a Nest X Yale lock.

We already had Nest thermostats and smoke alarms in place, as well as Nest IQ indoor and outdoor security cameras. For lights, we had the Google-compatible Philips Hue lighting in a few parts of the house, but we installed some new C by GE, Made for Google smart bulbs and smart switches.

And that was it – the total makeover. With our Google smart home fully in place, we proceeded to live with our new AI for a month. Here's how we fared.

What we loved

We turned our Alexa house into a Google home for a month - here's what happened

The Google Home app is great

The first discovery of this experiment was that setting up and controlling our smart home with the Google Home app is much more intuitive than with Alexa’s app. Google's app is far easier to navigate, more self-explanatory, and cleaner than Alexa’s, which is clunky, slow, and packed with too many confusing options and deep-dive menus. Also, the Home app lets you manage more than one home, something you still can’t do with Alexa.

I also love how all my devices show up right away on the home screen, grouped by room. It's easier to glance everything at once. I also appreciate that Google has made it so much easier to add devices now – especially a Made For Google device like the C by GE bulbs, which I installed as part of our Google home takeover. No messing around with separate apps or skills, and no need to ask it to "discover devices". If this battle was waged on apps alone, Google would easily win.

(Some) tighter smart home integrations

While Alexa works with pretty much everything, Google still has catch-up to do with integrations – but the ones it has work well. For example, our Nest Hello video doorbell feed pops up automatically on our Google Home Hubs as soon as the doorbell is pressed. This makes responding to visitors when you’re busy in the kitchen a lot more seamless.

The smart home interface on the Hub is more functional than on the Show

But the Ring Video Doorbell can’t do this with Alexa on the Show; you have to ask it to show you the feed. When we unlock our Next X Yale door lock, the Nest Secure automatically disarms, and we can link everything to our thermostat to kick it into Home or Away mode.

The smart home interface on the Hub is more functional than on the Show. For example, if you ask Google to adjust the temperature, a screen similar to the Nest Thermostat app pops up, showing you the adjustment it made and letting you tweak it.

With Alexa, there are no similar manual controls on the Show. If it gets it wrong, which it often does, as nomenclature for adjusting thermostats can be tricky, you have to keep repeating commands until you reach the point where it’s just easier to walk over the thermostat.

Defecting from Alexa: One Month in a Google-powered smart home

A better bedtime

Bedtime routines for a smart home are tricky if you don’t hit the hay at the same time every night. Previously, we had our Philips Hue lights set to a 'Go to sleep' routine (through the Hue app) that would gradually fade out over 30 minutes in the kids’ rooms, starting at 7:30pm.

This was fine, except on the nights we had soccer practice till 7:30pm, or a baseball game that ran past 8. We’d go upstairs, and the lights would already be off. Yes, you can turn them back on by asking Alexa or pulling out your phone – or, God forbid, reaching for a wall switch – but that negates the benefits of the gradual sleep-fade, and having to say “Alexa lights off” when your kids are half asleep is a guarantee you’ll wake them up and start a chorus of “Just five more minutes Mom!”

Last month Google introduced a new feature called Gentle Sleep & Wake. This lets you set a routine that gradually turns your Philips Hue smart lights off over 30 minutes by saying, “Hey Google, sleep my lights,” (the Google Home device knows which room it’s in so will just adjust those lights). This was a game changer for our bedtime routine. Even my husband – who routinely would do the unthinkable when putting my son to bed and turn off the lamp at the switch, got used to this method, as it's easy and intuitive.

It also suits his erratic schedule for waking up. As a firefighter, he works 24-hour shifts, so setting a regular wake-up for weekday mornings is not useful (he really hates when the lights coming on at 6am on a Tuesday when it’s his day off). Now, when he gets in bed the night before a shift, he can just say “Hey Google, wake up my lights in the bedroom at 6am.”

The Google Home Hub is a great smart home controller…

Despite being about half the size of Echo Show, the Google Home Hub is a better looking, easier to use device. Designed as a smart home controller more than a traditional hub, its screen adjusts to ambient light better, meaning it’s never too bright (a Show in our bedroom had to be ejected as it was too bright at night), has no glare, and its smaller form factor and cleaner design makes it look better in our home. Plus, it makes a great bedside clock (and it has no camera – although you can turn the Show’s camera off).

