Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Alexa takes round 1

Amazon wins the battle, but the war is far from over.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Editors' note, November 9th, 2016: This piece has been updated now that we've reviewed Google Home and can directly compare the two devices.

Given the surprising success of the Amazon Echo -- a smart speaker that responds to your voice commands, plays music, and controls your smart home -- competition was inevitable. With Google Home entering the arena, complete with the backing of the company's ubiquitous search engine, the Echo's place on top is no longer secure.

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Now, we've had more than a week to test Google Home and we have full rated reviews of both it and the Echo. Like the Echo, the Home functions as a source of entertainment, a personal assistant, and a smart home controller. You can buy the Home now for $130. The Echo costs $180. You can also get Amazon's assistant Alexa in a smaller package that you can plug into your own sound system -- called the Amazon Echo Dot for $50.

Before we tested the Home, I expected it to win as an entertainer and a personal assistant, and I expected Alexa to win as a smart home controller. Let's see if that holds true.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo

Google Home Amazon Echo
Price $130 $180
Responds to voice commands Yes Yes
Always listening Yes Yes
Wake word OK, Google Alexa, Echo, or Amazon
Music streaming options Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, others
Smart home partnerships Nest, SmartThings, Philips Hue, IFTTT Nest, Ecobee, SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Lifx, Big Ass Fans, IFTTT, other devices via "skills"
Customizable appearance Yes No
Output to stereo system Yes, via Chromecast No (yes with Amazon Dot)
Synced audio playback to multiple devices Yes, to any Google Cast device No
Personal assistant highlights Search Google, get a personalized daily briefing, check traffic, check your calendar, make a shopping list, check flight status, track a package Add items to calendar, make a shopping list, make a to do list, check flight status, track a package
Other features Cast to your TV with Chromecast, launch and control YouTube via Chromecast Order a pizza, play a game, arrange an Uber pickup. Echo has an ever-growing list of 900+ skills and counting

Entertainment

The Amazon Echo and the Google Home are both always listening due to their built-in microphones that can hear voice input from a moderate distance. The Echo wakes up to the command "Alexa" or you can change the wake word to "Echo." The Home listens for either "Okay Google" or "Hey Google." Both do a fine job of hearing you even across a large room and over moderate background noise. If you turn the volume all the way up on your music, both will understandably have trouble picking your voice out of the racket.

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As speakers, both function well enough for listening to music. Though neither lived up to the standards of CNET's audiophiles. Check out Ty Pendlebury's detailed breakdown of how the Home does vs the Echo as far as sound quality. In short, he recommends that if you're looking strictly for a Bluetooth speaker -- keeping looking.

On the plus side, both offer ways of connecting to your existing sound system. The mini version of the Echo -- the Amazon Echo Dot -- plugs into your speakers. With the Home, you can control any Google Cast enabled speaker or any speaker connected to a Chromecast Audio streamer.

Bonus points for the Home: you can also control your TV if you have a Chromecast video streamer. Currently, you can only use the Home's controls on Youtube, and you have to pull up specific videos by name or a group of videos like "trending" or "popular." Supposedly, the Home will work with Netflix and Google Images soon, so then it'll be more useful. Right now, it's a cool idea that's not that helpful in reality.

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Home's built-in speaker plays music well enough for me, but the sound quality didn't satisfy our audiophiles.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Alexa does have some TV integration as well if you have a Fire TV, but you need to press a button on a specific Fire TV remote, so the always listening the Echo can't help you with your TV yet through first party support. That said, it can go above and beyond what Home can do right now if you have a Logitech Harmony setup, including turning your TV on and off and changing the channel. The Home's integration with Chromecast can't do any of that, but a Chromecast streamer is $35, and a Logitech setup costs hundreds of dollars.

Plus, with the Home, you can group multiple speakers and play one song simultaneously in multiple rooms of your house.

Both the Home and Alexa play games, tell jokes, and respond wittily to movie lines like "I am your father." Alexa's been around for longer, so the Amazon assistant has many more fun extras than Google Home. Alexa can lead you on a choose-your-own-adventure-style Batman game. Alexa's Jeopardy game is also much better than Home's simplistic and over-the-top trivia.

Still, I'm giving this category to the Home because extras aside, the Home's ability to group your speakers and cheaply control your TV makes it wonderfully useful as a whole home entertainer, even if that TV integration isn't all that useful at the moment.

Verdict: Google Home wins entertainment

Personal Assistant

Google Home learns more about you through a variety of Google services -- Google Calendar, Google Keep, and Google Maps, so I expected it to easily beat Alexa in this category. Not only can the Home tell you about the appointments on your calendar, it can tell you about traffic on your way to work in the morning.

