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Google Home to the Amazon Echo: 'Anything you can do...'

At Google's developer conference, the search giant matched and surpassed all of the Echo's recent upgrades.

James Martin/CNET

The battle between the Google Home and the Amazon Echo keeps getting better and better. Yesterday, a year after Google first announced the Home and the Google Assistant, the search giant might have just shown the road map to put the Home ahead for good.

To this point, the Google Home smart speaker has lagged behind Amazon's competing Echo devices in terms of the things it can do. Amazon had a head start with Echo, bringing it to the market in 2014, and as a result, the Echo has more than 10,000 skills and works directly with dozens of internet connected hardware products. The Google Home only started with four device partners, but it has been catching up.

Since the Home speaker debuted last year, Google has quietly added and improved on a number of features -- flexible voice commands for controlling connected household devices, conversational recipe instructions in the kitchen, and personal assistance tied to your Google Calendar and Google Maps account. At its Google I/O developer's conference in Mountain View, California, Google added abilities that will be hard for Amazon to match, and announced better versions of a couple of Echo's recent upgrades.

The battle so far

The Home and the Echo have had an epic back and forth battle.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The two-year-old Echo was clearly the superior device when the Home launched last November. Both devices are always-listening smart speakers that respond to your voice commands and act as a personal assistant, music streamer, and smart home controller, among other things.

Roughly a month ago, Google expanded its list of device partners for the Home and its built-in Google Assistant, which helped the Home compete more strongly against the Echo as a smart home control device. Then, the Google Home passed the Echo as a personal assistant with the ability to recognize multiple voices. This feature allows the Home to give more personalized assistance based on the account information, like Google Calendar entries, specific to each person that the Home has been trained to recognize.

Amazon struck back by rolling out voice calling to the Echo, adding notifications and announcing two new Echo devices; an Alexa-equipped camera called Echo Look and a device with a screen called Echo Show.

Amazon's head start and aggressive marketing have also given its Echo product line a powerful lead in market share. Research firm eMarketer estimates that 70 percent of people that own a smart speaker have either an Echo or one of the other products from the Echo line.

How I/O changed the game

Google announced new music streaming services for the Home at I/O.

James Martin/CNET

Google continued the back-and-forth at I/O with five major upgrades of its own: proactive assistance, hands-free calling, more music and video streaming options, better integration between the Home and your TV, and shortcuts that allow you to activate multiple scenes at once.

The first two have direct parallels in Amazon's recent upgrades. Proactive assistance functions like Amazon's upcoming notifications. Hands-free calling is obviously similar to Echo's voice calling. With the Amazon Echo, you can call other Echos with a voice command, but the Google Home will actually let you call someone's phone with your voice. This should make setup and implementation much simpler than with the Echo, since you can make voice calls to your contacts whether or not they have a Home device.

Likewise, the notifications for Home take advantage of Google's other apps to let you know if traffic is bad on your way to work or if your flight is delayed. Amazon can only give you weather and news information. Google's leveraging its wealth of smartphone apps to double down on personalized assistance. Amazon has a steep hill to climb to introduce calendar or map functionality that could come close to matching Google's already widespread apps.

Soon, you will also be able to set reminders and pull up your schedule on your TV with a voice command to Google Home. The Home can display these personalized answers to your questions on your TV, capitalizing on its ability to recognize the voices of multiple users.

Google increased its video streaming options as well.

James Martin/CNET

The Google Home already offered better integration with your TV than the Echo. Google's always had some control over your TV through Chromecast -- either a $35 plug-in streamer or a TV with Chromecast built-in -- letting you stream content from Netflix and Youtube with your voice. The Echo's TV options are more costly and complicated than syncing a Home with a Chromecast.

Google added to that advantage as well with a wealth of new streaming partners. You'll now be able to queue up streaming video content from Hulu and HBO Now -- among a handful of other services -- directly to your TV with your voice. To end the demo, the presenter even turned off a television with his voice -- showing more direct control over your TV than previously possible with either the Echo or the Home.

The Echo has a device to match the Chromecast -- Fire TV. Amazon's streamer has Alexa built-in, but you can't control it with a command to the Echo. You have to press a button on the Fire TV remote. A newly announced Element TV has Alexa built-in, including all of Alexa's usual abilities and voice control over the TV, but you still have to press a button on the remote.

The final Home upgrade -- shortcuts -- will work a lot like scenes for Apple's smart home device family, Homekit. Say a customized command, and you can control multiple devices at once. Both the Home and the Echo previously let you group devices together, but were limited to controlling either the whole group, or the individual device. Shortcuts will let you create a command that can control whichever devices you'd like to bundle together. Again, it seems relatively straightforward for Echo to match Home on this front with a simple upgrade of its own.

Google even showed off its increasingly robust list of smart home partners, and announced "shortcuts."

James Martin/CNET

Amazon's main advantage to this point remains the wide variety of Echo devices. The $50 Echo Dot plugs into your speakers. The upcoming Echo Show gives Alexa a screen and allows video calls.

With the Home, you might not need a separate device with a screen if you can do effectively the same thing with your TV. And Google might not need to make a fleet of Home devices if it can rely on its robust community of Android developers to do the work for it. Google opened up the Google Assistant software to developers at I/O -- so third parties can build Google's voice control into their own unique hardware.

Google's other platforms then, from Android to Google's apps, give the search giant a software and community base that will be hard for Amazon to match, and Google is finally using those attributes to its advantage.

The race isn't over

Even if the Home becomes a more capable device than the Echo, there's no guarantee it will be able to catch up in sales. The Echo is still more versatile with 10,000 third party skills you can activate with your voice, and if you want the best smart speaker value on the market, the best option is the $50 Echo Dot. Amazon also has a couple of new Echo products on the way, so it will add to its versatility lead soon. Even Apple is supposedly getting in on the smart speaker this year, which will make the battle even more interesting.

Nevertheless, Google's announcements at I/O impressed me. Google Home might still be playing catch up to Amazon, but Google looks like it's finally giving its smart speaker the resources it needs to win.

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