Say Hello to Your New Assistant
As our homes get smarter, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have become our reliable digital helpers, living inside our devices and jumping at our spoken commands to set timers, play music, and teach kids how to spell those difficult homework words.
If you’re considering a voice assistance platform, you’ll have to pick a camp. The top choices don’t work very well together, and if you want to equip multiple rooms, you should stick to a single platform. This guide will explain the various options and help you choose the one that best meets your needs, along with the right devices for your home.
At the moment, we recommend Alexa for people who are into smart home setups, as it’s the best voice assistant when working with a wide range of smart home devices, including TV boxes. Google Assistant is our pick for more basic, music-and-questions focused smart speaker use. You’ll end up using Siri if your whole life is Apple.
Voice assistants have emerged from two distinct places, but now they’ve largely converged. Alexa on the Amazon Echo introduced the idea of a voice-controlled speaker, and has since been added to Amazon Fire TV devices and some third-party speakers. Since it started on a speaker, most people initially thought of it as a way to play streaming music. After Amazon opened up Alexa to third parties, smart home providers hooked into it to let you do things like control your lights and thermostat by voice.
Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri started out as the voice dialing features on Android phones and iPhones. Both systems let you take calls, make calls, play music, and answer texts on your phone, whether at home, in the office, or in your car. Google has done a better job reaching out into the home with TVs and smart speakers than Apple has.
Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are more limited than Google and Alexa. Siri works with fewer phones, home entertainment products, and smart speakers than Alexa or Google Assistant do, but can be a good solution if you live an all-Apple lifestyle, and it offers extensive home automation support through Apple HomeKit. Cortana appears to be largely forgotten, both on phones and for smart speakers.
There are also some minor voice assistants like Samsung Bixby, found on certain Galaxy phones. These don’t generally have the device support to be a whole-home solution, but they can at least work with Samsung smart devices (of which there are many, ever since Samsung bought SmartThings).
Different rooms may demand different smart assistant devices. Amazon has the widest range, with larger speakers like the Echo and Sonos One for music in the living room, smaller speakers like the Echo Dot in the kitchen for timers and podcasts, and screen-equipped devices like the Echo Spot and Echo Show for bedside alarm clocks and weather reports. The Amazon Fire TV Cube and Fire TV Stick extend Alexa to televisions. Amazon has been pushing hard into smart home, too, with two of its own security camera lines and a growing range of Amazon-branded home electronics.
Google has the Google Home Mini, the Google Home, and the Google Home Max, as well as third-party speakers from various manufacturers. If you want a device with a screen, Google, Lenovo, and JBL all have smart display options. You can connect to Google via an Assistant-enabled Android TV, like Sony’s Android TV-powered models, or a connected device, like a Chromecast or the Nvidia Shield TV.
Siri is available on Apple’s HomePod and Apple TV devices, as well as on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac computers.
Cortana is currently available on one smart speaker, the underwhelming Harman Kardon Invoke. Besides the Invoke, Cortana is available on Windows 10 systems, if you have a connected microphone or headset.
Google Assistant comes built into all Android phones, and Siri is on all iPhones. That’s a big plus for those two assistants. Alexa and Cortana are add-on phone apps, but they generally don’t work as smoothly on phones as the integrated assistants do.
Décor and Style
Your smart speaker should fit into your home décor. Both Amazon and Google offer several smart speaker options in different colors, and the choices get even better when you include the growing number of third-party speakers. Amazon’s latest Echo has both fabric and wood cover options, which can fit into a range of styles, and its newest Echo Dot and Echo Plus speakers feature fabric covers in black and white to match your furniture.
Smart speakers with screens become even more powerful home hubs. The Amazon Echo Spot, Echo Show, and the Google Smart Displays can display the time, photos, videos, and query results right on their built-in screens. The Echo Spot and Google’s Home Hub both make great little alarm clocks, and can play Amazon Prime or YouTube video, respectively. Amazon’s Fire tablets can also be used as Alexa-powered screens with their Show Mode. The Fire TV Cube isn’t a great speaker, but it’s an excellent media streamer.
On the larger end, the Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve tested. The quality of Google Assistant speakers, along with the third-party options available, are a big part of why we recommend Google rather than Alexa for a more speaker-centric smart home.