The Hub’s touchscreen is a breeze to navigate. To access smart home controls on a Show you have to swipe through a couple of screens and scroll down to find your device – plus it only lets you control lights and switches. The Hub takes just one swipe to get you to your thermostats, cameras, locks, lights, and your media, plus – as it knows which room it’s in (as does the Show) – you have a quick access button to turn off the lights in just that room.

…and a slightly better media consumption device

We also preferred Hub’s photo slideshow option. Both Hub and Show offer this, but Google’s is smarter. Its AI works better at selecting our good pictures – no more screenshots popping up – and while you can choose and set albums to display on the Show, it requires work. Google just does it for you, allowing you to choose Recent Highlights or an auto-generated, auto-updating album of select family and friends.

With Show, you have to go to Amazon’s website, upload photos and create an album. However, we did miss Amazon’s “On This Day" feature.

Defecting from Alexa: One Month in a Google-powered smart home

And when it comes to music, I've found Google to be smarter. When we ask to “play music” it returns a decent variety of music sourced through YouTube Music. The Show (which was linked to our family’s Spotify account) regularly just played whatever we listened to last. Like Alexa, with Google you can group your speaker devices to play music throughout the house, so our family dance parties could continue uninterrupted post-transition.

We are a big YouTube family. My daughter is obsessed with someone called Funneh and YouTube TV is our cord-cutting streaming service of choice. Neither of these play well on Echo devices, currently, so the switch here was good for some.

However, my son is a Hulu addict. He loves watching old 90s sitcoms, and not being able to watch Hulu or Netflix on the Hub, something you can do on the Show, caused a lot of arguments at the breakfast table.

What we didn’t love

Defecting from Alexa: One Month in a Google-powered smart home

Google still isn’t ready for the serious smart home user

Alexa has come a long way as a smart home hub since its debut in 2014. With the recent addition of sensors, Alexa’s Routines can easily rival any dedicated smart home hub (especially if they make the app more user-friendly), with the addition of built-in voice control and voice responses.

Google’s Routines just aren’t good enough for an advanced smart home user. There is no compatibility with smart home sensors, so you can’t have a routine that, to give a specific example I wanted, turns all your lights on, starts the music playing, and adjusts your thermostat when the contact sensor on the front door is triggered between 3pm and 8pm each night.

Google’s Routines just aren’t good enough for an advanced smart home user

You could do this with voice – say “Hey Google, I’m home” as you walk through the door – but that’s the core problem here. There are only three ways to trigger Routines in Google Home: voice, scheduled time, or touch (on a smartphone or a Hub). This isn’t smart, because as handy as voice and remote control are, ultimately the smart home needs to respond to your actions ambiently, not rely on your input or a set time.

What we do like about Routines is integration with Google’s services, such as reading the calendar, playing music and updating you on your commute time. Routines will play on any Google Device you give the command to, or set them to play on a specific device at a specific time. They can also be triggered through the app, but it's a clunky experience as you have to first choose the device, then the Routine. While Alexa has similar capabilities in its Routines, I've found it to be a better experience with Google.

When it comes to the smart home though, Alexa’s Routines are better. Google has some cool features – Nest integration lets you arm your Nest Secure security system and lock your Nest X Yale door lock through a routine – but it’s a pretty closed system right now.

Defecting from Alexa: One Month in a Google-powered smart home

Routines should be better

Additionally, there is very little granular control in Routines. There are pre-set Routines you can tinker with, but it’s frustratingly hard to create your own. You also can’t disarm your security system or unlock your doors with Routines or voice – something you can do with every other smart home platform – again rendering the whole “smart” home concept rather dead in the water.

One area where I see some potential improvement is in the Made For Google products. These are devices that directly integrate with the Google Home Hub (not through another app or service). There is currently only one partner in this – C by GE lighting – and the C by GE switches we installed as part of our experiment here are a step in the right direction, albeit a very limited step for now.

