Google vs Alexa

One of the factors in getting the speaker was to help my wife, saving her from getting up and down to turn on and off lights, the radio, etc.

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Warning:
This post contains Canadian content, and may not be suitable for non-Canadians!

 

I have been wondering about getting one of these smart speakers, Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot (Alexa), for a while.  I just didn’t know if they would be worth the investment.  However, Boxing Day (It’s like a Canadian Black Friday, but it is the day after Christmas) came and at 50% off, I figured it was time to try.

I couldn’t decide on which smart speaker to get, so I got both and compared them.  They arrived on the same day.

The Speaker:
On opening the boxes, the first thing I noticed was that the Amazon unit was a little heavier than the Google.  Once I started playing music, I noticed that the sound quality of Alexa was much more natural than the Google unit, so I am guessing the extra weight is a bigger and much better speaker.  Both of these units allow you connect to external speakers, but if you have Alexa you don’t need to.  The clear winner on sound quality is Alexa!

Voice Recognition in noisy environments:
One of my biggest concerns with getting one of these devices is that we have a very noisy household.  No, we don’t have kids, but we do have 2 hepa air filters in both rooms that contain the units and usually the TV or radio is on.  Our phone’s voice assistant rarely works with this background noise, so I was hesitant to invest money into something new.  However, both units seem to recognize our voices, with very few exceptions, even with the TV or radio in the background.  One reason for this is that they have multiple microphones so they can cancel out the background noise, but our cellphones don’t.

Initial Setup:
I found that the Google interface was much easier to follow, and setting up two voices was easy and straight forward.  Simply tell it the second person’s Google account (gmail address), it sends an invitation, and they accept it.  To set up a second person on the Alexa, I had to read up on how to do it.  I initially set up my wife first, and when I tried downloading the Alexa app on my phone, and creating a new account, it asked for a phone number and said my phone number was already registered to an account, so I had to call customer service?!?!?  I disconnected her account from Alexa, created my own, and then added her account with no problem.  Frustrating, but it worked.  So, for ease of initial setup Google wins this round.

Radio and Music:
We have heard several times on our favorite radio station that you can say “Alexa, install Praise radio” and then “Alexa, play Praise radio”, and it does work!  So far, I have not been able to get ANY radio station to play on the Google mini.  It may be that the Canadian version does not support third party Actions (Alexa calls them skills) at this time, but for whatever reason the instructions I see on the internet don’t work on my app or device.  However, Google does allow you to upload your own music to https://play.google.com/music/ and then play them on your Mini, where Alexa does not seem to natively support playing your own music.  Both devices want you to subscribe to their own music service (Google Play Music, or Amazon Music Unlimited) for about $10 per month.  So, the winner depends on what you want.  If you want to play your own music, you want the Google Mini, and if you have a subscription with one of the other two music services, you want that service.  But in either case, remember that Alexa has the better sounding speaker.  😉

Smart Home:
Both speakers support smart homes devices, so you can tell it to turn on the lights, TV, etc.  But of course, you need to purchase and install smart switches and/or bulbs for the lights, and the Logitech Home Hub for the TV.

Lights:
You have a variety of options for controlling the lights.  You can of course replace the light switch in your wall (if you know how, or get a certified electrician to do it), or simply buy one of two options.  A Smart WiFi Plug, goes between your wall socket or power bar and a lamp.  It is great for turning that light fixture on or off.  But a sometimes better option is to get a Smart LED WiFi bulb.  Simply unscrew one bulb, screw in the next, run the app to connect it to the WiFi, and that’s it.  You can tell either speaker to “turn the bulb gold”, to get a nice classic lighting effect when white is just too bright.  You can also set it to 10%, 20%, 50%, 100% or any brightness, or tell it to turn green, blue, or even red to set the mood.
Oh… I forgot to mention that if you ask them to turn off the lights, Alexa will ask which lights to turn off, while Google will turn off the lights in the current room.  So Google wins this round.

TV:
We got the “Logitech Harmony Companion Remote Control” (Hub and Remote) and it works great on the TV and other entertainment devices.  The companion remote is great when you don’t always want to tell Alexa to turn up or down the volume.  The one minor disappointment is that the remote has buttons to control some smart home devices, just not the ones we purchased.  No problem, both speakers have routines, so we can have it turn the TV on and the lights down low, in one simple voice command.