Apple only offers one smart speaker model, the HomePod. It’s handsome, available in gray and white, but its silicone base is known to create marks on wood surfaces.
Amazon and Google both understand multiple user profiles, and they can recognize different people’s voices and respond based on their own accounts and history. (The HomePod does not.) Siri and Cortana can’t handle multiple users, yet.
With your account set up, you can ask the assistants what’s on your calendar. Alexa supports iCloud, Gmail, G Suite, Office 365, and Outlook. Google Assistant takes calendar and location information from Gmail, but not G Suite accounts. Cortana supports Outlook and Office 365. Siri on the HomePod can read events supported by the Calendar app on your iPhone.
All of the assistants will also give you local weather and other information based on the address in your account. And all four assistants will give you a range of news sources and podcasts.
Alexa is the only assistant with which you can change the wake word. You can refer to it as “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer,” which is helpful if you have a family member named Alexa (or Echo, for that matter). Siri and Google Assistant, on the other hand, can have either male or female voices, while Alexa is only female.
Timers and Lists
All of the voice assistants can set timers and alarms, and make named lists (like shopping, for example). With Alexa and Google Assistant, you can share shopping lists between accounts. Alexa, Google, and Siri can also set multiple named timers, which is great when you’re tracking different parts of a complex cooking project.
Alexa’s lists will sync with Any.do, AnyList, Cozi, and Todoist. Google’s system syncs with OurGroceries and Todoist. Cortana’s lists sync with Wunderlist. Siri uses Apple’s Reminders app.
We’ll put Alexa ahead here because it has the most third-party list support. But really, any of the voice assistants will work for timers and lists.
You’re going to play music on this speaker, right? For the best sound quality, you can get a voice-enabled Sonos One, Harman, Sony, or JBL speaker. Or, you can get an inexpensive Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot and hook it up to a better speaker. The Echo Dot has a 3.5mm audio output for this, while the Google Home Mini can control other speakers through Bluetooth, Chromecast, or Chromecast Audio devices.
All smart speakers can play music from your phone, but you’re really supposed to use them with cloud services. Alexa and Google Assistant both connect to Spotify Premium accounts, as well as to Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio for free. Alexa speakers will also play Amazon music. Google Assistant speakers will play Google Play and YouTube music, including tunes you’ve uploaded to your own Google account library. Cortana will play Spotify Premium, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, but not Pandora. Siri on the HomePod will play Apple Music and songs from your iCloud music library.
Google, Alexa, and Siri all support multi-room audio. Amazon’s ESP feature makes sure that only the nearest speaker responds, and lets you play music across your house. Apple’s new AirPlay 2 technology allows HomePods and a range of third-party, compatible speakers to work as multi-room audio systems. Google Home supports multi-room audio, but if you have a phone in the room attached to a different Google account, both it and the speaker will respond when you say, “Hey Google.”
There’s a wide range of audio quality in smart speakers. The really small ones, like the Eufy Genie and the Echo Spot, sound like old battery-powered radios. They shouldn’t be used to play music, although they’re fine for podcasts, alarms, and news. The Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot are a little bit better than that crowd, but still aren’t quite good enough to be primary music speakers. As mentioned, you can use them control better speakers.
The Echo and Echo Plus have decent sound, and though they lack strong bass you can pair them with the Echo Sub subwoofer for more low-frequency power. The HomePod actually sounds like a high-quality speaker. And the Google Home Max has the best audio quality we’ve heard in the category.
Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri can all be used to control a TV or home entertainment center, with the appropriate hardware add-on (an Amazon Fire TV device for Alexa, a Chromecast or Android TV for Google Assistant, and an Apple TV for Siri). Searching for streaming content and controlling playback is easy, and some TV controls like volume adjustments are also available.
If you want more control over your home entertainment system, Alexa and Google Assistant work directly with the Logitech Harmony Hub to control nearly any TV, media streamer, Blu-ray player, A/V receiver, or any other device with an infrared remote. For Siri integration, you need to wrestle with If This Then That (IFTTT) and SMS commands to get anything to work outside of the Apple TV itself. Cortana, oddly, can’t even control the Xbox One remotely, even when each system has its own Cortana implementation.
