Amazon Echo (2nd-gen) full review
There are two clear leaders in the smart speaker field: Google Home and Amazon Echo, with the latter taking the lead on sales. But that could be about to change, as Google has dropped its pricing to match Amazon's - both are now available for £89/$99.
At their core they are the same thing: speakers with built-in virtual assistants that can do everything from telling you about your day to answering random questions, streaming music and controlling your smart-home tech. But it is this very voice that also differentiates the pair.
While Google Home builds in the Google Assistant, Amazon Echo builds in Alexa. Google Assistant is arguably by far the smarter of the two, and interaction with Google's Assistant feels much more natural. We'd argue it also has a better sense of humour.
Ad agency 360i found Google Home six times more likely to correctly answer the 3000 questions it fired at both speakers, but reports that while Google Home offers better general search capabilities the Echo is particularly hot on retail search.
Echo, meanwhile, has a lower price, a huge potential customer base of Amazon Prime subscribers, a strong database of 'Skills', and a much larger market share (in large part due to having no competition for the first year). If you are an Amazon Prime customer Echo makes sense; if you're not, there's Google Home, which also ties in with all Google's other online services that you most certainly already use.
That doesn't mean Amazon Prime customers can't also buy a Google Home, and it doesn't mean you need to be a Prime customer to use an Echo - you'll just miss out on a few features such as Amazon Music. (Amazon Prime has a lot of benefits in return for a reasonably low monthly premium, and you can enjoy a month's free trial to help you decide.)
If you want to spend less still, there's also a smaller cut-down version of each which we've also compared: Google Home Mini vs Amazon Echo Dot.
The smaller versions have the same functionality, but inferior audio quality (thanks to smaller speakers) and fewer touch controls. If you're not sure about the whole smart speaker concept, these devices offer a lower-cost entry point in which to dip your toes.
Google has done a great job designing Home to blend into any environment. It’s a reasonably compact device that stands just 142.8mm high and weighs 477g. It has an angled white matte plastic top half and a coloured mesh base that conceals the speaker.
Fabric bases are available in Mango, Marine and Violet, and metal bases in Carbon, Copper and Snow.
That ability to customise the design has also been brought in for the second-generation Echo, for which you can plump for fabric, metal-effect and wooden options.
The new Amazon Echo is much better looking than the original, with a less industrial look and a shorter cylindrical design.
Amazon has replaced the volume ring at the top with dedicated buttons for volume up and down, which is more akin to the Google Home Mini's design. The Google Home itself has a touch-sensitive top surface on which you can draw a circular motion with your finger to adjust the volume.
On top of the Amazon Echo you'll find seven small holes, each of which signifies a separate beam-forming and noise-cancelling mic. By comparison the Google Home has just two mics, which should mean the Echo does a better job of picking up your instructions in a noisy environment. In practice we find issue with the Google Home only when it's streaming audio at max volume.
The ability to connect external speakers via Bluetooth was added to Google Home after launch, and it's built right into the Echo 2. The new Echo also has an AUX port for making a physical connection between the two.
While many aspects of the new Echo have been improved, the new 2.5in speaker and small tweeter actually offers inferior sound quality to the original. It's not as crisp and lacks bass, which is fine for listening to podcasts and news briefings, but the difference is notable when streaming audio.
Google Home, by comparison, has a 2in driver and twin 2in passive radiators. It's reasonably powerful and offers good audio quality for what it is, but is best placed as a kitchen radio.
Both devices tie into music-subscription services - Google Home supports Google Play Music and Spotify (including the free version) and Deezer (if you subscribe), while Echo does Amazon Music and Spotify. And you can stream live radio via TuneIn.
Multiroom audio, available on each, offers a great way to fill your home with audio when you have more than one device.
What can Google Home and Amazon Echo do?
Google Home and Amazon Echo do much the same thing in terms of answering your questions, controlling your smart home tech and streaming audio. But the Google Assistant is the much smarter of the two, allowing more natural conversation threads and understanding most questions you might want to ask it. By comparison Echo's Alexa will often tell you it doesn't know that one.
Google also has the huge advantage of its existing ecosystem: Gmail, calendar, maps, Android and other services. Once signed into your Google account, you can do things such as add doctor’s appointments to a certain calendar, check traffic on your commute and find out which meetings you have that day.
Google Home can also talk to Google’s other gadgets including the Chromecast, Chromecast Audio and also any speakers which support Google Cast, such as those from Sony and LG. Using a Chromecast, you can say to Google Home “show me pictures from my holiday to Spain” and it will tap into Google Photos and display them on your TV. You could also ask for a certain video from YouTube, or a show on Netflix.
As with Amazon's Fire tablets, you won't find any Google services on the Echo.
Amazon takes the lead when it comes to integration with services and your existing smart home kit. It's usually possible to tie in services with Google Home using third-party IFTTT when that integration isn't already set up, but the simple fact that the Echo has been around since 2014 means developers have had plenty of time to make their apps and hardware work with Alexa.
Alexa has a vast collection of these integrations, known as Skills, which on the whole is useful. However, we can't help feeling that a large number of these Skills are things you will never use - such as the ability to make animal sounds, for example - and that it's annoying to have to add each Skill and then remember the exact command. Google Home will more often than not answer these same questions without any prior setup and without having to phrase things in a certain way.