5 January 2018

Echo Dot vs Google Home Mini - a UK perspective

Well things are not going quite as badly as expected. Somehow I managed to find more work, again within the tech/education sector which means I'm still playing with tech. This year I managed to pick up these two for £34 each during the black-Friday & boxing day sales so which is the best?

Neither!

That's the short answer. Which system you go for (if not both) might be decided after reading this article though and it's likely to depend on what other online services you use rather than the hardware itself.

You can find out from watching Youtube that both can do some basic tasks like setting timers, reminders and answering questions. Both mini speakers are of comparable size and both require a wi-fi connection and the installation of an app on your mobile phone to initially set-up the device.

Amazon's dot has very visible buttons on the top of the unit to increase/decrease the volume, turn the mic off and manually trigger the Alexa voice agent. The Google home has a button underneath by the power socket to turn the mic off and there are two buttons at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock to control the volume (or pause your music if you press them together). I personally find the Amazon buttons easier to use as it's not always obvious where they are on the Google home if it's sitting on a desk and at a slight angle so that's 1-0 to Alexa for manual controls.

As for sound quality, I prefer the Google mini which has a richer sound to it when playing music. Both can be streamed to from Deezer which brings us nicely onto the subject of music. The Google mini can be streamed to from a FREE spotify account while Alexa tells you that requires a premium subscription so that's a Google win (1-1). Rather oddly though if you ask Google to play something from Youtube it says 'Sorry, Youtube music isn't available in your country'. This is crazy since if you have the Google assistant app on your phone it's more than happy to play Youtube videos - so if you have an old phone with a speaker jack you might prefer to explore this option given the rich content of Youtube.

If you're big on Amazon, you can always consider Amazon 'My Music' or 'Music unlimited' (which I think is also known as Prime music). Other services I've seen listed are tune-in (streaming radio) and Pandora music which also doesn't seem to work in the UK. So the best way for me to get music on the echo dot is to stream to it from another app. Googles ability to stream the free version of Spotify makes it the clear winner in the music category. Deezer currently gives you 15 days to try out it's premium service and then will presumably drop you to a lesser, more advert-intense version. I was able to stream Deezer to both devices with minimal hassle.

So with both systems scoring equal, it currently looks like Google mini is the better system for music if you're not prepared to splash out on a subscription. Lets go next level though and look at consumption in general.

This is where my original statement about other online services could make your decision easier. The Echo dot can be extended with add-on apps (known as 'skills') which Echo fans will be very eager to tell you all about. From our perspective, the most useful of these is the Ocado skill which allows you to add items directly to your weekly shop. Google's mini will allow you to add items to an online list but then you're going to have to do your shop in the normal way on your PC or tablet. If you use Ocado this may well be the unique selling point as it's a real time saver. I would expect Ocado are already working on a Google version and I would be surprised if Google's devs weren't giving them every assistance with this.

Of course the Echo is geared up towards making buying things from Amazon very easy, although there are probably other people like me who prefer to have these systems safely linked to a new household account which has no linked payment options. So extensions to make life easier gives Amazon's Echo dot a 2-1 lead which I will freely admit is mainly down to giving the whole household the ability to quickly add something to the weekly Ocado shop.

Googles devs seem to be quite clued-up though. Having looked through the other skills on Amazon, a lot of them are for games and things like relaxing ambient forest sounds. If you ask home mini to play some of these sounds, it will. No additional apps/skills required. I'm not sure that's really worth an additional point but I'll give it as it shows the devs are thinking about things they can do at their end to improve convenience while Amazon seem to be farming that out to third-party skills developers.

So 2-all and the next discovery is for Trekkies. The Echo will allow you to change the wake word. You can use 'Alexa', 'Amazon', 'Echo' or 'Computer'. Trekkies might want to set this to 'Computer' and add some additional sounds from the Spacedeck skill. So your score may vary if that's something you like the sound of but to be honest I'd prefer free music any day.

I can't really go beyond these scores at the moment as I'm now waiting for other devices before I can test the next part which is the intercom facility. Echo supposedly allows you to 'drop in' on speakers in other rooms as well as allowing you to 'drop in' from the app on your phone. This seems a little quiet on my phone but does work. The Google home mini doesn't seem to have a two-way intercom but you can use the home mini (or the phone app) to 'broadcast' a message to all speakers linked to your account. This might be more useful if you have speakers in the kids rooms and you want to let everyone know it's meal time without having to 'drop in' on them all individually. So again at this point, your score may vary. I will be more likely to drop-in when I'm at work and more likely to broadcast at home so our score is now three all.

You have to remember it's early days for these systems yet and both are showing good signs of being developed further. At the moment I only have a single TP-Link smart socket (which can be controlled from their Kasa app). I found adding this to both systems was easily accomplished. The Google home app appeared to be a little buggy but I can forgive it that for it's clean looks and long list of supported smart-home devices. The Google app doesn't appear to have scenes yet (collections of smart-switch settings which can be collated under a trigger-phrase like 'bed time' to turn off all downstairs lights for example) although it did import scenes from the Kasa app. It's easy enough to group smart-devices into rooms on both systems.

So for us at least, the two systems score equally well, both having their strengths and weaknesses.Hopefully this comparison was helpful to some of you out there considering whether or not to jump on this particular bandwagon. I've only had these for a few days but my inner geek was determined to explore the capabilities of both. It may turn out that I'm wrong about anything or everything I've assumed so far and I will update this or do another comparison when there's sufficient improvement to either system. I suspect the eventual winner may be the first one that allows you to choose your own trigger phrase as that's a security feature and seems to be what a lot of people are asking for online.