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“OK, Google, turn on the lamp.” “Hey, Siri, call Mom.” “Alexa, play ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’ on Apple Music.” “Alexa, ask Cortana to read my calendar.”
For the last three weeks, I’ve been testing each of the major home assistant platforms in my home. Let me tell you, keeping all the names straight gets hectic after a while. If you’re not a tech-obsessed early adopter like me, you probably want just one of these ecosystems that works for you. In many ways, the platforms are similar – for instance, they’ll all play your music – but there are areas in which they differentiate themselves. That’s where we can help you decide which one is best for you.
Before we get into how the products were tested, let’s take a look at the contenders.
Smart Assistant Options
When you’re looking at smart voice assistants, the form factors alone can be overwhelming because there are so many choices.
If you were to go with the Amazon Echo ecosystem and its artificial intelligence, Alexa, I count no fewer than 12 options listed in the smart speaker category. And that’s not including the ones with screens. Some have better speakers, and some have hubs built in for certain smart devices that would have previously required communication between the voice assistant and the actual appliance you were trying to control (e.g., a lightbulb, a switch, a TV or anything else). I’m using a first-generation Amazon Echo for testing.
The Google Assistant has a few less form factors than the Echo devices, but there are still many options with both speakers and screens. Going forward, I’ll be referring to the other options as voice-controlled speakers or AI in order to distinguish them from Google Assistant. I used the Google Home Mini for our tests.
Apple lets you control devices and accomplish many different interactions through Siri. In addition to iOS, you can use Apple TV and the company’s HomePod to manage everything from light switches to your entertainment experience. I worked with Siri on my phone.
Finally, there’s Cortana. Cortana comes in just a few devices that haven’t really seen pickup from the mainstream public. However, they’ve done a deal with Amazon recently so that Alexa can benefit from what Cortana is good at. Cortana comes standard on Windows 10 computers and is available on apps for iOS and Android. The Harmon Kardon Invoke does come with Cortana built in. For the purposes of our testing, I worked with Cortana on my computer and Amazon Echo.
- Google Home Mini – $30
- Apple HomePod – $349
- Amazon Echo devices – Echo pictured ($90)
- Harmon Kardon Invoke – $64
One of the big things these devices promise is connected home control. Here are the smart appliances I’m using to make that happen.
I have a smart plug that will turn any device that’s plugged into it into something that can be voice-controlled. I’m including a link to one, but there are lots of companies that offer these. You can also get surge protectors and power strips to turn multiple devices on at once. Just make sure your smart plug will work with whatever ecosystem you choose.
I also have a dimmable smart lightbulb from LIFX. This is in my fan and appealed to me because it’s meant to connect with all four assistants.
My favorite device I’ve purchased for my bedroom of the future so far is the Logitech Harmony Hub, which is compatible with Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices. It gives me voice control of my television and everything hooked into it.
Some devices play nicely with others. Alexa will work with the Fire TV Stick but not the Google Chromecast, and vice versa. You should make sure to get the streaming stick that will work best with your individual setup.
- Logitech Harmony Hub – $70
- Amazon Fire TV Stick – $40
- LIFX Mini White (A19) Wi-Fi Smart LED Light Bulb – $25
- Google Chromecast – $35
- Etekcity WiFi Smart Plug – $10
Now it’s time to talk about how these were tested. Your mileage will vary depending on how you want to use your device, so let me give you a little background on how I use mine.
I have cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia, and I use a power wheelchair to get around. I had the Amazon Echo prior to getting this assignment. My mother also has an Echo Dot in her room. Because I have no mobility once I get in bed at night, I’m able to use the two Echoes as an intercom system if I need to call her. I can also control my bedroom lights and a voice-activated radio. When I’m not sleeping, I have voice control of my TV and media setup.
For this test, I wanted to see just how much I could get done with voice alone if I pretended I wasn’t getting out of bed today.
The Echo and the Google Home Mini both recognize your voice from fairly far off. Because I was using my Echo to test Cortana, that assistant also benefited from the same microphones. I’ve activated Siri using voice on my phone from the bed, and the range seems fine.
I should note that I have a bit of a speech impediment associated with the cerebral palsy. The Google Home and Amazon Echo devices were both able to understand me 90% of the time, and I had the same level of success with Cortana.
