How are they different? Google Assistant vs. Amazon Alexa
Last Update: December 2019
So, you have decided to enter the 21st century and make your home a smart home – with lights, doors, temperature, and music all controlled by voice commands. To make this happen, the first thing you’ll need is a smart assistant to control all your smart home devices. The question is, which one?
Experts generally agree that the two best performers in this field are Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. (Note: Apple’s Siri is improving especially with iOS 12’s Siri Shortcuts, but it’s still not quite up to par.) This head-to-head matchup will help you figure out which of these deserves the honor of running your smart home.
What do People use Voice Assistants for?
The top uses are:
- Listening to Music
- Checking weather/traffic
- Checking news
- Looking up facts
- Getting jokes
- Setting reminders, alarms
- Getting local information
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the challengers and their key features. In this corner, Alexa:
- She’s owned by Amazon and runs on all Amazon-owned devices, including Amazon Echo speakers, Kindle Fire tablets, Fire TV, and Echo Auto.
- She’s the only smart assistant that works with Amazon’s proprietary tools, like Kindle books and Amazon Video. She's also an expert at shopping on Amazon.
- Alexa is also included on some third-party devices, including two Acer tablets, phones from HTC and Huawei, Facebook’s Portal smart displays, and sound bars from Sonos and Polk Audio.
- As of fall 2018, she’s compatible with more smart home devices and apps than any other AI.
- She currently knows more than 30,000 tasks – or “skills,” as she calls them – in 23 categories, such as “Communication,” “Lifestyle,” and “Productivity.” To use a skill, you must first “enable” (download) it; some skills are free, while others cost money or include in-app purchases.
- To activate one of Alexa’s skills, say her name, then give her a command. (Warning: this feature can create confusion if there’s someone else in your home named Alexa, or the similar-sounding Alexis.)
- Amazon also provides tools for developers to build and test new Alexa skills and devices. You can take Alexa’s skills for a test drive by visiting io, a website designed for developers, and logging into your Amazon account.
- Alexa’s definitely a “she.” She speaks in a female voice that can’t be changed.
And in this corner, Google Assistant:
- It’s owned by Google and works with all Google and Android devices, including phones, tablets, watches, Google Home speakers, Google watch, Pixel slate, Android TV, and Android Auto.
- It can use Google’s algorithms for searches.
- It works seamlessly across all your Android devices, keeping track of your preferences, playlists, and any smart home devices that are hooked up to it.
- You can also get Google Assistant on your iPhone, some smart displays, and some wearable devices, such as the Fossil Q Venture and Tag Heuer 41.
- Its skills are called “Actions,” and it has over 1 million of them, grouped into 18 broad categories such as “Education & reference,” “Home control,” and “Shopping.” Again, you must download these Actions to use them, and not all Actions work on all devices. CNET notes that the way Google Assistant works on Google Home is “much more limited” than the way it works on phones.”
- To use an Action, say “OK Google” (or “Hey Google” on some devices), then give it a command.
- Like Alexa, Google has some tools for developers. However, the only way to test-drive the Assistant is by setting it up on an Android phone.
- You can make your Google Assistant sound either male or female. You can switch between the two by selecting “More settings > Preferences > Assistant voice.”
Both these AIs are capable of handling basic tasks, like checking the weather, setting a timer, or keeping track of your appointments. But when it comes to the details, there are key differences between them. Let’s take a look at how they compare in six major areas.
Round 1: Finding Information
One thing you’ll probably use your smart assistant for is to answer questions, from “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” to “When is my dental appointment?” Here’s how Alexa and Google do at getting you the info you need:
- General Questions. Both AIs do a good job of answering simple questions. However, reviews at Forbes and WIRED says Google is a little better at understanding your questions; Alexa occasionally gets confused.
- Follow-Up Questions. Google’s also better at answering follow-up questions about the same topic. For instance, if you ask, “What is Madonna’s full name?” and then ask, “What was her first album?” it knows you’re still talking about Madonna. Alexa, in the same situation, will probably need you to spell it out.
- News, Weather, and Sports. With the right commands, both Google and Alexa can give you the weather report, sports, or news headlines. Both of them let you personalize your daily briefing by choosing the news sources you prefer.
