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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Smart Home

Google Assistant is smarter than Alexa. Does it matter?

Google aims for Assistant to outsmart its competition. Are machine learning and AI enough to help it overtake Alexa?

Josh Miller/CNET

On Wednesday, Google made a big push to be the center of your connected home. 

Along with the new Pixel 2 and a bunch of other cool looking gadgets, Google announced the Google Home Mini and the Google Home Max. Google hopes you'll put a puck-sized $50 Mini in every room of your home, and that the $400 Max offers enough sound quality to please audiophiles. Like the original $130 Google Home, both respond to voice commands issued to Google Assistant and both can control smart home devices.

The three Home devices offer a competitive variety of prices and features, but none of them are particularly original. Google Home emulates the Amazon Echo. The Mini takes after the popular Echo Dot. The Max will compete with Sonos speakers and the upcoming Apple HomePod. Google even admitted as much during Wednesday's presentation, saying the company is rarely first on hardware, but strives to be the best when it jumps into the field.

In the few months after it was released, Google Home arguably fulfilled that promise. Between its contextual awareness, integration with Google services, and voice recognition, the Google Assistant built into the Home speaker is now smarter in many regards than Amazon's comparable assistant Alexa. And yet, Google remains significantly behind Amazon in smart speaker sales, with the latter accounting for 70 percent of purchases in the category (according to eMarketer).

A more affordable entry point such as the Google Home Mini could help the search giant catch up. After all, Amazon's sales leader is the comparable Echo Dot, which also costs $50. Still, it's hard to imagine Google pulling ahead with a device so similar to what Amazon already has. That's why I argued on Tuesday that Google needed to surprise us with an original device in the smart home. That didn't happen. If Google wants to overtake Amazon with smarts and software instead of original hardware, the search giant has a long road ahead. Most consumers won't appreciate the nuanced advantages Google Assistant has over Alexa. 

Google's smarter

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Both the Google Assistant and Alexa accurately respond to your voice commands. Both assistants play music, control smart home devices, make calls, search the internet, and can tell you a joke.

Over the past couple of months, Google Assistant and Alexa have engaged in a thrilling back and forth as both have continually added features. First Alexa added the ability to call other Amazon devices, then Google Assistant allowed you to call anyone, cell phones included. Alexa can now do that, too. Both Amazon and Google have added voice-based controls for compatible TVs, Google added recipe assistance, and so on.

Google Assistant has always been able to respond more fluidly to your commands. Thanks to its eponymous search engine and the data derived from it, Google is better than Amazon at answering your questions, including using the context from your previous question to help it answer your next one.

Amazon has improved Alexa's contextual awareness to an extent. Ask about the weather on Thursday, and Alexa will respond accurately. Say, "How about Friday" and Alexa will understand you're still talking about the weather. Google takes contextual awareness one step further. If you ask who plays Katniss Everdeen, then ask "what else is she in?" Google will get both questions right, knowing you mean Jennifer Lawrence when you say "she."

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Google Assistant also helps you through recipes more fluidly than Alexa, stopping and repeating steps as necessary. Alexa works with more smart home devices, but it's easier to nickname devices in the Google Home app and you can customize commands with online rule maker IFTTT

Plus, Google Assistant can recognize your voice. Amazon has nothing similar to voice recognition, at least not yet. Train the Assistant to recognize your voice, and it can customize responses for you that are different than those for your spouse. If you ask about your calendar or command Google to call mom, the Assistant will read from your specific calendar and call your mom instead of your mother-in-law.

Does it matter?

The problem for Google is that while its Assistant may be smarter, Alexa still has more of just about everything. Amazon has more smart speakers. Amazon works with more smart home devices. Amazon has more third party skills. If a customer is making a buying decision, it's much easier to demonstrate breadth than depth.

Imagine an Echo and a Home speaker sitting side-by-side on a store shelf (both are sold at Best Buy), hooked up and ready for a demo. They're equally likely to respond to your first question accurately. Alexa's skill set is robust enough that finding Home's advantages means you have to dig deep, and that takes time.

In a store, you're not going to sync a Home to your personal account so that it recognizes your voice -- Home's most obvious edge over the Echo. Google's contextual awareness and machine learning are even harder to stumble across in a quick demo.

Even if you do buy both a Home and an Echo, it would take time to notice the difference. Alexa has just as many jokes, stories, and Easter Eggs as Google Assistant, so it could take awhile before you stumbled onto a question that Assistant can answer and Alexa can't.

Do subtle advantages sell?

For the casual consumer, Google's extra smarts might not be noticeable enough to swing smart speaker sales. Even for those who dive deeper and read reviews, Alexa does so many things well that Echo devices are easy to recommend. CNET gave the Echo Dot a particularly high score.

We gave the Google Home a good score too, and Google keeps improving it. The Mini and Max are both welcome additions to the Home lineup, and I'm especially excited about the Mini thanks to its affordable price. Unfortunately for the Home Mini, the most obvious feature difference between it and the Echo Dot is that the Dot can plug into your personal speakers with a cable and the Mini can't. That's a distinct benefit that a potential buyer can understand without even taking the Dot out of its box. The Mini might be smarter, but unless that becomes more apparent to the average buyer, the Dot might be the budget smart speaker more likely to pull in customers who are on the fence.