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Smart Home

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo Show: Should you buy a smart speaker or a smart display?

Ahead of Google I/O next week, it's worth asking which of these two smart assistant devices fits better at the center of your home.

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Should you start your smart home with a Google Home Hub or a Google Home Mini? 

James Martin/CNET

Should you buy an Amazon Echo smart speaker or an Amazon Echo Show smart display? Or if you prefer the Google Assistant, should you grab a Google Home Mini or a Google Home Hub? This question might become more complicated next week depending on what comes out of Google I/O, the search giant's annual developer event, but for now, every device I've mentioned has its own merits. You might even find enough use for Alexa or Google Assistant to justify splurging on both a smart speaker and smart display. But if you only want one piece of dedicated voice assistant hardware, which one do you pick?

Comparing smart speakers to smart displays categorically might seems like judging apples against oranges: both serve a lot of the same purposes. They both can play music, search the web, and help you organize your day, and they can also both act as a central control point for your smart home.

The Amazon Echo helped popularize the concept of a voice-activated smart speaker. Smart displays like the Google Home Hub add a touchscreen to the formula. They still respond to the same voice commands, but they show extra info when you ask about the weather, search for a restaurant or check your calendar. You can also use the screen to watch videos, control your smart home and make video calls.

In general, smart displays can do everything smart speakers can do and more, but smart speakers cost less and respond to all of the same voice commands. Picking the right one comes down to how much use you'll get out of the screen.

Your options

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Your smart speaker options include the Amazon Echo Dot and the Amazon Echo Plus.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Smart speakers -- Since the Amazon Echo exploded onto the scene in 2014, the smart speaker category has gained numerous options from a variety of companies. Here, I'll focus on the ones made by Amazon -- the company that popularized the category -- and Google -- Amazon's main competitor in the space.

Special mention goes to the Apple HomePod if you're invested in Apple's HomeKit smart home and the Sonos One as a smart speaker with particularly good sound quality.

  • The Amazon Echo -- The $100 smart speaker that started the trend is now on its second iteration. It still offers all of the same Alexa smarts and it balances size and sound quality well.
  • The Google Home -- Google's $130 original smart speaker also strikes a solid balance of size and sound quality. You can swap out different bases for an extra splash of color.
  • The Amazon Echo Dot -- The Dot also helped to popularize the category as it offered all of the same Alexa capabilities in a small and affordable $50 package. The current third iteration features a softer, fabric exterior.
  • The Google Home Mini -- Google's version of the Dot sells for the same $50 price and comes in a variety of colors. It's compact but sounds surprisingly good for its size.
  • The Amazon Echo Plus -- The Echo Plus adds a Zigbee radio to the mix so you can use your smart speaker as a hub for a variety of smart home sensors. The current second gen Plus is a little pricey at $150, but has a soft fabric exterior and all of the same Alexa features as the rest in addition to the Zigbee radio.
  • The Google Home Max -- The most expensive first party smart speaker, the $400 Google Home Max offers premium, booming sound quality to go along with the normal tricks of Google Assistant.

Smart displays -- Amazon again gets credit for popularizing the category, this time with the Amazon Echo Show back in 2017. The first Echo Show wasn't great -- it looked like an old-fashioned TV and the touchscreen wasn't that useful, but it paved the way for the great devices we have now.

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The second Amazon Echo Show made a lot of important improvements to the original.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • The Amazon Echo Show -- The second generation $230 Echo Show is much better than the first. It looks more polished, has two full web browsers built in, and makes better use of the screen with new touch controls for smart home devices and better help on recipes. Like the old Show, it has a 10-inch screen and a camera for video calls.
  • The Google Home Hub -- Google's answer to the Echo Show is much smaller with only a 7-inch screen and has a fabric back with multiple color options. The $150 Home Hub does away with the camera entirely and replaces it with an adaptive light sensor. Set family pics as your screensaver, and the Home Hub will adapt the brightness and warmth to match the room and make them look like physical photos in a frame. You can also watch YouTube videos, control your smart home devices with a touch and walk through recipes with step-by-step guides.
  • The Lenovo Smart Display -- I'm including third party options in this list because there aren't as many. Also, the Lenovo Smart Display is really good. Lenovo offers an option with a 10-inch screen for $250 or an 8-inch version for $200. Both have cameras and otherwise offer all of the same features as the Home Hub, and the 10-inch model has a particularly striking bamboo back.
  • The JBL Link View -- Another smart display with Google Assistant built in, the $250 JBL Link View has an 8-inch screen and the same mix of features as the other options with Google. It stands out with the best sound quality of the bunch.

