Living with two AIs / by Mike Hudack

We have been living with Alexa since it came out. We have three Echos: one in the kitchen, one in our bedroom and one in our living room.

Over time our house has gradually gotten smarter, and Alexa has become more useful. We’ve gone from just using the flash briefing and occasional music streaming to using her to control our kitchen lights and the temperature in various rooms around the house using Tado smart thermostats and radiator valves.

For a while I was the exclusive user of Alexa in our house, but over time Caroline started using her more and more. Her use of Alexa was accelerated massively when Amazon formally launched Echo in the UK and an English localization became available. Alexa suddenly understood Caroline’s mid-Atlantic accent better than before. The BBC led our flash briefing. Usage soared.

Then, on a recent trip to New York, I picked up two Google Homes. I put one in the kitchen and one in our dressing room.

We don’t use Alexa anymore. If you’d like an Echo, we’ve got one to sell you. Three, in fact.

Most reviews claim that Google Home and Echo are roughly equivalent, and that at the moment Echo is marginally better. We have not found this to be the case in our house.

Google Home’s lack of “Skills” — the little voice applets that populate Amazon’s Alexa app store — is more than made up for by support for SpotifyPhilips HueSamsung Smarthings and IFTTT.

The IFTT integration is particularly sick: it allows you to hijack any phrase and use it to trigger an IFTTT recipe. You can even pass variables, so you can say things like “Make the bedroom 20 degrees,” and pass the values “bedroom” and “20” on to whatever heating system you’re using which is also IFTTT-compatible. It feels like magic, and it’s instant. It beats the hell out of developing a custom Alexa skill with Lambda “in under an hour.”

The Spotify integration is also excellent. “Hey Google, play music” starts playing your Discover Weekly. You can ask for any of your Spotify playlists. You can say “Play Willie Nelson” or “Play the Goldberg Variations” and it just works. Alexa routinely plays the wrong music and forces you to be very specific: “Play the album The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould.” Google needs no such specificity. You can talk about music with it like you would a friend.

Google Home is aware, unlike Echo, that your home probably has multiple rooms. You can ask it to “Play The Goldberg Variations in the bedroom.” Better yet, if you’ve got a Chromecast hooked up to your stereo, you can say “Play the Goldberg Variations on the stereo.” It just works.

And this is another key difference between Google Home and Echo. Alexa makes you feel like you’re typing at a command line. Your syntax must be perfect. Google Home is forgiving, and seems to legitimately get better at understanding you over time. “Hey, Google, what’s my day look like?” works. You’ll be told what the weather’s like, what your first meeting is, how long your commute will take and then Google will start your news report. Bam.

Alexa feels like a novelty that offers a glimpse of the future.

Google Home feels like the future. We actually use it. Often. It’ll even translate for you. “Hey, Google, how do you say ‘I don’t speak French’ in French?”

Google wasn’t kidding when they said that they were behind in releasing a home product but that their AI was much more sophisticated than anyone else’s and that they’d quickly catch up. This race is now Google’s to lose. And it’s making me want to get a Pixel.

Apple and Amazon have their work cut out for them. If you can’t even get AirPods to work as your ubiquitous interface to your sub-par AI then you’re really going to have a hard time competing against something as fantastically good as Google Home.

[The Alexa/Echo, Assistant/Home thing is weird, and so I’ve tried to write around it.]