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Thinking of Buying a Smart Speaker? Here’s What You Need to Know

We take in-depth looks at both Google Home and Amazon Echo

Ashwin Rajagopalan Jul 31, 2018
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There was one point at the Google I/O 2018 – Google’s annual developer conference – which saw the audience erupt in applause. Sundar Pichai introduced an all-new Google Assistant and showed off a new skill. Assistant called a hair salon to make an appointment in response to an instruction from Pichai, and the salon employee couldn’t tell that she was in a conversation with a bot.

This was no robotic voice, but one that managed to pose as a real person. Assistant promptly updated the calendar once the salon confirmed the appointment. Pulling off the voice act was only part of the trick – Assistant also needed to stay in the conversation by understanding what the salon executive said. Google calls this Duplex but hasn’t confirmed when this will be available on your Smartphone. Google needs all the tricks in the book for another battle that has been brewing; India is the latest frontier for this slugfest – the smart speaker segment.

It was Amazon that fired the opening salvo in India in October 2017, with the launch of Echo, which was driven by Alexa, its digital assistant. Google Home arrived almost six months later. Apple’s Home Pod hasn’t confirmed its India launch date, leaving the Echo and Google Home to create the buzz for this category. We put these two speakers head to head.

Design

Google Home wins this round, with a distinct form factor that borders on Scandinavian minimalism. It’s only available in a pleasing chalk color now – a funkier coral shade is still on the way. This one is more likely to be a conversation starter in your living room than the more sedate Amazon Echo, which can pass off for a conventional Bluetooth speaker. The Echo comes in three sizes/variants – the diminutive Dot, the Echo and the Echo Plus, the biggest member of the family. We’d recommend the Echo, which sits in between these two variants. Google offers two options. There are the Google Home Mini and the one we checked out – Google Home.

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Set up and sound

With intuitive companion apps (that hook up via WiFi) and a simple installation process, set up on both speakers is a breeze. Both depend on an ‘always on’ mode to get stuff done; you will need to have them plugged into a power source. You can’t cart them around like a truly portable Bluetooth speaker. When it comes to sound, you’d expect your smart speaker to offer stellar output and also have great ‘listening’ skills. Amazon has equipped the Echo with its beam-forming technology, which teams up with seven built-in microphones. Echo can hear you from quite a distance, despite external sounds and interference. Of course, you need to fire it up with a ‘Hey Alexa.’ The Echo’s sound output, with its 360-degree omni-directional sound, is terrific too. Google Home is no slouch in this department, delivering great sound and listening skills. While you can connect Echo to your favorite speaker (through an ‘Aux out’ slot), you can’t do that with the Google Home. You can use Chromecast to pair other devices (like your smart TV) with your Google Home, though.

The stuff that matters

This is a new category, and ‘getting stuff done’ is the key proposition for both Echo and Google Home. Amazon cleverly positioned Alexa as an indispensable family member. Alexa seemingly has an answer for every question, from the weather to trivia. Google Home brings heaps of search data to the party and can ace almost any Pop Quiz. Google’s deep integration with Maps can also help Google Home estimate travel times for your appointments – yes, it can scan your Google Calendar for a quick update on your day. But it doesn’t always deliver on integration with Google’s long list of services. For instance, it can’t read your latest emails from your Gmail account.

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Amazon’s head starts over Google ensures it has the edge on third-party services. You can order a burger on Zomato, or book your ride on Ola. This space is fast evolving, though, and it’s only a matter of time before Google augments its third-party tie-ups in India. There’s one thing that both speakers do extremely well – take requests. Think of your smart speaker as your personal jukebox. Just ask for a song, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear it. They’ve both tied up with Indian platforms like Saavn, so whether you’re in the mood for grunge or ghazals, you’re sorted.

Smart things

It’s clear that both these smart speakers can stay in conversations and also connect with the outside world to get stuff done for you. The other thing that will define this category is how Echo and Google Home will integrate into the smart, connected home of the future. We are already seeing the first snippets of this future. I could alter the brightness settings of my lamp with voice commands via my Google Home device. The device syncs with Philips’ Hue smart lights; this is one of many global partnerships that both Google and Amazon have stitched together.

Bottom line

It’s early days and both these speakers are still acquiring new skills, but they still do enough for you to take the plunge. From answering queries to playing my favorite songs to ordering a cab while I was still in the shower, these speakers have demonstrated value – enough value to give them a shot if you’re one of those consumers who like to be a first mover.

The Google Home Mini costs Rs 3,499, while Google Home costs Rs 9,999. Amazon’s Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Plus cost Rs 3,499, 7,999 and 14,999 respectively.

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