Smart home

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo, round 2: Google strikes back

At Google I/O, new announcements help Home edge into the lead, but the Echo's far from finished.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Editors' note, May 18, 2017: Since I updated this piece a month ago, both Google and Amazon have announced major upgrades to their respective smart speakers. The piece has been updated accordingly, though these latest changes won't be heavily factored in until they launch and we have time to test them.

Given the surprising success of the Amazon Echo -- a smart speaker that responds to your voice commands, plays music, and controls your smart home -- competition was inevitable. With Google Home entering the arena, complete with the backing of the company's ubiquitous search engine, the Echo's place on top is no longer secure.

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Like the Echo, the Home functions as a source of entertainment, a personal assistant and a smart-home controller. When we reviewed the Home back in November, it couldn't keep up with the Echo on the latter two fronts. The Home put up a valiant fight, but the Echo had a two-year head start and many more skills at its disposal. At CES this January, the Echo continued to build on its lead with a slew of new integrations.

Recently, Google's given its smart speaker some significant upgrades, including support for multiple users and voice recognition, as well as a dozen new smart-home integrations and cooking assistance for more than 5 million recipes.

Amazon struck back with its own slew of upgrades, including voice calling to other Echo devices and notifications on your Echo. At its 2017 Google I/O developer conference, Google showed off similar features for the Home, as well as a handful of other other upgrades including better integration between the Home and your TV.

So now that Google Home's had a little time to grow up, which device is better? As we did with round 1, we split the battle into three categories -- entertainment, personal assistance and smart-home control -- to see how the two devices stack up. The Echo won round 1 by triumphing in the second and third categories -- let's see if that still holds true.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo

Google Home Amazon Echo
Price $130 $180
Responds to voice commands Yes Yes
Always listening Yes Yes
Wake word OK Google, or Hey Google Alexa, Echo, Amazon or Computer
Music streaming options Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, others
Smart home partnerships Nest, Honeywell, SmartThings, Wink, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Lifx, Lutron, August, Logitech Harmony, Anova, IFTTT and others Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell, SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Lifx, Lutron, August, Logitech Harmony, Anova, Big Ass Fans, IFTTT, Control4, Crestron, other devices via skills
Customizable appearance Yes No
Output to stereo system Yes, via Chromecast Yes, via Bluetooth and the Echo Dot
Synced audio playback to multiple devices Yes, to any Google Cast device No
Personal assistant highlights Search Google, get a personalized daily briefing, check traffic, check your calendar, make a shopping list, check flight status, track a package Add items to calendar, make a shopping list, make a to do list, check flight status, track a package
Other features Cast to your TV with Chromecast, launch and control YouTube or Netflix via Chromecast Order a pizza, play a game, arrange an Uber pickup. Echo has an ever-growing list of thousands of skills and counting

Entertainment

The Amazon Echo and the Google Home are both always listening, via their built-in microphones that can hear voice input from a moderate distance. The Echo wakes up to the command "Alexa," or you can change the wake word to "Echo," "Amazon" or "Computer." The Home listens for either "OK Google" or "Hey Google." Both do a fine job of hearing you, even across a large room and over moderate background noise. If you turn the volume all the way up on your music, both will understandably have trouble picking your voice out of the racket.

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As speakers, both function well enough for listening to music, though neither lived up to the standards of CNET's audiophiles. Check out Ty Pendlebury's detailed breakdown of how the Home does versus the Echo in terms of sound quality. In short, he recommends if you're just looking for a high-fidelity Bluetooth speaker -- keep looking.

On the plus side, both offer means of connecting to your existing sound system. The mini version of the Echo -- the $50 Amazon Echo Dot -- plugs into your speakers. With the Home, you can control any Google Cast-enabled speaker or any speaker connected to a Chromecast Audio streamer.

Bonus points for the Home: You can also control your TV if you have a Chromecast video streamer or a TV with Chromecast built-in. Say the word, and you can watch your favorite show on Netflix or pull up a video on YouTube. Soon, you'll be able to use your voice to watch shows from a bunch of other streaming sources, including Hulu and HBO Now. Just like with music, you can pause, rewind and fast-forward streaming video with your voice.

