As the calendar hits the 12th day in our 12 Days of Christmas gift idea list, the winner for the best voice assistant is… (envelope please).
Well, it depends on what you’re doing. Not trying to cop out here, but having used both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant for close to two years, I’ve had the luxury of really getting to know both of them. It’s a tight two-horse race, and they keep getting better month-to-month.
So, to outline my pick for best voice assistant, I’m focusing on what makes each one the best for you.
It’s only been a year since Alexa officially came to Canada with the first group of Amazon Echo devices. Now, you can use it on a wider range of products, including from third-party manufacturers embracing the smart home trend.
Alexa’s reach currently extends from Amazon’s Echo line of devices, along with third-party speakers like the Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Ultimate Ears Blast, Ultimate Ears MegaBlast, Denon AVR-1500H, and Garmin Speak Plus GPS, among others.
The full breadth of what Alexa can do takes time to figure out. There are countless Skills you can engage, ranging from controlling smart home devices, playing music and audio, making phone calls, following recipes, learning about a person, place, or thing—the functionality continues to grow.
What makes it interactive is using it day-to-day. Alexa is designed to be ready to relay information at your beckon call. Based on your location, that can be the weather and traffic report, followed by top news stories. If you have any appointments worth noting, it can throw those in, too. Set alarms, timers, and reminders on a whim.
For me, I like the way I can control one thing, or multiple things at once. If I want to lower, raise, or mute the volume on the Sonos Beam, I just say so. If I create a Routine encompassing various lights and speakers, like “Alexa, I’m playing video games,” everything springs into action.
Granted, that type of experience requires having multiple smart home products at home, but the convenience of seeing it in action is thrilling. I could also say, “Alexa, I’m reading a book,” and the routine could have fireplace sounds or jazz music playing in the background, while a smart light dims or brightens.
Google’s virtual assistant is almost everywhere these days. Unlike in the U.S., where Alexa came to market before Google Home, it was the opposite in Canada. But Google Assistant was already up and running on Android phones and tablets for some time, helping familiarize users to what it could do. It has since rolled out to a number of speakers as well.
I have always found Google Assistant good at weather and traffic updates, and telling me about store hours and locations. If I need to know when a certain store closes, I can just ask my Google Home. I can even ask it to tell me how long it would take to get there. With Voice Match set up, I can say, “Ok Google, send it to my phone,” and that’s it.
It’s that kind of localized integration that I find Google better at than Amazon. I use it often to get updates on weather for the upcoming week and set reminders for things to do day-to-day.
Google Home started out slowly with smart home support, but that’s improved a lot in the last 12 months. The most common one I like to use is shutting off all lights by voice through the Google Home unit in my bedroom before going to sleep. I can tell it to resume a show on Netflix through the Chromecast or Nvidia Shield. Or, I can verbally search for something to play via YouTube.
I also tend to query it (though I also do this with Alexa) about some tidbit of info I need to know. Converting currency, confirming an athlete’s age, wondering about a certain historical figure—these are just a few examples. While it’s true I could do all these things on my phone, doing it verbally does feel pretty liberating.
What I like and don’t like
Alexa is far more prone to false positives than Google’s assistant is. Anything that sounds like “Alexa” can trigger the familiar tone from the speaker telling me it’s listening. It happened less often when calling my Echo device, “Echo,” or “Computer,” but it never fully stopped it.
Despite that, I find Alexa to be more versatile and efficient when controlling smart home products. The number of Skills still dwarfs what Assistant can handle, and with preset routines or schedules, there’s a lot of automation in Amazon’s voice platform. Playing music through Spotify or Amazon Music is really easy, and, for whatever reason, Alexa is still better at knowing the difference between a regular track and a remix version.
Having a speaker read audiobooks is pretty cool, and access to the Kindle and Audible libraries gives Alexa an edge. But Google Play Music isn’t available on Alexa, so using Bluetooth would be the only way to play those tracks—without voice commands. Google Home is in a similar boat, but if you’re a Play Music subscriber, it’s a no-brainer.
It’s interesting because Google Assistant is more conversational. It understands natural language better, whereas Alexa is more particular in how you phrase a command. The various voices and accents from Google also sound more ‘alive’ to me, too. Stringing together two commands at once is easier, whereas Alexa requires a pause between them.
Talking to your voice assistant
Bringing a voice assistant into your home is adding a new voice within your presence. This is, after all, an on-demand situation where the smart speaker waits for you to tell it what you want. These two are very evenly matched right now, so it really depends on what services you use and subscribe to. Not to mention what smart home products you have.
As our 12 Days of Christmas series wraps up, this race is too close to call, but each wins out on specific factors.