SMART HOME 2017 THE YEAR OF THE VOICE
AMAZON ECHO AND GOOGLE HOME ARE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE SMART HOME REVOLUTION. HERE'S WHAT THEY ARE, WHAT THEY DO AND HOW TO USE THEM TO CONTROL YOUR CONNECTED PAD
A complete guide to the connected home with the latest in future tech. Here’s how to transform your home into a haven of ‘smart’ with a trio of connected devices, and clever upgrades on a budget.
We can’t wait to have robot butlers. Sure, this might lead to a very small chance of a robot revolution and the destruction of humanity as we know it, but it’s a small price to pay for the possibility of one day having a perfect cup of coffee brought to you while you lie in bed on a Sunday morning. We might not quite be at the point where robots hand-deliver food items, but thanks to Amazon and Google’s work on artificial intelligence we’re moving ever closer to that delightfully lazy future.
First up there’s Amazon Echo (US$179.99, $235.69), a small, cylindrical speaker with a built-in microphone and an artificial intelligence named Alexa, who responds to your voice commands, giving you the music you love, news bulletins, access to your calendar, and who’ll even order your dinner. Just say ‘Alexa…’ followed by your command. Then there’s Google Home (US$129.99, $168.35) which is triggered by ‘OK, Google’. This small speaker enables you to control a number of integrated apps and services, as well as accessing Google’s own search results and formidable suite of services. While we’ve had extensive hands-on time with both of these in the US and UK, neither are officially available in Australia – yet. You can import them, but right now you’re on your own when it comes to getting them installed. Google’s Home is the easier of the two to
get up and running and enjoy at this moment in time, though support an interest is growing here in Aus. et’s look at both of them – what they do and, ultimately, how they can improve your life.
Amazon chose to go with a very practical design for its line of Echo speakers, opting for a simple black or white cylinder over anything more outlandish. Its shiny black (or white) shell with blue LEDs might be basic, but it’s unlikely to offend anyone either. The Echo also has a remote you can buy separately, which is interesting when you consider that all of that basic functionality can be accessed by uttering a few words. Still, should you find yourself out of Alexa’s earshot, having a remote with a built-in microphone will prove handy.
And then there’s the Echo Dot. This is a smaller version of the Echo without its large speaker (it still has a speaker, but the sound it produces is more like a smartphone). The idea is that you either pair the Dot with your Bluetooth speaker or plug it in using the Aux port. It means, for US$49.99 ($65.20), you can have Alexa in more than one room should you wish.
In contrast to the functional simplicity of the Amazon Echo, Google’s Home looks much more elegant. It has a rounded base that makes it look more like a vase than a speaker, and you can customise the base (it comes in seven colours) to match the decor of your home. The Echo almost wants to look more at home next to your home theatre while the Home wants to fit in with the rest of your shelf. THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT When it comes to features, Google has the potential to blow Amazon out of the water thanks to the massive library of existing services it has at its
In contrast to the functional simplicity of the Amazon Echo, Google’s Home looks more elegant
disposal. Amazon might have Prime Music, Tunein and Spotify, but Google not only has its own rival service, Google Play Music, but also offers integration with the Google Cast ecosystem, which already includes Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio and thousands of other apps. Sure, some aren’t available when using Home in Australia right now, but Spotify sure is (see boxout, p26). But, and it’s a pretty big but, the speaker on Home isn’t that great at all. Whilst it has some bass and mids it’s not going to replace your Bluetooth speaker. The Echo is much more impressive for the price.
Google Home does have a pretty cool trick up its sleeve. Using it you can pull up movies and TV shows from YouTube and Netflix on your main screen using the power of your voice. You can even use the speaker to play and pause your content without having to go hunting for your smartphone. Want to watch that episode of Westworld or the latest trending YouTube video on your TV? Just tell Google Home and you’ll get it on your screen (as long as you have a Chromecast, that is). Google Home also integrates with a number of Google’s other services, from planning routes using Google Maps to translating using Google Translate.
Of course, both Home and Echo enable you to ask basic questions such as what the weather’s like or how many ounces there are in a certain number of grams. Or even ask them for a joke. The results are hilarious, trust us (is that sarcasm? – Ed). Meanwhile, Amazon has an ever-growing list of compatible apps, including Just Eat and Uber. SMART HOME SUPPORT Where the Echo gets interesting though is in its comprehensive smart home support. You can pretty much control every smart home ecosystem
with Alexa. WeMo, Tado, Hue, SmartThings – you name it. Well, in fact, just install the skill (see boxout, p25) and you can be turn your heating or lights on and off simply by asking Alexa. Google Home also integrates with smart home kit – although you’re limited to Samsung’s SmartThings and Philip’s Hue at the moment. This may change when Home is launched in Australia as Google looks to partner with other companies.
One thing that disappoints with Google Home is the inability to integrate with many of Google’s own services, some of which have been its bread and butter for years. Take Gmail. You’d think Google Home might be able to rattle off the subjects of your top ten emails – but, surprise, it can’t. The same goes for Google Calendar, where it’s unable to create new events, make phone calls with Google Voice or jot down notes in a Google Doc. Google has a dozen services that the Home should be able to link into and yet, in its current state, can’t. That may all change soon, however, and when it does it could be a real hammer blow to the Echo. There’s also the fact that you have to say ‘OK, Google’ or ‘Hey, Google’ every time you want to use it – you’ll feel very self conscious and unnatural at first.
It’s intelligence that really splits Google Home and Amazon Echo. Google is of course deeply rooted in search – and it shows. Whereas the Echo generally needs you to first enable a skill in the Alexa app to ask it general questions, Google Home plugs straight into, er, Google. This means you can, without fiddling, ask it virtually anything you like.
As a test, we asked Alexa ‘How many breeds of rabbit are there in the world?’. It replied, telling us it didn’t know the answer. Asking Google Home the same question, however, we got an answer – 60, it turns out. So you can ask Google Home anything – it’s a shortcut to search, and although you’ll generally get the top Google answer it’s one we really like. It’s exactly like searching the web.
WHICH IS FOR YOU?
Right now, Google Home is your best option, as it’s easier to set up and acts much better as a search tool – like we’ve said, you can pretty much ask it anything you like. From the price of a plane ticket to what’s the best restaurant in an area. But it’s not officially available in Australia yet, so getting info such as Australian-specific news and radio stations is a bit of a problem.
However, if you have a smart home set-up such as WeMo, Echo controls all of it. Echo also integrates perfectly with Spotify, TuneIn and, of course, Amazon Music, and has an excellent speaker (much better than the Google Home’s). Being able to add Alexa to different rooms cheaply using the Dot is great, but you can’t link them all for multi-room, which you can do with Google Home either by using a number of Google Homes, Chromecast Audio devices, or speakers that have Chromecast built-in.
We’re dying to see both of these voice controllers released in Australia – they’re incredibly exciting and in our eyes serve slightly different purposes. Their network and support will only expand. Which should you buy? Probably both.
Looks-wise, there’s not much to split the two devices – they’re both stylish enough for the modern home
Could the Amazon Echo turn out to be the real heart of your home? You’ll wonder how you lived without it!
If it’s search ability you’re after, Google Home is unbeatable