Plus, the Home uses Google Assistant to respond to voice commands conversationally. Debuted on the company's new Pixel phones, Google made a big show of the assistant's ability to learn from your questions when the company first showed off Google Home back in May.

In other words, you can ask Google Home "Who plays Luke Skywalker?" Thanks to the Google Assistant, the Home will give you an answer. Then, you can follow that question with "What other movies is he in?" The Home will infer the "he" you're referring to is the actor Mark Hamill and still provide an answer.

The Home doesn't let you change anything on your calendar yet. It also doesn't integrate with Gmail or Google docs. It won't tell you directions or send directions to your phone. And you can make a shopping list that'll show up in Google Keep, but you can't make any other type of list yet or even set reminders. The Home's integration with Google services didn't actually prove all that helpful in my testing, at least not yet.

As for the conversational awareness, it's a neat trick, but the Home only understands limited context for now, and surprisingly, Alexa kept up with the Home on this front. We asked Alexa to tell us the weather. Then, we asked, "How about Friday?" and Alexa understood and responded without needing to hear the word "weather" again.

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The Home understands a little more context, but not much more. Alexa also lets you set reminders and make to do lists. And the clincher -- Alexa has immense third party support and more than 3,000 skills, which are essentially apps for your Echo. Thanks to those skills, and the fact that Alexa keeps up pretty well with Google Home in contextual awareness, it wins the upset victory in this category. Though, once the Home gets a few updates and a few more integrations with other Google services, this category could easily shift to the Home in the future.

Verdict: Amazon Echo wins as a personal assistant

Smart home controller

Speaking of those 3,000 skills, with Alexa's two year head start in building a catalog of compatible smart home devices, and given that Google Home launched with just four -- SmartThings, Nest, Philips Hue, and IFTTT -- I didn't think the Home would be able to keep up with the Amazon Echo in this important category.

An always-listening device makes it much easier for a family to control the smart home. We found that out first hand in the CNET Smart Home, and it's a big part of why Alexa is a central part of our living lab for testing connected gadgets.

We did that before the Home existed, though, and the Home puts up an admirable fight for smart home supremacy. For one, Home responds more flexibly to commands than Alexa. Both the Home and Alexa pull device names from their respective first party apps -- so the Philips Hue app for Philips bulbs. With Alexa, you can create named groups for your devices. With the Home, you can give them nicknames and group them into rooms.

For a bulb called "desk lamp" in the Philips app, Alexa will only respond if you tell it to turn on the "desk lamp." You can create a group for all lights or office lights, then command Alexa to turn off the office lights and it'll work. Without those groups though, Alexa won't respond to any other names for the lamp, including "desk light."

With Google Home, I nicknamed the desk lamp "Lampy," and assigned it to the office. I could then control it by commanding Google to turn on the "desk lamp," "lampy," "desk light," "office light," or "lights." Google doesn't get any extra credit for the "office light" command since assigning the lamp to the room is similar to adding it to a group for Alexa, but I appreciated the Home automatically grouping it with the rest of my lights and helping me out with the difference between "light" and "lamp."

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Google Home fit into our smart home nicely. The changeable bases helped us find the perfect look.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Google's integrations with IFTTT and Philips Hue are also better than Alexa's. With the Home, you can control the colors of your Philips bulbs. You can't do that with Alexa right now. With IFTTT -- the online rule maker that stands for "If This Then That" -- the Home lets you craft fully customizable commands including multiple options for how you might want to say the command. You have to use the word "trigger" to activate a customizable command with Alexa.

For example, with the Home, I was able to create a rule that allowed me to say "I'm leaving," "I'm out," or "Switch Ecobee to away mode." Home would respond to each of these and switch modes for my Ecobee3 thermostat. You can create the same rule with Alexa, but you'd have to say something like "Alexa, trigger Ecobee to away mode."

The Home's flexible phrasing could eventually make it better for the smart home than Alexa, as the other members of your family don't have to memorize as many exact commands to control your devices. For now, Alexa's sheer number of skills keeps it on top of this contest, but Google Home makes the battle much closer than I thought it would be.

Verdict: Amazon Echo wins as a smart home controller

Final count

For now, the Amazon Echo beats the Google Home 2-1 and wins the battle in this exciting new category of devices. Undoubtedly, although this first battle is won, the competition is far from over. The Home will integrate with more smart home platforms, more Google services, and get better and better at understanding context as a conversational assistant. Just don't expect Alexa to sit idly by as Google Home improves.

For consumers, the competition can only be a good thing. Hopefully, the Home pushes Alexa to be more conversational and Alexa pushes the Home to aggressively pursue third party support. With Apple reportedly also developing a similar device, one thing's for sure: the game is on.