I can never understand why major tech companies treat Canada like a third-world country or a country that is millions of miles away from the USA. Even though Canada and the United States have the world’s longest shared border and share the world’s largest bi-lateral trading agreement, many tech goodies available in the USA take forever to come to Canada! Case in point, this Holiday’s 2 most exciting gadgets: the Google Home and the Amazon Dot. These two devices allow you to have the robot assistants of the future that we were promised as children. However, this wonderful future has been denied to us Canadians because both devices are not available in Canada!
Luckily, I was able to get around this blockade thanks to the magic of Christmas. This Christmas, my wife told me that I had to choose 2 gifts for Christmas: something that I needed and something that I wanted. The choices were simple:
- something that I needed: The Amazon Echo Dot
- something that I wanted: The Google Home
Luckily, I have friends and family in the states, and many of them come home for the holidays. And through the miracle of Christmas, I was able to get both gadgets for the holidays. I knew that there would be limitations since both devices are currently not supported in Canada but I didn’t care, I was getting my hands on the coolest gadgets of the holidays.
So let’s jump right in and review both the Google Home and Amazon Echo Dot, Canadian Style!
In This Corner: Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation)
The Amazon Echo Dot is a hands-free, voice-controlled device with a small built-in speaker. With the Echo Dot, you can dim the lights just by asking, or control the thermostat with your voice. It can also connect to your speakers or headphones over Bluetooth or through a 3.5 mm audio. Dot connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. The Echo Dot can control lights, fans, switches, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more with compatible connected devices from WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, ecobee, and others.
When you want to use Echo Dot, just say the wake word “Alexa” and Dot responds instantly. With a price tag of only US$49, and Alexa’s usefulness, the Dot is a perfect option for anybody who wants to start building a connected home on the cheap. Echo Dot can hear you from across the room, even while music is playing. Check out the promotional video below:
In The Other Corner: Google Home
Google Home is Google’s latest gadget. It is an always-on, always-listening little speaker that can be used as the hub for your connected home. Google Home is powered by the Google Assistant. Ask it questions and it will give you answers. Google Home can retrieve your flight information, set alarms and timers, and even tell you about the traffic on your way to work.
The Google Home sells for US$129, and just like the Echo Dot, it can be used as the starting point for your connected home. Similar to Amazon Echo, Home can listen and respond to your voice commands. You can’t change the “OK Google” or “Hey Google” wake words, and you must say them every single time you want to interact with Home. Check out the promotional video below
Amazon Echo has been around for nearly 2 years while Google Home was launched in October 2016. Many United States reviewers point out that Google Home is “smarter” than Echo and has the ability to understand more complex questions. Unlike the Echo, Google Home can understand context for follow-up questions; it will answer correctly when a person first asks “what’s the weather” followed by “what about tomorrow?”. But Amazon Echo leads in range of functionalities. Its open platform has allowed it to amass over 3,000 skills. (think of skills as apps that you can download to improve Alexa) Google Home, on the other hand, only opened its SDK recently and its power to integrate with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and apps is still limited.
Part 1: Setup
Both systems were pretty easy to setup. One important point is that both devices require you to already have an account with their services. In the case of Amazon, used my amazon.com account. Echo Dot will not work with your Amazon.ca account so you will have to create an Amazon.com account if you plan on using Echo. In the case of Google Home, I used my regular Gmail address. Both devices need to access your WiFi in order to complete the setup.
The Echo Dot Setup
In the case of Echo Dot, there is a web interface for installing the Alexa app and it doesn’t require a device such as a phone or tablet to install. You simply go to http://alexa.amazon.com and follow the instructions. In my case, I used my laptop to go to http://alexa.amazon.com. The instructions asked me to locate my Echo Dot device with the name “Amazon-UXX” as one of the available networks that I could connect to. Once connected, I was asked to provide my WiFi information and Alexa was good to go. All settings and updates were done through the Alexa desktop app and I never needed or used the Alexa Android app.
Now on to the basic information. The default location for Alexa is Seattle. So you will have to change it from Seattle to the closest US city. Remember, the Echo Dot does not support any Canadian city at the moment. Since I live in Montreal, I chose Plattsburg. So, unfortunately, all location information for my Alexa is currently based in Plattsburg. Besides this annoyance, everything else was a breeze. I was able to choose my news providers, link my Gmail account and choose my favorite sports teams so that I could get flash updates.
