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Google Nest Mini vs. Amazon Echo Dot with Clock: Crowning the best budget smart speaker

The cheapest smart speakers from Amazon and Google remain among the most enticing smart home devices on the market, even months after release. But which one is better?

The arms race between Google and Amazon is continuing through 2020, and the easiest entry point for either company's ecosystem remains its $50 budget smart speaker. In the competition for the best deal, Amazon's latest offering is its third-generation Echo Dot speaker -- now with an LED clock embedded in its face. Google, on the other hand, is still pushing its 2019 Nest Mini, the rebranded and feature-rich version of its older Google Home Mini.

The Echo Dot with Clock comes with a $10 price bump, landing its grand total at $60. By contrast, you can pick up the new Nest Mini for $49. Both devices are frequently on sale, though, and both represent low-cost ways to try out a smart assistant, whether you want to play music, control your smart home, get daily updates on COVID-19 or try any other of the countless features and apps (what Amazon calls skills) these voice assistants bring to the countertop. 

Read more: The best alarm clocks for 2020

Of course, that crazy-low price -- especially during sales -- also comes with the reality that using Alexa or Google Assistant will provide Amazon or Google with that sweet usage data they can mine to tailor their marketing efforts to you and and your family. Cool!

But if you're set on buying one, which is the right one? Here, some thoughts.

James Martin/CNET

The look and feel of the new Google Nest Mini isn't that different from the original Google Home Mini that launched in 2017. It has a similar cloth-topped design (made of recycled plastic this time), in coral, charcoal, chalk and a new blue hue called sky. Google also didn't address the most commonly cited hardware disparity between the Home Mini and the Echo Dot, the 3.5mm audio jack. 

Instead, Google made some subtle design tweaks, and added some power under the hood. 

An integrated bracket on the underside of the new Nest Mini makes it officially wall-mountable. Not everyone will use that feature -- it might be custom home automation builders who take advantage of it the most -- but it offers some built-in flexibility that doesn't come standard with other smart speakers, including the new Echo Dot.

A new ultrasound sensor system built into the top of the Nest Mini can now detect when you're standing close to it, and then activate a pair of LEDs that point out the touch-based volume controls on top of the speaker. They were harder to find on the Home Mini, which lacked that feature.

Inside the new Nest Mini, Google boasts a more bass-heavy speaker, as well as an onboard processor and a machine learning chip that lets the Nest Mini learn the voice commands you give to Google Assistant most frequently and then process them locally, rather than sending them out over to Google's servers. The benefit there is faster response times once the speaker has learned your most common commands and the ability to execute them locally when you don't have an internet connection.

Read our Google Nest Mini review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

That "third-gen" modifier in the Echo Dot product name? It's important. The reason is because the third iteration of the Echo Dot speaker actually came out in 2018. Thus, the only thing different about the hardware of this model and the unit that came out in 2018 is the clock. That's it. 

The clock adds $10 to the price of the Echo Dot, but it's useful in a way that's easy to understand. Instead of asking Alexa for the time (one of the most common questions she gets) you can simply glance at the speaker itself. You can also use it as an alarm clock and tap the Echo Dot to snooze the alarm. If you don't want to keep the clock on all the time, Amazon also gives you an option to turn it off. 

I wouldn't put the Echo Dot in my bedroom. I do have one in my kitchen, but amid other LED clocks on my oven and my microwave, I wouldn't find the clock-equipped Echo Dot that useful there. It would help in our basement family room where we have a first-gen Echo Dot and no other electronics besides the TV, which isn't always on. Depending on your situation from room-to-room at home, the Echo Dot with Clock could be a welcome addition if you already use Alexa, or it could be redundant.

Read our Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review.

 

Which one of these new speakers is better for you will largely depend on how and where you intend to use it, and whether you've already adopted a voice assistant. 

In terms of down-to-earth practicality, it's hard to argue with the obvious, more universal benefit of the Echo Dot's new clock, even with the $10 upcharge. If you own any Alexa-powered smart home devices, that extra practicality makes the Echo Dot with Clock the best bet for you. 

Now playing: Watch this: Comparing Google Nest Mini and Amazon Echo Dot with Clock
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Google's Nest Mini speaker has a longer outlook in mind with its machine learning capabilities, along with some niche features, like making it easier to mount on your wall. With clearer audio and a redesigned speaker pumping out 40% more bass than the first-gen model, the Nest Mini is a great fit for most people. 

Read moreThe best smart speaker for 2020

Now playing: Watch this: New Nest Mini promises better sound, smarter features
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