The Alexa/Fire TV integration is really smooth, and you can get a Fire TV stick for less than $40. Unless you’re an Apple TV aficionado, it’s likely the best approach for most people.
Smart Home Management
Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri can control pretty much any smart home device nowadays. In the Alexa and Google apps, and with the new Siri Shortcuts feature, you can set up rooms of multiple devices to control, and set up multi-step routines, like “I’m leaving the house.”
The Amazon Echo Plus adds a Zigbee radio for controlling compatible products, but it isn’t as capable as a dedicated smart home hub. The Alexa app falls short of the capabilities of dedicated manufacturer apps, and if you want to use those apps, you need the manufacturer’s hub. For instance, you can control the brightness but not the color of Philips Hue bulbs in the Alexa app, and you can create groups of bulbs, turn them on and off, but not alter their brightness as a group (you can do those things by voice, just not in the app).
In addition, the Echo Plus doesn’t work with Z-Wave products, such as Schlage smart locks. Samsung SmartThings and Wink hubs support both Zigbee and Z-Wave. If you use primarily Wi-Fi-based, hubless smart home devices, however, pretty much any Echo will be able to work for you just fine.
If you’re going to use Siri to control your smart home, you want to make sure the smart home devices you buy are HomeKit-compatible, and you have a HomePod, iPad, or Apple TV to use as a hub. You’ll then be able to create rooms, groups, and multi-step routines, and control your devices remotely, but only from iOS. Apple’s Home app is gorgeous, but you have to be all-in with Apple for it to work well.
All of the voice assistants will let you make phone calls from your smart speaker. Alexa, Google, and Cortana will all make free phone calls. Google Assistant will call numbers in the US and Canada. Alexa and Cortana will call anyone in the US, Canada, and Mexico, but not toll-free numbers. The HomePod can be used as a speakerphone for your phone, but you have to start the call on your phone.
Want to just find out stuff? Google Assistant is the best option for free-form internet queries and questions about local businesses, followed closely by Cortana and Siri. This is a major weakness of Alexa’s, although Alexa is getting better.
Google Assistant is the best at recipes. Alexa has several recipe skills you can enable, but their syntax is very precise. Google Assistant will pluck you something from AllRecipes and pause for you to complete each step. Cortana and Siri won’t read recipes out loud—Cortana has a recipe skill, but it requires a Windows device with a screen.
Or how about fun stuff? If you ask your assistant to play games, Alexa and Cortana suggest trivia quizzes. Siri gives you games on the Apple App Store. Google gives you kids’ party games, like freeze dance and Mad Libs. They’ll all tell you jokes, too.
When it comes to random internet queries, Google Assistant is in the lead.
Amazon’s voice assistant ecosystem has been supercharged by tens of thousands of third-party “skills,” and Amazon has a great directory of them on its site. These skills do everything from giving you your local transit status, to checking your credit card balance, to trivia about your favorite college football team, to playing games and singing songs. However, you have to seek out the skills you want, and use the very specific syntax they want you to use. It’s a stunningly powerful system, with a learning curve.
Google Assistant has fewer skills, but they’re steadily growing in number. It tends to accept more free-form conversation rather than demanding specific word-by-word syntax, making it easier to use with these skills. You can check out Google’s skills (which it calls “actions”) in its convenient web-based directory.
Siri and Cortana both have very few third-party skills. Alexa is the winner here, although we wish it was more flexible with syntax.
There are Alexa speakers available from $35 to $200. Google Assistant has speakers from $49 to $400. You can connect an inexpensive Alexa speaker through its 3.5mm output jack to any speaker you like, and Google Assistant devices can control other speakers via Bluetooth.
If you’re paying less than $100 for a voice assistant speaker, you’re going to get something small, with mediocre audio quality, that’s focused on voice commands. These speakers, like the Amazon Echo Dot, Eufy Genie, and Google Home Mini, make great bedside or kitchen companions.
The current sweet spot for voice assistant speakers is between $99 and $199. Amazon’s Echo and the Google Home are the two real go-tos, at $99 and $149 respectively. As mentioned earlier, the Amazon Echo Plus adds Zigbee support, but it isn’t as capable of controlling your compatible smart home devices as, say, the Wink Hub 2.