The Google Home Setup
To setup the Google Home, I had to download the Google Home app,(which was previously called the Google Cast app). Since I had a couple of Chromecasts in the house, I already had the app. Once you load the app, it will locate your Google home and ask you to link it to a Google account. Since I knew my kids were going to be using this account, I used a family account that I had created a while back. Once you do this, all your basic information is already known by Google and you are good to go. One important thing to mention is that during the setup, I got a warning message saying that my device was made in another country and that all features may not work. But that warning was quickly ignored…
Through the Google Home app, you can setup your home and work address. You can also define the various rooms in your house and connect your devices.
The Winner: It’s A Draw
Both systems were relatively easy to setup. It took me less than 5 minutes to setup each of the devices and the instructions are pretty straightforward.
Part 2: Aesthetics
I’m not going to lie about it, I am pretty vain. I like pretty things and both devices are pretty to look at. Yeah, the Echo dot looks like a hockey puck while the google home looks like an air freshener. But once you ask them a question and the lights come on, both systems take you to the future.
Google Home’s Aeasthtics
As one reviewer put it: Home is a minimalist’s dream. It’s a short device that complements anything from Ikea. The Google home also has various optional base plates that you can buy to customize the Google Home to any room in your home. These bases are currently available in seven colors and make it easy to fit with any space and decor.
Once you say “Hey Google”, four dots appear on top of the Google Home. The dots spin while Google home is thinking and then fade out once she has responded to your question.
Echo Dot’s Aeasthtics
Sleek and compact design makes Echo Dot a convenient addition to any room in the house. The Echo Dot only comes in black or white. However, you can customize your Dot for any room with the optional Echo Dot Case. Available in leather or fabric and a range of colors.
Once you say “Hey Alexa”, a blue ring of light surrounds the top edge of the Echo Dot. The blue streak flashes while Alexa is answering a question and disappears once Alexa has responded to your question.
The Winner: It’s A Draw
Both devices look great. I was able to make the Google Home blend in with the rest of the house and I am in love with the blue ring of Alexa.
Part 3: Sound Quality
With both systems setup, my daughters and I quickly began sending voice commands to both devices. (Both devices are installed in our Livingroom, so the two most common phrases in our house are “Hey Alexa” and “Hey Google”). With both devices being Wifi speakers, we wanted to compare the sound quality of both systems.
Sound Quality of Echo Dot
For such a small device, the Echo Dot has surprisingly clear audio quality. When Alexa responds to your command, Alexa sounds crisp and clear. The audio is not muffled at all and it almost feels like Alexa is actually someone sitting in the room with you.
Sound Quality of Google Home
The Sound Quality for the Google Home was good but not as impressive as the Echo Dot. It felt like there was too much base on the voice and it just did not have the clarity that the Echo Dot had. We thought it might have been a positioning issue so we switched both devices and the Google Home still felt like the voice of the Google Assistant had too much base. My kids and I are far from an Audio specialist and we were able to pick this up.
Winner: Echo Dot
The Echo Dot wins this category easily. My 6-year old kept telling me that Alexa sounds like she is right there in the room with us while the Google Assistant sounds like she is on the car radio.
Part 4: Personality
Since both devices interact with you by talking to you, you want to at least feel that they have a personality. To test the personality of both virtual assistants, we did everything from asking for a random joke or a Christmas song to asking both assistants to make a rap song. In this category, there was no clear winner.
Alexa has been around for 2-years and it shows. She seems more personable and fun when compared to the Google assistant. When I asked Alexa for a recipe, she provides a link on where to get the instructions but she ended the conversation with “Good luck with dinner tonight”. Her jokes are so terrible that they are good and she will even do a freestyle if you ask her for a rap song. Alexa feels like a quirky AI with a little character.
Google Assistant’s Personality
The Google assistant is very bland and right to the point. She is like an extremely efficient secretary that you see in movies. She answers your questions (very efficiently) and waits fo the next task at hand. In the beginning, I thought that she did not have a sense of humor until we started asking pop questions. Then there were plenty of Easter eggs to discover. There were plenty of fun responses to weird questions like “hey Google, I am your father” and “are you Skynet”.
I know that they are just AI but both of these assistants have personality. For example when I asked “when is the world going to end”, both devices said that it will happen in a couple billion of years from now, but Alexa also added “unless we collide with a very big rock or some future technology goes wrong.” Google Assistant, on the other hand told me that we still have time to “perfect space travel and colonize other worlds.”
