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Google vs. Amazon: After I/O, whose voice assistant is best?

Google's annual developer conference came with fresh new features for the Google Assistant -- which, incidentally, now seems capable of fooling people into thinking it's human. Can Alexa keep up?

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Google Assistant vs. Amazon's Alexa has been one of the more prominent battles in consumer tech over the past year. Alexa was first to the smart speaker game with the Amazon Echo, and had a sizable head start in features by the time Google launched its own Google Home two years later. Last year, Google closed the gap with key upgrades like voice recognition, and the two have gone back and forth ever since.

If you need to catch up, here's everything you need to know about Alexa, and our corresponding explainer for Google Assistant. Basically, they're both digital assistants that respond primarily to voice commands. You can ask either of them to search the web, play music, control your smart home devices and much more.

After Google's impressive I/O keynote on Tuesday, I'm ready to call Google Assistant the best and smartest digital assistant out there. However, CNET's Ry Crist disagrees. We've been covering both assistants for a long time, and now it's time we go head to head to figure out if either one reigns supreme.

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Andrew Gebhart: Well, Ry, Google Duplex pretty much did it for me. If the goal of these assistants is to replicate the experience of having a human help you, you can't get much better than one that makes calls on your behalf and actually sounds like a human. Granted, it's just an experiment, but it shows the power of Google to develop its AI. It also shows how far Google Assistant has come in terms of understanding conversational language.

One recent study showed that Google Assistant responds to more questions that Alexa, and does so more accurately than Alexa. Add in features like its ability to respond to multiple questions at once, and Google's got the better, easier-to-use digital helper.

Ry Crist: Alexa can handle multiple requests, too, provided you string them together using Follow-Up Mode. Google is admittedly better at pulling relevant info from the web in order to tackle a greater variety of questions, but I'd argue that Alexa counters that and then some with the tens of thousands of skills that each let her do something new. Google doesn't have anything like that yet.

In the end, neither really feels like an appreciable advantage at this point. These assistants are still toddlers. For the most part, we're asking them to play music, turn lights on and off, set timers... you know, basic stuff. Neither one can serve as a primary interface for daily life in the way that a smart phone or a computer can.

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Maybe Google gets there first, but we aren't there yet. Until we are, I'd hesitate to say either one reigns supreme. Both are currently very good and very interesting, but picking between them is still largely a matter of preference.

AG: It's hard to be mad at you when you make balanced, reasonable points. You're right: both are still relatively simple and quite close in capabilities. Whenever Google or Amazon announces something new for one assistant, I expect the other shoe to drop via a matching feature from the other in short order.

Yes, Alexa has more skills, but Google's Actions are functionally similar, just not marketed the same way as skills. Google is catching up in terms of numbers, too. Right before I/O, Google announced their Assistant now works with 5,000 smart devices and every major smart home partner. Alexa might still have more, but how many of those skills do you actually use?

RC: I like playing voice games like Deal or No Deal using my car's Alexa adapter whenever I'm stuck in traffic. So there's one regularly used skill, plus an example of Alexa's hardware advantage, which is absolutely key. I mean, forget Amazon's ample mix of Alexa speakers -- there are now over a hundred third-party Alexa gadgets that aren't even made by Amazon. That gives people a lot of flexibility over how they bring Alexa into their home -- much more so than you'll get with Google.

AG: Agreed, Amazon has a ton of hardware and Google always seems to be playing catch up on that front. But Google is indeed catching up. At CES, we saw smoke detectors, alarm clocks and more with Google Assistant built in. Plus Google Assistant is built into most modern Android phones, so in terms of sheer hardware numbers, Google has the edge. In terms of variety, give it to Alexa, but Google's catching up there, too.

RC: Google's advantage on mobile is undeniable, but it also keeps Google's vision of a voice-activated future tied at least in part to people's phones. Amazon, on the other hand, isn't worried about selling smartphones, and as a result, Alexa's ecosystem feels almost totally separate from my phone. That's the approach I prefer in my own home, but I wouldn't say that it's the right one for everybody.

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AG: Agreed. To end this in the lamest way possible, the right assistant for you still comes down to preference and needs. Google Assistant might be legitimately smarter at this point, but Alexa has its advantages, too. Plus, both will respond to most of your questions, and both will help you out in more ways than you'd expect.

I just wish we had some sort of quiz to help you pick. Still, Google's I/O was impressiveGoogle Assistant now has lots of new features, works with more smart home devices and if you haven't listened to Duplex in action, give this video a look. Android Things -- a version of the company's famous operating system tailored for low power smart home devices -- also officially launched and potentially gives third party developers a chance to help Google catch Amazon in hardware variety.  

I actually really enjoy the battle between Google Assistant and Alexa, and I can't wait to see how Amazon's going to respond to Google's AI push at I/O. In the meantime, if you want to pick out a smart speaker, here's our buying guide.