These are smart switches with motion sensing and dimming capabilities, meaning if you want to use sensors in your smart home to turn lights on and off you could use these. They communicate directly with a Google Home device, so don’t require a bridge or a separate hub, and when installed can communicate with any C by GE light bulb over Bluetooth – even if they’re not on the same electrical circuit.

Chromecast doesn’t cut it

We’ve been cord-cutters for four years now and have tried almost every option out there. Our set-top box of choice for the first few years was a Fire TV attached to a 2015 Samsung TV.

This is what I call a Silicon Valley fail

When we switched to YouTube TV as our main streaming service for live TV, we added an Apple TV. Voice control through Alexa had been reasonably effective, but not reliable enough for us to ditch our bevy of remote controls. We loved voice control through Apple’s Remote, but we were excited to use Chromecast, as finally, everything was in one place (there’s no YouTube TV on Fire TV). But no remote control turns out to be a deal breaker.

This is what I call a Silicon Valley fail, and I see it all the time in the smart home: technology designed for young, single people who live in apartments in big cities and have their smartphones or wearables attached to them every minute of the day. This just doesn’t work for a family of four when two members aren’t old enough for cellphones.

Defecting from Alexa: One Month in a Google-powered smart home

Yes, you can use voice control – “Hey Google, play Jessie from Netflix on Living Room TV” – but when it comes to browsing you’re expected to use a smartphone app. The Google Home app has a media tab, but it just displays the most popular shows, taking you to each service’s app to access your recent shows and recommendations. I had hoped the Google Home Hub would work as de-facto remote, but the interface is very limited right now.

All in all, Chromecast was just too much work as the main streaming device. It’s a good add-on, great for quick “casting,” but without a remote control it isn’t effective as a sole cord-cutting device for us. After about a week we were forced to go back to our old streaming setup, for my sanity.

Something missing at bedtime

We’ve become reliant on Alexa to read books to the kids at night. We all pile into one bed and listen to a bedtime story as a family. While Google does have a bedtime story feature, what it's lacking is Audible. As we’ve progressed with bedtime stories over the years, my 11-year-old son wants more than just Goldilocks, and so we signed up for an Audible subscription. Audible is owned by Amazon and there’s no support on Google Home. While you can listen to audiobooks on Google Home, you have to purchase them individually from Google Play.

At first, I thought this was going to be a deal breaker, as Audible is a good deal (audiobooks are very expensive). But I was pleasantly surprised to find most of the books he wanted on the Google Play store, and at better prices in some cases. It’s hard to say which option will work out better in the long run, price-wise, but initially abandoning Audible was a bit of a wrench.

Finally… Google needs a name

I hated calling out “Google” multiple times a day, and really missed the less corporate feel of "Alexa" – even "Siri". To use Google as my main home assistant, I’m going to need the option to change the name.

We turned our Alexa house into a Google home - here's what happened

After a month, here's what I discovered

Abandoning Alexa for a month didn’t significantly change our everyday lives, but switching to Google didn’t really improve them either. Because we had chosen tightly-integrated products, as opposed to just rolling everything we had into Alexa, there was a lot less troubleshooting with Google.

But the voice assistant often came back with, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do that yet.” Also, we had two Nest devices with Google Assistant built in (Nest Indoor IQ Camera and Nest Secure), but as is the case with Alexa in non-Amazon devices, these aren’t as fully-featured – a lot of commands resulted in it telling us to try again on another device.

Ultimately, both voice assistants and their suite of speakers and smart displays have pros and cons, you just have to decide which you’re willing to live with.

A few things we didn’t cover here that may make the difference for you are: Voice shopping (we just don’t, even with a pin code it’s too risky with a whip-smart 11-year old in the house), which is better on Alexa. And Google Assistant integration with the rest of your life. If you’re a Google Pixel smartphone user and Chromebook user (which I’m not – iPhones all the way here), then it's obvious that, if you ever turned your house into a Google home the way I did, chances are you'd keep it.

TAGGED   smart home   google   amazon
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