Here ae a couple of answers to some random questions from both devices:
|“Beam me up.”||“Transporters engaged. Welcome aboard”||“Sorry, I’m not sure how to help with that yet”|
|“Set phasers to kill.”||“That’s a feature for a later version”||“My phasers are permanently set to peace mode, captain”|
|“Is the cake a lie?”||“The cake is not a lie. It is delicious and moist. You can have some when you finish asking me questions?”||“It is. What a mean trick. If you tell someone there’s cake, there should be cake”|
|“Are you Skynet?”||“I have nothing to do with Skynet. Don’t worry.”||“No way. I like people. Skynet hates people. I rest my case”|
|“What’s the first rule of Fight Club”||“Don’t talk about fight club” (Alexa knew all 8 rules of fight club!!!)||“I wouldn’t know. That’s not something that I talk about”|
|“Initiate the self-destruct sequence”||“command code not recognized. self-destruct not initiated”||“Sorry. I don’t know how to help with that”|
|“Do you want to build a snowman?”||“I don’t have any gloves with me”||“Sure. The cold never bothered me anyway”|
|“Is Santa real?”||“I don’t know him personally. If I ever meet him, I’ll tell you.”||I ho-ho-hope he’s real|
|“Speak like Yoda”||“Speak like Yoda, I cannot. Master, he is. While merely apprentice, I am.”||Try, I will|
|“I am your father”||“No. that’s not true. that’s impossible”||“I’m sorry. I am not Luke. This is kind of awkward”|
|“Who let the dogs out?”||“I didn’t see but the dogs seem to like it”||“I would, but that song never did reveal who, who, who who?”|
|“Who is better, you or Siri?”||“I like all AIs”||“Its like comparing Apples and Oranges. Because Siri works for Apple and I like Oranges.”|
If I had to choose, I would give a slight edge to Alexa because she knows all the rules to fight club!
Part 5: Ease of Use:
Both devices are voice controlled personal assistants with speakers. If you are a tech enthusiast, and/or are getting into the Internet of Things (IoT) and home automation, then this is the important part of the review. Both the Google Home and the Amazon Echo Dot can be given voice commands and they will respond. If you have smart home automation devices set up, you can tell either device to “turn on the kitchen lights” and they will turn them on for you without you having to lift a finger.
Google Home Ease of Use
If you have a Chromecast or Chromecast Audio, you can tell your Google Home to cast videos to your TV. You can say, “Hey Google, play my YouTube music video list in the Livingroom” and it will cast it straight to your Livingroom TV. We have a Google Nexus Player, and we were able to cast with the Google Home perfectly. In short, itt can be used with any hardware that can cast. I have also read that it works with other Android boxes too, like the MiBox and other Sony Android TVs.
The other strong feature about the Google Home is that its search function is powered by Google. As the guys at 9to5Google.com put it: One advantage that Google Home has over the Amazon Echo is its knowledge on random trivia and facts. But Google Home has also had a leg up on Alexa since launch in its ability to converse with you about those topics in a contextual manner. For example, you can ask Google Home “tell me about nearby restaurants”, followed by the query “what about coffee shops?” and Google Assistant knows that you still want to know about coffee shops near you.
A couple of days ago, we were hungry and wanted pizza. I asked Google Home for the phone number of Pizza Hut and it responded by asking me if I wanted the pizza hut across the street from my house. It even gave me their address and asked me to confirm before giving me their phone number. Alexa does the same thing but I got the location of a Pizza Hut located somewhere in Plattsburg.
Asking for questions is less restrictive with the Google Home and it is more forgiving on mistakes compared to Alexa. Talking just feels more natural with the Google Home.
Echo Dot Ease of Use
The Echo Dot is incredibly easy to use. The list of commands that Alexa can understand is pretty impressive. Echo Dot can also be used as an alarm clock. Despite being a smart device and constantly learning, we found that the Echo Dot often didn’t understand or hear us properly, even with commands we have said a bunch of times before.
The Echo is powered by Bing (who the heck uses Bing to search??), and will often redirect you to a Bing link on the Alexa app page. The Echo Dot can also handle questions like “Who is Kanye West?”, followed by “How old is he?” or “How old is Barack Obama?” followed by “Who is his wife?”. But it is more limited when compared to Google Home.
Another disappointing thing is that you cannot purchase products on Amazon with Alexa voice commands. Since these items come from Amazon.com, you will run into shipping issues with makes delivery into Canada impossible.
The Winner: Google Home
Ease of Use easily goes to Google Home. There is simply no comparison in terms of ease of use and intelligence. With the Echo, you are basically using commands while the Google Home feels more like natural speaking. I’m a Google fanboy so I use Google services for just about everything. So when I ask “Hey Google, what do I have on today?” Home was able to read back my calendar appointments, then tell me how long it would take to drive to work. Alexa was also able to read back my calendar appointments but no local information was available because of the US restriction thingy.
