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Testing digital voice assistants at home

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Personal digital voice assistants are becoming quite popular. They allow you to use voice search for queries and control connected items in your home

According to a Google study “more than half of teens (13-18) use voice search daily — to them it’s as natural as checking social media or taking selfies. Adults are also getting the hang of it, with 41 percent talking to their phones every day and 56 percent admitting it makes them ‘feel tech savvy.’”

Last month, Verizon Wireless sent me a Google Home digital assistant to test out. My goal was to try it against my Amazon Echo (first generation) — or “Alexa,” as it is referred to — and see how each does as a digital assistant. At this point, digital assistants have become quite popular and common; personally, I have three variations of the Echo in my house, one on each level of my two-story home and one in the kitchen.

The Google Home and Amazon Echo are really pretty similar. Both can control lights and other smart switches. Both can answer questions and set timers. Both have their own personalities with jokes and silly responses to questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” Both can provide the weather forecast and play music. Both have female voices as well.

One area that Google Home stands out for me is in its ability to connect to Google Play Music. As a subscriber, I can then play my playlists and subscription music.

Amazon has its own subscription service, but I have not subscribed to it, as Amazon Prime still provides users with a lot of included music. I have a playlist built out of that, but you have to pay more for the full catalogue of Amazon Prime Music, just as you have to for Google Play Music, but Google Play Music is not even available on the Echo.

Both assistants can tell me my calendar schedule — which is through Google Calendar — but, surprisingly, the Echo provides more detail and can read other calendars that are linked to mine, like my work calendar. Both the Echo and Home can recognize multiple voices and provide calendar information for multiple users, a feature that I did not try out.

The biggest area in which I saw a difference is what Amazon calls “far-field communication”, which is the ability to hear someone across a room. The Echo did much better than the Home hearing me ask for “lights on” and turning off the air conditioner while it was running.

The Home, being built on Google’s search engine, does a better job answering questions, while the Echo sometimes just doesn’t understand the question.

I tried making calls on both devices. You can use both devices as a speakerphone for your mobile phone calls when initiated through either the Home or Echo. They were pretty similar, but I did get better call quality from the Echo when I was further away; again, probably due to the microphones they use for far-field communication.

The two are very similar, and knowing how to use one makes it easy to jump right into using the other.

Voice control has become such an easy way in our house, via our Echos, to turn on and off lights, set timers, add to our grocery lists, play music and check weather forecasts. The ability to turn on lights helps my young kids turn on floor lamps that they wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Plus, my kids like to have Alexa tell them jokes, read stories and play music.

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Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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