Hey, Alexa, which of the seven Echo speakers should I buy, and what’s the difference between them?
And OK Google, the new Home Mini is so affordable at $29 for the holidays. How does it stack up to the entry level Echo, Amazon’s Dot?
If you’re shopping for a smart speaker, here’s how to decide which model and brand fits your needs and some advice on what to do once you own one.
You can also listen to a podcast version of this Talking Tech report.
Smart speakers, which bring voice computing into the home, are one of the hottest categories for holiday gifts, due to their popularity and deep discounts. The entry-level speakers, the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini, both sell for $49, but are discounted to $29 right now, while the top of the line Echo currently sells for $149.
With the smart speakers, you can use your voice and the “wake” word commands “OK Google” or “Alexa,” to do a host of different things. “Every morning I ask Alexa what the weather is,” says Mary Neville of Chicago, one of several users we spoke to recently for the accompanying video. “And play music while I’m cooking.”
Also: you can get weather reports, the morning news, recipes, play radio stations, streaming music and podcasts and control your smart home.
—Echo Dot: The entry level unit is a tiny speaker ($49, but on sale for $29) with full Alexa functionality. Pro: cheap. Con: tinny sound.
—All New Echo (2nd Generation,) is the update from last year’s model, selling for $100 less than the first one, and on sale this year for $79. Amazon promises better sound and a new gray fabric Amazon calls “Heather Gray Fabric.”
“Both sound exactly the same,” says Samantha Gordon, an editor with Reviewed.com, an affiliate of the USA TODAY Network. “They say it’s better, but I can’t for the life of me tell.” Pro: The classic with a lower price. Con: Complicated to set up smart home.
—Echo Plus: The same unit, ($150, and on sale often for $119.99) but with a built-in smart hub that promises to locate your smart lights, locks and other smart home products without having to plug in an additional unit. Comes with a free smart bulb. Pro: Smart home chops. Con: Pricey.
—Echo Show ($229, on sale for $149) brings video to Alexa, and the ability to make video calls from one Alexa to another. But due to a dispute with Google, the world’s biggest library of video, from YouTube, isn’t available on Show, meaning there’s not a lot of stuff to watch. Pro: Video comes to Alexa. Con: No YouTube.
—Echo Spot. A smaller version of the Show, with a round screen, the $129 speaker will be available December 19. Pro and con same as with Show.
—Echo Look. (Invite only, for purchase, $199.) The Echo with a video camera you put in your closet, and stand in front of, get photographed and offered sartorial advice on new fashions from Amazon. Pro: Innovative. Con: creepy.
—Echo Tap: A portable $129 bluetooth speaker that has built-in Alexa. Pro: No wires. Con: Costs more than other portable bluetooth speakers.
Google vs. Amazon
Here shoppers will be asked to decide which world they choose to live in: Amazon and access to shopping tools, or Google and the information age.
In a nutshell, Google is more advanced than Amazon in terms of voice computing (it can answer more things) but Amazon is louder about it.
To go beyond the basics of listening to music, creating shopping lists and asking about the weather, Amazon asks you to add what are called “Skills,” mini-apps like Jeopardy games or podcast-listening commands that can be downloaded from the Alexa app.
Google calls them apps, and doesn’t require a download. Just open the Google Home smartphone app and open the Explore tab to see what’s offered.
Music: Amazon offers music provided by Amazon’s limited music offerings, Spotify Premium, Pandora and iHeartRadio, podcasts and radio stations from TuneIn.
Google’s music comes from Google Play, YouTube, Pandora, Tunein and Spotify.
“I prefer Alexa,” says Gordon, “But if you have an Android phone, it probably makes more sense to go with Google, to fill your home with other Android devices. But it comes down to personal preference.”
—Google Home Mini: The best bargain of the season, with a small $49 speaker on sale still for $29. Many big box retailers offering gift cards with purchases. Pro: cheap way to enter Google’s world. Con: tinny sound.
—Google Home: Last year’s $129 speaker is now $79, and is more stylish than the big black Alexa. Pro: the Google Assistant can potentially do more than Alexa. Con: Google still says “I don’t how to do that,” too often.
—Google Home Max: The most expensive of the smart speakers promises hi-fi sound for $399. Pro: great sound. Con: mega-price.
—Sonos One. The folks at Sonos, beloved for its wifi speakers with great sound, enter the smart speaker market with the top aural choice when it comes to affordable talking speakers, with the $199 One. Consider the One as the speaker with FM sound to Echo and Home’s AM. Pro: Audio shines. Con: Doesn’t work with as many music choices as we would like.
When you do open up your new speakers, remember that you’ll need to speak clearly and audibly if you want Alexa or Google to understand you. Like typing a word correctly, proper pronunciation and phrasing of your query is vital.
And be patient.
“It’s like training a dog,” says Bryan Giarinelli of Temecula, California, who uses the Echo speaker at work. “You don’t expect the dog to do a million tricks right away, you have to be patient.” With a smart speaker, “You have to learn how the technology works before you can utilize it to its full potential.”
Best overall speaker: Echo Classic. The speaker that started it all is still the best. And the sound differences between the small Dot and the larger Echo are too great to skimp for.
Best bargain: Google Home Mini. At $29.99 (normally $49.99) the tiny AM-quality speaker was one of the most heavily discounted items for Black Friday, with $25 and $10 gift cards given with Walmart and Target purchases. Look for more heavy discounts as we head towards Christmas.
Best sound in an affordable speaker: Sonos One. For just about an extra $100, you get a smart speaker with stronger hi-fi than you’ll hear on one of the smaller Amazon or Google units. And if you listen to music every day, it’s money well worth spent.
Amazon or Google? We give the nod to Amazon. It built the smart speaker market from scratch and has made it a cornerstone of everything they do. You could argue that Google’s search and voice-computing expertise is more advanced than Alexa, but Amazon says it has over 25,000 skills, and Google has under 100 apps available for Google Home. Google has responded in Amazon type fashion, by basically giving away its speaker. That sums it up.