Deciding to buy a smart speaker is not a choice that should be made lightly. You’ll be inviting a powerful, data-hungry tech company into your kitchen or living room, and giving it the ability—at least in theory—to listen to everything you say. You’ll have to trust its assurances that it isn’t storing or analyzing your personal conversations—that it only tracks the questions you ask it after addressing it directly by name. This is almost certainly true in most cases. But there’s always a chance that something could go awry, for one reason or another.
Privacy nightmare scenarios aside, there are plenty of good reasons to join the roughly 25 percent of U.S. households that own a smart speaker. Few devices ingratiate themselves so readily into your daily routines. Spend enough time with one, and it becomes hard to do without. You’ll find yourself calling for Alexa or Google in vain, then sighing as you walk over to control your dumb devices the old-fashioned way, by hand. Besides, unless you’re a privacy hawk, chances are you already entrust all kinds of intimate personal data to big tech companies like Google.
But which company’s digital assistant do you want to become a fixture in your kitchen or living room? It’s a hard question because you can’t simply compare hardware specs like you could with cameras, flat-screen TVs, or smartphones. There are some physical differences between the leading smart speakers, sure. But the key distinctions reside in the A.I. software that animates them. And those can be hard to evaluate, unless you’ve lived with each for a while.
Fortunately, there are people who’ve lived with different voice assistants for extended periods of time. I’m one of them. There are also people who’ve rigorously studied their relative ability to successfully handle a wide range of queries. And those studies’ conclusions largely line up with my own observations.
I’ll get into some of the relative advantages of Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa in a moment. But the short version of the story is this: Google’s A.I. is smarter. And while Amazon’s is improving, Google is catching up faster in other features than Alexa is in general intelligence.
I spent about a year with an Amazon Echo, then traded it for a Google Home, to which I later added a Google Home Mini. After a year and a half or so with Google, I returned to Alexa about a month ago, upgrading to the Alexa-powered Sonos One, whose speaker boasts superior sound quality to anything Google or Amazon sells. (For purposes of this comparison, I’m going to omit Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod, Harman Kardon’s Microsoft-infused Invoke, and other also-ran smart speakers from this comparison. That’s both because I haven’t used them extensively, and because the consensus of other reviewers is that they don’t yet stack up to their Google and Amazon rivals.)
The first thing worth emphasizing, for those new to smart speakers, is that both Google Assistant and Alexa are more capable than they first seem. If you’re expecting either of them to understand everything you say, or answer every query you might have, your disappointment will be swift. But the key is to learn their limitations and work within them. Once you figure out a few basic tasks that they can handle with aplomb, you’ll find them useful enough.
A September 2018 study by Adobe Analytics found that most people use smart speakers primarily for just a handful of purposes, such as listening to music (70 percent), checking the weather (64 percent), asking fun questions (53 percent), online search (47 percent), checking the news (46 percent), and setting alarms or reminders (46 percent). Stick to those, and you shouldn’t have much trouble with either Amazon or Google devices. Both also offer a wide range of smart-home controls, an arena in which Amazon had a head start but Google has gained ground.
It’s when you start to branch out—asking questions that just popped into your head, or issuing commands that you aren’t sure whether the software can handle—that differences emerge.
Amazon built its conversational A.I. from the ground up, specifically to handle voice queries on the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Its approach has been to steadily build out Alexa’s capabilities, not just by improving the native software, but by adding “Skills”—specific sets of commands that work with various third parties, from Domino’s to TED Talks to Uber and Lyft. To use a Skill, you have to first know that it exists, and then figure out what commands it accepts.
Amazon has added thousands of Skills, and together, they represent a formidable array of capabilities. But you can’t always just stumble on them, and you could use an Echo for years without ever knowing that most of them exist. That can be disappointing, given that the whole point of a smart speaker is convenience.
In contrast, Google was a leader in A.I. long before it got into the smart speaker game. Its search engine spent years figuring out what people meant when they typed different types of queries. And it developed the Google Assistant for smartphones before it built its smart speaker, the Home.
When Google first rolled out the Home, its Assistant A.I. struggled with some of the basic commands that Alexa had already mastered. But it has improved rapidly in that regard. And from the beginning, the Google Assistant has outperformed its rival when it comes to searching the web, answering questions about the world, or understanding conversational syntax.
Google also has an equivalent of Skills, called Actions. It has far fewer third-party Actions than Alexa has Skills. The advantage is that there’s more that you can do with Google just by asking it direct questions. Ask Google how to cook a hamburger on the stove, and it will not only pick out an appropriate recipe but walk you through it step by step, waiting until you’ve completed each one before advancing to the next. Alexa recommends a quinoa black-bean burger (healthy, but not what I had in mind), then reads you the list of ingredients all at once and offers to send you the recipe on your Alexa app. It’s possible to coax smarter recipe answers from Alexa, but you have to know what Skill to call on.
Ask Google to tell you a children’s story, and it will launch into a short parable courtesy of the kids’ audio story service Storynory. Ask Alexa, and its first thought is to dive into a full-on, lengthy audiobook from Amazon-owned Audible, starting with the title page. You can get Storynory on Alexa, but again, you have to ask for it by name.
In case you were wondering whether my interests just happen to coincide with Google’s strengths: It isn’t just me. In test after test, the Google Assistant answers more questions than Alexa, and answers them more accurately. (Apple’s HomePod tends to lag both.) Separate studies by Stone Temple, Loup Ventures, and Tom’s Guide all ranked Google Assistant on top.
By some measures, Alexa has been catching up. Its improvement has certainly been noticeable from the time I switched to Google in early 2017 and when I switched back last month. For general-knowledge questions it hadn’t been hard-coded to answer, it used to just start reading verbatim from Wikipedia pages. Now it does a better job of picking out the information most relevant to your question—though still not as reliably as Google.
Amazon has also been working hard to allow Alexa to invoke relevant Skills even when the user doesn’t ask for them by name. That’s an important project, and one that could help Amazon close the gap in a hurry.
For now, the biggest differences crop up among the long tail of specialized knowledge questions that you’d expect a search engine to be able to answer, but not necessarily a smart speaker. Both assistants can tell you who was the last Democratic president, how far the sun is from the Earth, or how to remove a stain from a shirt—the kind of questions you might see in an Alexa commercial. But ask the difference between a gabled roof and a hip roof, when apple season ends, or how to rid your basement of spiders, and only Google will answer. Alexa gives a stumped “hmm, I’m not sure,” or, “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
That might not sound like a big deal, and in any given instance, it probably isn’t. Over time, however, I found that our family learned to stop expecting as much of Alexa as we did of Google. We stopped pushing the boundaries, stopped asking complex questions just to see if it could impress us, and stuck to the stuff we knew it could handle. Now, when I want to do something new on Alexa, I often find myself looking up the relevant Skill… on Google.