At $199 and up, you get either a fancy screen or really good, room-filling audio quality. The Amazon Echo Show is both a smart speaker and a tablet, and the Sonos One is a no-compromise music speaker. The JBL Link and Sony’s smart speaker series are also up in this price range. On the high end, Apple’s HomePod costs $349, and the Google Home Max is $399.
The Right Smart Speaker for You
Right now, we consider Amazon and Google to be tied in terms of smart speaker ecosystems. Amazon has more third-party skills and a wider range of smart home products available, but Google is built into all Android phones and has better natural-language query understanding. The Echo Dot is the best easy entryway into the Alexa ecosystem; if you want an all-purpose Alexa-powered speaker, the regular Echo is a good compromise. If you’re looking for a high-quality music speaker, the Google Home Max is your best bet.
How to Use Your Smart Speaker
Here’s some to help you get started with your new assistant:
Pros: Much better sound than previous model. Still the best inexpensive Alexa speaker. 3.5mm jack for more powerful speakers. Alexa remains the best voice ecosystem for smart home control.
Cons: Alexa isn’t up to Google Assistant’s level at answering broad information queries.
Bottom Line: The new Amazon Echo Dot delivers dramatically improved sound, making it an even better buy for an entry-level Alexa speaker.
Pros: Feature-rich touch-screen interface. Friendly design with big, bright screen. Powerful audio. Web browser.
Cons: Heavily sculpted sound emphasizes extremes and downplays midrange. Screen only supports 720p video.
Bottom Line: The 2018 model of the Amazon Alexa-powered Echo Show smart display is a major upgrade over the original, with a larger, more functional touch screen and a much more powerful speaker system.
Pros: Great sound. Works as a mono speaker, a stereo pair, or part of a whole home audio system. Attractive design.
Cons: Too much bass for audio purists. Could do with better lossless audio options.
Bottom Line: The Google Home Max is the first smart speaker we’ve seen with serious audio performance.
Pros: Surprisingly powerful sound. Bright, crisp screen.
Cons: Bass falters at high volume levels. Can’t cast video freely to the screen.
Bottom Line: The Google Assistant-equipped JBL Link View is the best-sounding smart display we’ve tested, combining stereo speaker drivers with an 8-inch touch screen.
Pros: Powerful sound for its size. Built-in Amazon Alexa voice assistant. Easily expanded with additional Sonos speakers.
Cons: No Bluetooth. Optional subwoofer is expensive.
Bottom Line: The Sonos Beam packs multi-room, multi-service audio streaming and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant into a deceptively small soundbar.
Pros: Multi-room audio with flexible stereo and surround configurations. Powerful sound for its size. Works with Alexa voice control (with support for Google Assistant to come).
Cons: Sound can distort at top volumes. No Bluetooth or wired audio connections.
Bottom Line: The Sonos One is a versatile wireless speaker with excellent sound quality, support for multi-room audio, and Amazon Alexa voice control.
Pros: Bright, crisp screen. Attractive design. Google Assistant is powerful and useful. Google Cast adds media flexibility. Supports YouTube.
Cons: Relatively weak bass and low overall audio power. Voice and video chat only through Google Duo.
Bottom Line: The 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display is a good-looking, decent-sounding tabletop smart speaker that lets you use Google Assistant hands-free, with visual information and streaming media support.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with rich, full bass. Measurement mic adjusts audio according to your room’s acoustics. Visually pleasing design.
Cons: No Bluetooth streaming. No aux input. No voice control for non-Apple music services. Siri is behind the competition. Leaves rings on some wooden surfaces.
Bottom Line: The HomePod excels as a high-quality smart speaker for listening to Apple Music, but trails behind Amazon and Google when it comes to voice control.
Pros: Generally strong sound with clear high-mids and highs. Alexa is powerful and functional. Bluetooth connectivity. Zigbee hub built-in.
Cons: Not significantly more powerful than the Echo. Relatively weak bass. Bluetooth doesn’t work with stereo pairs or Echo Sub.
Bottom Line: The new Amazon Echo Plus smart speaker looks much friendlier than its predecessor, with the Alexa voice assistant, solid sound quality, and a built-in Zigbee hub.