The one I had trouble with was Siri. I had to have someone who could hold the phone to their mouth complete some of the testing, because at one point I asked Siri to tell me a joke, and it called my cousin. It worked well enough for someone without a speech impediment, but it’s something to be aware of. I can search things within the Google app with my voice, and the app gives me near-perfect recognition with the same phone at the same distance. For most people, Siri’s fine, but this issue is worth noting.
How Often Do They Do What You Actually Want?
Assuming everything else is equal and what you say is understood, how often do smart assistants actually do what you want? Your experience may differ, but here’s mine.
One thing to note about all these systems is that they respond to very specific syntax. We’re still in the early stages, but they often work – as long as you know the right thing to say. When you connect a service to the device, they often give you pointers on how to use the voice control.
If Siri understands me, it gets the job done about 70% of the time. Google Home and Amazon Echo both worked for me about 85% of the time. I find Cortana a bit lacking, though. I connected it to Spotify and tried multiple queries, but each time, it told me it couldn’t play music right now. This is also consistent with my other tests.
Home Device Control
As for home devices, I was looking to control a smart outlet hooked up to a lamp, one smart lightbulb and my entertainment system, which includes my TV, cable box and Fire TV Stick.
I found that if the device said it could be controlled by a specific AI, it did work the vast majority of the time, including with Cortana.
On those occasions when it didn’t work, I found that the device wouldn’t work with any of its supported voice assistants. That tells me it was an issue with the device or connectivity rather than a problem with the AI itself. It’s important to note that each of these devices requires a constant Wi-Fi connection and any drop-off can have an effect. They usually work if you wait a few minutes.
On the Echo and Google Home, you can set up routines, so when you say trigger words, it will perform a series of actions, including turning on or off multiple devices, reading the weather and the news, and playing specific media. Location-based routines can also be set up directly through Alexa so that when you leave or come back home, it’ll execute them. You can set up the same thing on Google Home through If This, Then That (IFTTT). Automated routines on Siri require either the HomePod or the latest Apple TV.
Supported Skills, Actions and Extensions
The Echo has been around the longest and has the most built-in developer support. I can use it to do everything from controlling my TV to playing “Jeopardy!” (nerd alert).
Siri theoretically has the most capability built in if you use an iPhone, and the same can be said of Google Assistant if you’re on Android.
IFTTT greatly extends the actions available for Google Home, which makes it my favorite productivity device (more on this later). It doesn’t quite have the same extensive media-playing library the Echo does, though.
Unfortunately, a lack of developer support really hurts Cortana.
As far as search, many of these devices are similar. I asked each assistant a standard set of search questions, ranging from directions and restaurant recommendations all the way to, “What is the Federal Funds Rate?” I’m a mortgage nerd, after all.
They all did well on the general information questions, traffic and restaurant recommendations, and I did notice they pulled from similar sources. When it came to the Federal Funds Rate, Cortana and Siri had a preference for Wikipedia definitions while Alexa and the Google Assistant gave me either the actual rate or a definition, depending on the phrasing of the question.
All of these devices will read your email, but only Cortana claims to be able to email back based on your dictation. I tried this several times and could never get it to work, but maybe that’s related to my Google account, as I had some other issues as well.
In terms of the calendar, they all read it. However, they read only my personal calendar and wouldn’t read any of the special sports calendars I have tied to my Google and Outlook accounts.
I’m an occasional insomniac, and my creativity often hits when I’m lying there at night, so the absolute coolest thing I was able to do is use IFTTT and my Home Mini to add to a specific Google doc when I say the trigger phrase, “Add novel note.” That’s totally magical and makes the Mini a productivity game changer – for me, anyway.
You do often have to use very specific phrasing, so there will be times when these devices frustrate the heck out of you even as they provide so much utility. For that reason, the ability to have more lighthearted interactions sometimes takes the edge off.
I asked a few questions to get at the personality developed by the programmers, ranging from whom the AI’s role model might be to whom they would like to date (each device except Google Assistant passed on that one).
I think Google’s programmers had the most fun: Google Assistant said it would like to date an automatic paper towel dispenser because they’re so helpful. “Star Wars” must’ve tested well across the board for these companies, as those references came up many times in pop culture questions. All of the devices tell what I would consider to be dad jokes, but I think Siri is the best comedian. Cortana didn’t do well here, since it’s reliant on Wikipedia for many things.
Which of these assistants is right for you? They all have their strengths, but hopefully this article has helped you come a little bit closer to figuring it out. Let us know in the comments the coolest thing you’ve been able to do with these devices. Which do you prefer, and why?
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