Amazon Echo vs. Google Home: FIGHT!

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 15, 2018, 10:49 PM | comments: 0

We've been Amazon Echo people for more than a year. I bought one on a whim, and the some Hue lights and other stuff, and I got pretty hooked on all of that connected gadgetness. Before you knew it, we had five Echo Dots around the house. They're useful for shouting out a question about cups to ounces or whatever, and definitely helpful to turn lights on and off or tweak the air conditioner. But really, the killer app for me is the music. The little speakers don't sound all that great, but for the ten minutes you're in the bathroom, it's good enough. In my office, I have one plugged into my computer speakers, and in the living room, I have one plugged into the stereo.

In 2010, I think it was, Amazon opened up their music service to let you upload 250,000 of your own songs into their storage, for $25 a year. I put about 5k files up there. Truthfully, I did this mostly for the backup angle, but I was able to listen anywhere from a web browser. It wasn't until I finally flipped from Windows Phone to Android that I could start doing it on my phone, late 2015. Then the Echos put it everywhere in my house, and we were shouting at Alexa from all angles. They even baked it into the FireTV, which we already had.

Then, last year, they announced that the music "locker" service was going away, not counting anything you bought from them. It's still unclear what they mean though. They're not taking on new customers, for sure, but the messaging on Amazon's subscription page seems to imply that as long as you keep renewing it automatically every year, you can keep everything up there. So I don't know what exactly will happen, but it has me spooked. You might ask why I'm not just content to use one of the streaming services, and that's a fair question. Simply put, I want to own my stuff. If some artist doesn't strike a deal and their catalog disappears, that sucks. I'm possibly a relic from the old days of physical media (collectible as it was), and that's fine.

When me and my team won a bunch of Google Homes at the Intuit hackathon we did in November, I wasn't exactly sure what I'd do with the speaker, but I did plug it in and cast some songs to it. I was surprised at how good it sounded. When the Amazon announcement came, I found out that Google let you upload a bunch of music for free into their service, so I tried that out. The phone app is way better than Amazon's offering, so at the very least it seemed like a compelling alternative. I don't have a ton of playlists to convert, so jumping ship would be fairly low friction.

The freebies didn't end there. When we ordered Pixel 2 phones, (in addition to $200 in Project Fi credits and $395 in trades for our phones), we scored free Google Home Mini's. So all of a sudden, we're at system parity with Amazon. I had to buy a $35 Chromecast to make the music to my receiver work (the Home Mini won't send audio via Bluetooth to the receiver the way the Echo can), but that fills in the YouTube gap caused by the nonsense between Google and Amazon over FireTV. Here are some comparisons between the two ecosystems.

Music

As I said, Google has the better music app over Amazon, at least on Android. The web app is even better, and makes it super easy to cleanly edit metadata when necessary. The matching algorithm had split some albums on album artist for some reason, but it didn't take long to resolve. Playlist editing is better on the Google UI's as well. And of course, if you're a new customer, you can't upload anything to Amazon's service anyway.

Related, the sound of a Google Home Mini is vastly superior to an Echo Dot. I'm sure a full-size Echo sounds good, but the Dot model isn't much better than a cell phone. Not a big deal when it's answering commands, but music should be better. It's still not going to impress audiophiles or anything, but it's pretty solid for that pre-bed ritual.

There is a snag today. Some albums won't play on the speakers, saying I need a subscription even though it's in my library. Others will play, but skip most of the tracks. I used the chat on a help page, and apparently there's a known issue that they're working on. The support agent promised to call me tomorrow, if you can believe that. Playlists work fine.

Home Automation

There isn't a ton of difference here. Hue responds faster on Google than Amazon for some reason, if that half-second matters to you. Google doesn't know how to do Hue scenes, which the Echo treats as devices.

Configuration App

The Alexa app and Google Home app have similar card systems that are generally useless, but Google's is still better in the way it allows you adjust volume and change settings on devices. It also allows you to direct output of media to different devices, so you can have your living room Home Mini output sound to the Chromecast, for example. It's also just laid out more logically, with "devices" a top level skill.

Assistant Stuff

Alexa can read your calendar from Office 365, Gmail and G-Suite, whereas Google can only do Gmail. That's a huge failure if that's important to you, especially because it won't do G-Suite, which is where my stuff lives. Figure that out... Amazon can do it, but Google can't do it and they own the product. Beyond that, it will do the usual kinds of reminders and alarms and such. Amazon technically wins there though, because you can have Alec Baldwin wake you up, and that's amazing.

Video

This really comes down to control issues. FireTV comes with a remote and a full on user interface to navigate Amazon offerings as well as third-party apps like Netflix and Hulu. If you buy movies digitally, it almost doesn't matter where you do it now that all of the services tie in to Movies Anywhere, despite a few studio holdouts. The FireTV is also the conduit to all of the free stuff that comes with Prime. Some of it is pretty damn good, especially the original stuff.

The Google world centers on the Chromecast, which is like a FireTV but without the apps or a remote. Instead, you use the apps on your phone to "cast" stuff to it. This is a sweet arrangement in a lot of ways, because there's no pairing to do as with Bluetooth. I can browse and push music to a speaker with my phone (and using either Google Play Music or Amazon Music, no less), which is better than trying to shout out the name of the album you can't remember. But for video, I'm not a huge fan. I'm just running down the battery on my phone doing complex browsing instead of arrowing a cursor around. Obviously I don't get the Prime exclusives, but at least I get the YouTube back, which we mostly use for rocket launches.

Summary

For music, as long as they get the album problem worked out, Google wins hands down. The apps are so much better, and the little speakers sound better. Video is better with FireTV. The home automation and peripheral stuff is all kind of a draw. At this point, it doesn't cost me anything to have both, but the music situation is the one I care most about. 

Oh, and before you offer some freak out paranoid rant, seriously, I have no shits to give about who might learn when my lights are on (hint: when it's dark) or when my air conditioning is running (hint: when it's hot). I realize that there are some privacy implications and trust issues around the use of data generated by the gadgets, but the very fact that I'm blogging about it in detail should give you some indication about why it's not that important.

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