Better yet, if your TV supports CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), you can turn on your TV with Google Home by asking it to play something. That said, you can't yet fully control any TV with Google Home. You won't be able to turn your TV off with a voice command, for instance. Google showed off that ability at I/O though, so full TV control could be on the way.

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Home's built-in speaker plays music well enough for me, but the sound quality didn't satisfy our audiophiles.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Alexa -- the assistant built into the Echo -- integrates with Fire TV, but you need to press a button on a specific Fire TV remote, so the always-listening Echo can't help you with your TV yet through first-party support. An upcoming Element TV has Alexa built-in, but again, you'll need to press a button on the remote to give a voice command.

Both the Echo and the Google Home can do more with your TV if you have a Logitech Harmony setup, and the Echo also works with universal remotes from dealer-installed setups like Control4. Professional smart homes and Logitech Harmony can both get expensive, so the best option if you want simple voice controls over your TV is Google Home and the $35 Chromecast.

One other big advantage for Home? You can group multiple speakers to play one song simultaneously in multiple rooms of your house. The Echo still can't do that.

Both the Home and the Echo play games, tell jokes, and respond wittily to movie lines such as, "I am your father." The Echo's been around for longer, so it has more fun extras than Google Home. And Alexa's version of Jeopardy is also much better than Home's simplistic and over-the-top trivia.

Still, I'm giving this category to the Home because extras aside, the Home's ability to group your speakers and cheaply control your TV makes it wonderfully useful as a whole home entertainer.

Verdict: The Google Home holds the entertainment title in round 2.

Personal assistance

Since Google Home learns more about you through a variety of Google services -- such as Google Calendar and Google Maps -- it should have been able to easily beat the Echo in this category from the beginning. However, the Echo managed to take this duel in round 1, thanks in large part to its breadth of abilities.

Still, the Home uses the Google Assistant (Google's aptly named digital assistant built into the Home and Android phones like the Pixel -- and now available on iPhones) to respond to voice commands conversationally, something Google was eager to demonstrate when the Google Home made its initial debut back in May 2016.

In other words, you can ask Google Home, "Who plays Luke Skywalker?" and thanks to the Google Assistant, the Home will give you an answer. Then, you can follow that question with "What other movies is he in?" from which Home will infer that the "he" you're referring to is actor Mark Hamill and provide an answer.

Surprisingly, the Echo kept up with the Home on this front. We asked Alexa to tell us the weather. Then, we asked, "How about Friday?" and Alexa understood and responded without needing to hear the word "weather" again. The Google Assistant understands a little more context than Alexa, but not by much.

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The Echo also lets you set reminders and make to-do lists, and the Google Home still falls short at a few of those sorts of basic tasks. It doesn't, for instance, let you change anything on your calendar yet. That should change soon. Google showed off better integration with its apps at I/O, including the ability to pull up search results on your TV with Chromecast.

You'll even be able to see personalized results to your questions as Google recently added support for multiple users (up to a maximum of six), making it a much better personal assistant for the whole family.

Your family members can each spend a few minutes training Google to recognize their voices. Once they do, Google should do a pretty good job of telling you all apart, provided you don't sound too similar. From there, if you each ask it for traffic info or a calendar update, the Home will customize its responses depending on which one of you is asking. The Echo can't do anything like that.

Both Amazon and Google are making a play for the kitchen and both devices work with the Anova connected sous vide cooker. But here Google goes a step further again, as the company just announced the ability to search for more than 5 million recipes on your phone, then send them to the Home for step-by-step directions.

Both companies also want to replace your home phone with their respective speakers. The Echo lets you call other Echo devices. Google Home will let you call any phone number in your address book. I like Google's calling functionality better in theory -- the feature isn't live yet -- as it's easier to call anyone, whether or not they have a Home. We'll be testing both extensively to see which device is the better communicator in practice.