- Help with Homework. Both Google and Alexa feature numerous skills in the “Education & reference” section, but Google’s are grouped into subcategories, making it easier to find the one you need to quiz your kids on geography or provide dictionary definitions. With Alexa, you have to know the skill you want or do a search for it.
Round 1 Winner: Google edges out Alexa in this round, thanks to its better use of language.
Round 2: Playing Music
Another common use for a smart assistant is playing the music of your choice on command. Both Google and Alexa give you access to a wide range of music services, but their lists aren’t identical, and neither is the way they access your tunes.
- Common Music Services. Both Google and Alexa can play music from Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn. Alexa can also play iHeartRadio on any device; Google can only do it on Google Home speakers and some smart displays.
- Google-Only Services. Only Google works directly with Google Play Music, YouTube Music, and Deezer. You can still get these services on your phone and then pair it with an Amazon Echo speaker through Bluetooth, but it’s a little more awkward.
- Alexa-Only Services. Alexa can play all the songs in your Amazon Music library, as well as the millions of songs available via Prime Music for Amazon Prime subscribers. You can use Google Assistant to play music from these sources via Chromecast, but only on Android devices.
- Finding Your Tunes. Both Google and Alexa can play you specific songs, playlists, artists, albums, or genres (as in, “Alexa, play jazz”). However, CNET found Google much better at finding a song you can’t remember the name of based on context, as in, “OK Google, play that Shakira song from ‘Zootopia.’” Given this command, Google played the correct song (“Try Everything”), while Alexa offered up either all songs by Shakira or all songs from “Zootopia.”
- Multi-Room Play. Both Google and Alexa can play music on multiple speakers across different rooms. However, WIRED found that speakers with Google Assistant “work better together.”
Round 2 Winner: This one’s too close to call. It really depends on what music services you want to use.
Round 3: Other Entertainment
Playing music isn’t the only way your smart assistant can entertain you. Here’s what else Google and Alexa have to offer:
- If you have a Google Chromecast, your Google Assistant can use it to send video to your TV from nearly any site online. CNET calls this “pretty much the biggest advantage” of choosing a Google smart speaker over an Amazon Echo. Alexa can play video on any Fire TV device, and some third-party services like Dish also come with Alexa controls, but she’s still not as versatile.
- Audio Books. Alexa has the edge here. Amazon owns Audible, probably the largest source of audio books online, and Alexa can play any Audible book in your account and any audio book in your Kindle library. Google can play audio books from Google Play, but it won’t work on iPhones, according to The Verge.
- This one’s a toss-up. Both AIs come with a small assortment of games, and you can add loads more with specific skills or Actions.
- Both Google and Alexa offer a wide array of games, stories, and quizzes for kids.
Round 3 Winner: Another tie. Google is more flexible for video, but Alexa’s better for audio books.
Round 4: Controlling Your Environment
What really makes smart assistants the key to a smart home is the ability to work with other smart devices: light bulbs, door locks, thermostats, and so on. Which AI is better for this?
- Compatible Devices. Sources say Alexa is compatible with a larger number of smart devices than Google Assistant. However, both of them work with popular tools such as Philips Hue smart bulbs, Nest thermostats, Neato robot vacuums, and Samsung SmartThings. If you already own some smart home devices and aren’t sure which AI works with them, you can check the Alexa Skills and Google Assistant
- Controlling Devices. Alexa has a little more versatility, since it lets control your smart home with either your voice or the Alexa app on your phone. However, according to WIRED, she’s prone to "weird syncing issues" when used with third-party devices, a problem that rarely comes up with Google.
- Setting Routines. Both Google and Alexa can set up “routines,” or groups of actions you can perform with a single command. For instance, saying “Bedtime” can turn off the TV, switch off all lights except a night light, and set an alarm for the next morning. However, only Alexa can carry out routines on a schedule – for instance, automatically go into the “bedtime” sequence at 11 pm. On the downside, Alexa can’t include a smart thermostat in her routines, for some reason, so she can’t turn down the heat at bedtime.
- Grouping Commands. Although Google can’t schedule your routines, it’s better at executing multiple commands on the fly. For example, you can say, “OK Google, turn down the lights and play my ‘Mood Music’ playlist.” With Alexa, you’d have to give these commands one at a time.
