Smart home control is a two-horse race at the moment, with both Google and Amazon bringing voice-activated digital assistants into Aussie homes.
Google Home is available officially in Australia and although its main rival, the Amazon Echo, isn't yet available Down Under, you can buy it overseas and use it here.
So, which smart speaker is the best hands-free digital assistant for your home? We reviewed both the Google Home smart speaker and the US version of the Amazon Echo to give you a idea of what you can expect from each.
How they work
Start an enquiry with Google Home by saying "OK Google". For the Echo it's simply "Alexa…" (though you can change this 'wake word' to 'Amazon', 'Echo' or simply 'Computer').
What they can do
Both the Google Home and the Amazon Echo perform similar functions, giving you news or a breakdown of your day's schedule, providing a local weather forecast or news summary, giving directions and playing music from your library or subscription services. They can also control smart devices such as Wi-Fi, lights and switches (but check for compatibility before buying new devices).
If you're used to using Siri or OK Google on your phone, these devices will fit right in at home as they have similar abilities.
Because the Echo unit we tested was from the US, it was more limited in what it could do. For example, music was restricted because Amazon's subscription music service isn't available here yet. Likewise, its knowledge of local businesses was lacking. If we asked Google whether a store nearby was open, it would tell us. If we asked Amazon, it would tell us to look at the Echo app for more information.
We found Google Home good for music, but a little cumbersome. Straight out of the box, we couldn't play any of the music we had purchased through Google Play Music or had uploaded ourselves. We had to enable a subscription to YouTube Red/Google Play Music. You get a six-month trial free with the Google Home.
A plus for Amazon Echo is that it let us play music in our library straight away, without needing a music subscription. Another plus is that the Echo could read our Kindle books aloud, and it supports Audible audio books. Internet radio stations can be accessed on both devices if you enable the appropriate services, such as TuneIn and IHeartRadio.
Both the Google Home and Amazon Echo are capable speakers. They can both play music from your phone or laptop using Bluetooth. The Amazon Echo also works the other way: you can play music from the Echo to a Bluetooth speaker.
Google Home has an advantage in video. You can tell it to show content from YouTube and Netflix on a Chromecast device. Likewise, you can play music to a Chromecast Audio device, which opens up more avenues for listening on high-end stereos.
Google Home can do a lot more straight out of the box. Ask it to translate phrases, play games, search the web – you can try pretty much anything you would ask of Google's web search. It seems to read out the first paragraph of the first search result it finds.
Echo needs Skills to be enabled to do more things, such as translation. Skills are like apps that you search for in a store and they're used to enable different services. For example, you have to install Skills to control smart devices. You can also install Skills for other services such as Fitbit or anything else you present in the store. That said, there is more scope for Alexa to be a tailored information solution for specific subjects, whereas Google just relies on its search engine (which is still excellent).
The real potential of smart speakers is that they can act as a smart hub for controlling home automation devices. Both Google Home and Amazon Echo can control smart devices from Philips, Osram, LIFX, Belkin, TP-Link and many others.
Amazon Echo shone in this area, as it was able to control devices more quickly and more reliably than Google Home, which had more time lag when switching devices on and off. In particular, Wi-Fi-enabled LED smart lights from LIFX seemed to not work as reliably with Google Home as with the Echo.
Making yourself understood
Talking to both devices was easy, but gets easier the more you do it, as you learn how to structure your commands. They can both hear you easily from across the room, unless they are nearer to a sound source such as a speaker or TV. They can hear commands over music, but this is more hit or miss depending on where your voice is coming from in relation to the music.
Privacy and security
As with all smart services that transmit data, caution is advised for any sensitive information that might be picked up by either device.
The smart speakers can't be used for making calls or sending messages yet, but that will surely come once privacy and security are sorted out. For example, in the US, Amazon Echo devices can be used to communicate with other Echo devices, meaning, if your friends have one, you can call them through the Echo to have a conversation.
It's still early days for smart speakers, especially in Australia, but both systems seem destined to grow to provide multiple-room audio and control through other networked devices. Meanwhile, they'll no doubt face stiff competition from Apple's HomePod and other players as they enter the fast-growing DIY smart home arena.
Apple HomePod coming soon
The dark horse challenger, Apple's HomePod, is warming up in the back paddock. Though not due for release till December, Apple's upcoming smart speaker promises to bring Siri-powered smarts and high-fidelity sound. Meanwhile, Google Home and Amazon Echo have a good lead in the marketplace.