Fall 2020 brought the launch of more smart speakers from major developers than ever before, with a new HomePod Mini and . These devices are core to each company's smart home ambitions, since a $100 voice-driven speaker -- housing Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant -- acts as one of the best anchors for a connected home experience., Apple's new
We're moving into the first holiday season affected bylockdowns, and people are home more than ever right now. As a result, and with three competitive smart speaker brands on the market, 2020 could see a huge expansion in this still early smart home category. The question is, which smart speaker is the best?
Let's break down the options based on what we learned first-hand with the Apple HomePod Mini., the fourth-gen and
Amazon's focus in 2019 was on hardware, rolling out half a dozen speakers and displays in a single year, but in 2020, Alexa is the star. Alexa's improved home security features, more naturalistic speech and predictive smart home controls could make it far more competitive with Google's still-superior Google Assistant. Those features rolling out -- along with Google's and Siri's answers to them -- will continue to keep the voice assistant race tight between these three.
The new Echo's hardware similarly prioritizes home integration, featuring a Zigbee receiver to connect smart lightbulbs and an Amazon Sidewalk bridge to connect with the tech giant's growing network of home and near-home devices.
The fourth-gen Echo turns up the sound quality and adds higher-end smarts than the competition, all for the same $100 price tag, making it one of the most forward-looking smart speakers released in years. While Google's Nest Audio sounds good, the Echo boasts more power: Its volume at 85% is about equivalent to the Nest's maximum.
The new Echo features the same 3-inch woofer as the previous generation, but adds a second 0.8-inch tweeter, which means bass and lower-range mids are richer and stronger. The speaker's sound also automatically adapts to the acoustics of the room it's in, much like the HomePod Mini and Nest Audio.
The 2020 Echo feels like a much more worthwhile gadget than last year's third-gen Echo. The powerful sound and smarts distinguish it from the competition. For $100, the new Echo is a pretty sweet deal.
The $100 Nest Audio is replacing 2016's Google Home, and Google says it is "75% louder with a 50% stronger bass than the original [speaker]." That performance comes from its 19mm tweeter and 75mm mid woofer, which are both slightly smaller than their counterparts in the new Amazon Echo (which also has two tweeters). But overall, the speaker is still about twice the size of the HomePod Mini, and generally speaking, bigger is better when it comes to speakers. Our reviewer called the Nest Audio "an improvement in every way" over the Google Home.
Google Assistant continues to be the most natural-sounding voice assistant, though Amazon is keeping the competition tight with its recent upgrades. For most people, whether you prefer Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant will probably come down to use-cases: Siri integrates with iPhone functions, like messaging; Google Assistant works with Google's Calendar, Gmail and search services; Alexa works with Amazon shopping. All three will get the job done to varying degrees for most requests in between.
When it comes to smart home connections, the Nest Audio brings a solid array of integrations with other Nest devices, along with the big hitters in the connected home space. That said, it simply doesn't have the wide reach Alexa does with smart home developers -- particularly those with more niche products. It's also worth noting the new Amazon Echo's built-in Zigbee hub that makes smart home setup a breeze.
Apple's HomePod Mini is the long-awaited little sibling to 2018's overpriced (but great-sounding) HomePod. While the original HomePod didn't end up claiming much market share, it proved that Apple, even arriving late to the smart speaker party, could compete with industry leaders Google and Amazon.
The HomePod Mini is a much more reasonable $99, the same price as 2020's Echo and Nest Audio. Like its competitors, the HomePod Mini houses its company's voice assistant -- Siri, in Apple's case -- and connects to a slew of Apple-specific features, such as the messaging app on your iPhone or the Home app controlling your Wi-Fi-connected light bulbs. In addition, the HomePod Mini is able to adjust its audio output to the acoustics of the room (something Amazon has also claimed about the new Echo), and receive music "handed off" from iPhones held in its proximity. Plus multiple HomePod Minis are able to automatically play songs in stereo.
When it comes to voice assistance, Siri is less polished than Google Assistant and Alexa, but it can accomplish all the basics its competitors can. For many customers, the choice will come down to brand loyalty.
Apple's other big emphases with the HomePod Mini are security and privacy: Nothing you say will be shared without your consent; you can choose whether to send your recordings to Apple or not; your queries will not be associated with your Apple ID; and it won't respond to personal requests unless your phone is in the room. These features largely match what competitors are doing.
The HomePod Mini's clear downside is its price in relation to its size: the Mini's profile is more comparable to Google's Nest Mini and Amazon's Echo Dot, both of which cost only $50. In fact, at a tiny 3.3 inches tall, the HomePod Mini is even shorter than the new, 3.5-inch-tall spherical Echo Dot. When we tested the device, we did notice that its sound performance was more comparable to that of its competitors' smaller speakers, but it does a good job of balancing audio.