The Google Home is still not perfect as a personal assistant, but Google is making progress. Even now, with lots of I/O upgrades still on the horizon, since the Google Assistant can get to know your whole family, the Home's ready to take this category from the Echo.

Verdict: The Home overtakes the Echo as a personal assistant in round 2.

Smart home controller

Alexa's sheer breadth of skills -- more than 10,000 at this point -- made Amazon's 2-year head start in building a catalog of compatible smart-home devices seem insurmountable. Skills are basically third-party, voice-enabled apps for the Echo. Google doesn't have anything similar for the Home, and given that the Home launched with just four compatible smart-home platforms -- SmartThings, Nest, Philips Hue and IFTTT -- I didn't think the Home would be able to keep up with the Echo in this vital category.

An always-listening device makes it much easier for a family to control the smart home. We found that out firsthand in the CNET Smart Home, and it's a big part of why the Amazon Echo is a central part of our living lab for testing connected gadgets.

We did that before the Home existed, though, and the Home puts up an admirable fight for smart-home supremacy as the Google Assistant is more flexible than Alexa about how you word your commands.

For a bulb called "desk lamp" in the Philips app, Alexa will respond only if you tell it to turn on the "desk lamp." You can create a group for all lights or office lights, then command Alexa to turn off the office lights and it'll work. Without those groups, Alexa won't respond to any other names for the lamp, including "desk light."

With Google Assistant, I nicknamed the desk lamp "Lampy," and assigned it to the office. I could then control it by commanding Google to turn on the "desk lamp," "Lampy," "desk light," "office light," or "lights." Google doesn't get any extra credit for the "office light" command since assigning the lamp to the room is similar to adding it to a group for Alexa, but I appreciated the Assistant automatically grouping it with the rest of my lights and helping me out with the difference between "light" and "lamp."

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Google Home fit into our smart home nicely. The changeable bases helped us find the perfect look.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Google's integration with IFTTT is also better than Alexa's. With IFTTT -- the online rule-maker that stands for "If This Then That" -- the Assistant lets you craft fully customizable commands including multiple options for how you might want to say the command. You have to use the word "trigger" to activate a customizable command with Alexa.

Google improved its smart home prowess at I/O as well, announcing "shortcuts" that will let you command multiple devices at once -- similar to the scenes of Apple's smart home platform called HomeKit. Alexa will let do some device grouping, but it's more of an all-or-nothing approach ("Alexa, turn on all the lights") and not as customizable as Google's feature. Amazon could certainly improve its its own version of scenes soon, and Google's shortcuts also aren't live yet.

For now, flexible phrasing aside, the Echo is still ahead in the race to control everything. The Home closed the gap with a recent push, adding significant names to its roster of compatible devices like August, Lifx, and Wink, but all of those already worked with the Echo, and it's got plenty of others that Home still needs to add. I'm glad to see the Home making a real push on this front, but the Echo's still the champ in the smart home.

Verdict: The Amazon Echo holds its ground as a smart home controller in round 2.

Final count

With the personal assistance category swinging to the Google Home, the six-month-old upstart now holds the upper hand in the battle against the 2-year old device it was designed to emulate. Still, despite Google's 2-1 victory in round 2, Alexa is far from finished. The Amazon Echo is still the better device if you prioritize smart-home controls, and Alexa is still a great, versatile digital assistant.

Amazon also has more options for Alexa-enabled devices -- including the $50 Echo Dot. Amazon will look to press that advantage with the recently announced Amazon Echo Look (an Alexa device with a camera) and the Amazon Echo Show (an Alexa device with a screen).

As Google works to catch Alexa in versatility, I'll be curious to see if Alexa makes a move to counter the Google Assistant's multi-user support or conversational prowess. For consumers, the competition can only be a good thing as both companies need to continually improve their devices to keep up with the other. With Apple reportedly working on an Echo-type device of its own, one thing's for sure: the game is on.

This piece was originally published May 18, 2016, and is periodically updated with new information.