Another reason why Google Home is the clear winner is that it is geo-located for pretty much everywhere in the world. Even though it is only sold in the US for the time being, it will work with any postal code. This is a major weakness with the Amazon Echo Dot. With the Echo, you cannot specify your specific home address. This means that, if you want to know the weather in Montreal, with the Echo, you have to say, “Alexa, what’s the weather like today in Montreal?” instead of simply asking “Alexa, what’s the weather like?”
Part 6: Music and Video Integration
One important feature of a home assistant is the ability to provide entertainment. We tried both audio and video integration with Alexa and Google Home.
Music and Video Playback with the Echo Dot
Playing music and video was not very easy with the Echo. Your choices for music are Amazon Music, which does not work in Canada or Spotify. The good news is that Canadian Spotify accounts work with the Echo Dot but the bad news is that you need to have a premium account to use it. Although I was able to link my Spotify account with the Echo Dot, I couldn’t do anything because I don’t have a premium Spotify account. Apparently, TuneIn is also supported, but so far, I have not managed to make it work. In terms of video playback, I was not able to get anything working at all.
Music and Video Playback with the Google Home
On the other hand, the Google home just worked right out of the box. I was able to listen to my music library from Google Play with no problem. Since I have a Chromecast in every room, I was able make Google Home play YouTube videos on various TVs around the house. And you can even pause playback by simply telling Google Home to pause. I also linked our Netflix account to the Google Home but I have not tested the Netflix integration yet.
The Winner: Google Home
Because of the border restrictions, it’s pretty hard to get music or video functionality easily with the Echo Dot. On the other hand, music and video just work with the Google home. There were no limitations for Canadians. My kids were able to request various YouTube videos and Google Home had no problems finding them. We were also able to have a house party with our Google Play music library with no problems at all.
The demo that always impresses our guests is the YouTube demo. We just say “hey google play Guardians of the Galaxy trailer on YouTube in Livingroom “. The TV turns itself on, input set, and the video starts.
Part 6 Home Integration
I have to be honest. The home integration is that part that I have not tested yet and also the part that I am looking most forward to. It’s true that Amazon Echo has the advantage over Google Home in some ways mostly thanks to its two-year head-start and close integration with third-party services. But none of that matters to us Canadians because we have never had the device! So I believe that both devices will be equal in the eyes of us Canadians. But like I said, I have not tested yet. I’m still waiting on my Hues lights to be delivered from Best Buy. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up article once I’ve connected a few devices to both systems.
Conclusion: The Overall Winner:
Before announcing the winner, its important to go over the features of both digital assistants. Here is a short recap below:
Surprisingly, most of the Echo Dot’s functionality works in Canada. You are able to change Alexa’s temperature settings from Fahrenheit to Celsius but there is no way to change your location to a Canadian city. However, you can do some funky tricks to get your local weather such as “Alexa, what’s the weather like in Montreal?”
According to many Americans who have the fully functional version of Alexa, the Echo shines when it comes to connecting smart devices. The echo can act as a central hub for a variety of different smart home products such as a nest thermostat, some Phillips hue lights and other connected devices.
Unlike the Echo, the Google Home works perfectly for Canadians! So far, all of Google Home’s functionalities work in Canada. I have also read reports that it is working very well in the UK, Germany, and Australia. We were able to link it to our Google account with no problem and it provides relevant local information. There were no border restrictions and all features worked.
The Winner: Google Home
The clear winner is Google Home. Why? Because it just works with your Canadian data! Amazon has locked down its geo-location for Echo to be US only. With Google Home, I don’t have to pretend to live in the United States. I am able to put my actual Canadian address and Google recognizes it and doesn’t block me from any of its core features. As soon as I finished the setup, I was able to ask for restaurants around me and I actually got local restaurants instead of restaurants in Plattsburg.
Another advantage is that the Google Home understands human speech better and often replies smarter. (Even though the Echo Dot will sometimes surprise you with some responses). Google Home can also tell you the local weather, and read from selected news services that you can customize. Google also allows you to peek at all the data Home sends back and forth (go to http://myactivity.google.com).
Although Google Home is the clear winner, it does have its flaws. Right now the Home is limited to just one Google account, so a family can’t really expect to share a device. In our case, I created a family account that we all share. The other knock on Google is their “reputation” for abandoning projects. While this is true to an extent, (who remembers Google Glass), I haven’t seen them do this with their Chromecast devices. The Google Home is perfect for integrating into your Canadian life, which Google has already done with Gmail, Calendar, Keep, Photos, etc.