- If you have an Alexa-compatible car, you can instruct her to lock the doors, turn on the lights, or even start the engine for you. Google Assistant can work in your car through Android Auto, but only for things like navigation or music playing; it can’t control the car itself.
Round 4 Winner: Although Alexa works with more devices, her “weird syncing issues” give this round to Google Assistant.
Round 5: Shopping
Your smart assistant can also help you shop – for food, movie tickets, transportation, and pretty much anything sold online. Here’s how they compare.
- Online Shopping: Because Alexa belongs to Amazon, she can work much more closely with Amazon to help you shop. She can recommend products based on reviews, reorder products you’ve bought before, and track your packages with the command “Alexa, where’s my stuff?” Google Assistant can also track packages from online retailers (including Amazon) on phones, but not on Google Home, and it can’t tell you when something you’ve ordered is out for delivery as Alexa can.
- Alexa offers a much wider array of options for ordering food than Google, including Seamless and Grubhub. She can order a pizza from Pizza Hut, Domino’s, or Papa John’s, while Google has only Pizza Hut, and even tell you when your pizza is on its way.
- Movie Tickets. Both Google and Alexa can check showtimes and order movie tickets through Fandango. However, Alexa’s Fandango app (sorry, “skill”) gets a much lower rating from users than Google’s.
- This one’s a tie. Both Alexa and Google can help you summon an Uber or a Lyft, or find schedules and fares for mass transit.
- One of Alexa’s newest features is the ability to make donations to charities by voice. Currently, she has a list of about 50 charities, including the American Heart Association and Feeding America. Google offers nothing like this right now.
Round 5 Winner: With her Amazon shopping, food ordering, and donating skills, Alexa takes this round.
Round 6: Managing Your Life
Finally, a smart assistant can help you manage everyday tasks. Both Alexa and Google can handle the basics, like alarms, appointment reminders, and to-do lists, but there are differences between them in specific areas.
- Calling and Messaging. Both Google and Alexa can make phone calls or send text messages via voice command. However, Alexa can receive calls only from other Echo speakers, and Google can’t receive calls at all.
- If you have multiple Google Home speakers, you can use them like an intercom, broadcasting a message (such as “Dinnertime!”) to every unit in the house. Alexa can’t do this exactly, but she can “drop in” on a specific Echo device, either in your home or elsewhere. So, for instance, you can say “Drop in on the kids’ room” to tell your kids it’s bedtime, or “Drop in on Mom” at her house for a chat. However, this feature has its downsides, since there’s no way to stop someone else from dropping in on you at an inconvenient time. You can decide who’s allowed to drop in on you, but you can’t turn down a “drop in” call immediately.
- Alexa can find recipes for you using her Food Network and AllRecipes skills, and she can show them to you on a device with a display. However, Google Assistant goes one better by not only finding recipes but also talking you through them, with instructions like “Prepare the ingredients” and “What is the next step?” Food Network can only read out the whole recipe at once, and AllRecipes only reads the first step.
- Health and Fitness. Alexa’s skills in this area include calling for help in an emergency, providing first aid info, leading a workout, or guiding you through meditation. Google’s health and fitness actions include nutrition facts, a symptom checker, and guided workouts. Both Alexa and Google Assistant can work with a Fitbit; Google can also track your exercise using Google Fit on your phone or smartwatch.
Round 6 Winner: This round is a draw yet again. The pros and cons of both AIs pretty much cancel each other out.
Although Google Assistant wins two rounds out of six, the overall fight is so close that there’s no obvious winner. Since both Google and Alexa excel in specific areas, which one is best depends on want to do and, especially, what ecosystem you want to do it in. If you already use an Android phone and other Google-compatible devices, like Chromecast, it makes sense to go with Google Assistant, because it will play nicely with your other tools. Google is aggressive with discounts and bundling, so you can find Google Home Mini smart speakers on sale or cheaper in a bundle all the time.
However, if you’re looking for an assistant that can work with as many different devices as possible – or one that works optimally with Amazon technology – then Alexa is your gal.
If you’re still not sure which one is right for you, try this quiz from CNET. It asks just a few questions about your current setup and your interests, then gives you a recommendation. If you want to find out whether Google or Alexa supports a specific device or offers a particular skill, check on the AI’s site.
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