Other options include the $300 LG WK9, which also uses Google Assistant, but costs too much and doesn't stand out from the crowd. Facebook also has the $200 Portal and the $350 Portal Plus. Both have some smarts thanks to Alexa, but are meant more as video chatting devices and the touchscreen isn't as well rounded as those above.

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Reasons to pick a smart speaker

  1. Price. The $50 Amazon Echo Dot responds to the same voice commands as the $230 Amazon Echo Show. If you don't know how much you're going to use your new smart gadget, an affordable smart speaker is a better entry point.

  2. You don't need another screen. You already have a phone and a TV. A smart speaker provides the unique angle of always-listening help. With smart displays, you're paying more to see info you can easily see on other smarter devices.

  3. Likely a longer shelf life. A first generation Echo Dot still responds to all of the same voice commands as the latest model. Yes, the latest Echo Dot looks better, but when you're talking about a small black hockey puck on the corner of your shelf, that matters less compared to a screen taking up prominent space on your kitchen counter. Smart displays as a whole have taken a strong stance on design, which might mean that same design becomes outdated more quickly, and the touchscreen could easily be left in the dust by future, more advanced models. Smart speakers keep it simple, so your investment is safer.

  4. No camera, no pictures. Other than the Google Home Hub, most smart displays have a camera. Every smart display can pull up a feed from a security camera and browse through personal photos. For those concerned about privacy, a smart speaker might be a better fit. Note that you can elect not to show personal photos on smart displays, and you can opt out of showing personal information on the screen at all, but if you'd rather not even bother, a smart speaker removes the option for you.

Reasons to pick a smart display

  1. Pictures and videos. While price is the most obvious advantage of smart speakers, using a screen to look at stuff is a pretty obvious win for smart displays. Both Amazon and Google can scroll through family photos. You can see pictures of restaurants when you're searching for a place to eat. You can search YouTube videos by voice with Google's displays or pull them up in a browser on the Echo Show. A smart display can't replace your home's main TV, but pulling up a quick video while you cook is a nice feature.

  2. Cooking help. Both Alexa and Google Assistant use their respective screens to great effect in the kitchen. Smart speakers can read out the steps of a recipe, but smart displays keep the list front and center after they read it out. The Echo Show lets you multitask and watch videos or play music, then hop back to where you left off. The Home Hub and others with Google Assistant do that too, plus they keep the ingredient list on the side for your reference. If you need help on a step, just ask, and the Home Hub will find relevant instructions or a YouTube video.

  3. Smart home touch controls. Smart speakers helped usher the smart home into the mainstream. You no longer had to manage multiple accounts on the smart phones of every family member just so your household could control the lights. You could simply say what you wanted to a central speaker. Smart displays are the next evolution of this centralization. Both Alexa and Google Assistant-powered smart displays can show you a list of devices, and Google even organizes them by room. You can control your devices with a touch and get a handy overview. Your significant other now doesn't need to remember what you set up and what you named each device, they can just check the smart display.

Which one to pick?

While I prefer smart displays, some of my coworkers would much rather have a smart speaker. I like having a visual reference for what I'm doing, and the smart home control panel makes a big difference if you have a lot of connected devices. If you're just getting started, the smart speaker is a better choice, and it's a better choice if the extra screen would be distracting to you or get in the way. You could also go with a smart speaker if you want to save money, but I'd call the usefulness of the screen well worth the premium.