Routines:
Routines are sequences you can have either speaker do when something happens.  It can be a voice command, scheduled event, or even a reaction to a sensor like a motion detector.  The most common is when you say “Good Morning” it can read you the news, tell you about your commute to work, and turn on the lights.  Both are easy to setup and do, but Google allows you to type a phrase in when setting up a routine, and Alexa doesn’t.  So, you can tell Google to do something that is not on the list (like do another routine), but Alexa doesn’t.  However, Alexa does have more smart home features, like it’s menu system allows you to pick a smart bulb colour, where you have to type that command into Google.  So, Google does win this round for being able to do things not on the menu, where Alexa might win for having a more complete menu….

Calling & Texting:
Neither device is currently texting.  The Alexa device recently added this feature in the US, but it doesn’t work in Canada yet.  Also, there are third party Skills or Actions (in the US) that you can install to send SMS texts.  However, both devices will do a voice call to a cell or land line.  I don’t get this, because it is simpler for a computer to relay a message thru your cell phone, but these speakers are relaying the call through a server?  The call display from the Google Mini comes up as a private number, but the Alexa shows up as if it came from my cell phone.
Oh, I forgot to mention that you need to set the Language from English Canadian to English US, so that Alexa can read your contacts to find the phone numbers.  Why this matters, I don’t know….

For Disabled People:
One of the factors in getting the speaker was to help my wife, saving her from getting up and down to turn on and off lights, the radio, etc.  Both speakers with the smart home features help in this manner.  And the ability to make a phone call also helps, but you can’t call emergency services with them.  Once we can do SMS texting, I hope we can setup an SOS routine, where we can send a text message to multiple people.  Until then, at least she can call me or a neighbor.

Other things:
The Google seems to disconnect every morning and I have to go into its app on my phone and add the device again.  Very frustrating.  I think that this is because we have our WiFi shut down for security and to cool down each night. But in any case, every other device reconnects each morning, I don’t know why this one doesn’t.

In summary:
I am a big Google fan, and am always using  their Gmail, Calendar, etc.  I was pleased with the simplicity of their app, but was disappointed with the sound quality, the lack of Actions (Alexa calls them skills), and I am really annoyed with having to reconnect the WiFi every morning.  This may improve when Google gets around to giving us the same features as the US has, but for now I can NOT recommend the Google Home Mini.

For now, the clear winner is the Amazon Echo Dot (Alexa)!  It has better sound and the Skills work in Canada!

What’s a SmartWatch? Do I Need One? Which One?

What is a SmartWatch?

A smartwatch is obviously a watch, but it usually pairs with your SmartPhone to at the very least display notifications.  The idea is that you don’t have to grab your phone every time it beeps to see what message just came in.

Some SmartWatches like the Samsung Gear S & S2 are complete Cell Watches, meaning that they can be used independently and connect to a 3G cellular network all on their own.  Yes, you can make phone calls on your watch, without having to drag a cell phone around with you.  What is 3G you ask?  Before LTE there was 4G, before 4G was 3G.  In Canada we just phased out 2G, so it probably is about 5 years before we phase out 3G, but that’s just Canada, eh?

So, some SmartWatches can do as much as a SmartPhone, with the obvious limitation of a much smaller screen.  However, because of this much smaller screen they usually want you to use the voice recognition, and therefore the voice recognition is much better on some devices.

Do I need One?

If you are tired of reaching for your cell phone everytime it beeps, then you probably want a SmartWatch.  Even more so, if you are tired of dragging a cell phone around with you, then you probably want a 3G SmartWatch.

Also, my wife is prone to falling down, so I got her a SmartWatch to make emergency calls, if her phone is not close by.  While we did get the Samsung Gear S on clearance for around $299, and it is capable of making calls without a cellphone.  We currently opted out of getting the 3G SIM card installed to save the monthly fees, so it does need the cellphone in bluetooth range, but it usually is in the next room or somewhere central in the house.  Also, we can add the SIM card later if we feel we need it.

Which One?

I started out getting my wife and I the Pebble Classic SmartWatches for about $99 each.  My friend has one, and he loves it.  In addition to notifications it has apps that you can install for fitness tracking, watch faces, etc.  It’s input is limited to 3 buttons on the side, which allowed you to scroll through the options nicely.  It charged with a magnetic connector on the side, so it plugged / unplugged easily.  It is a nice inexpensive entry level SmartWatch.  However, for me I found that its bluetooth range in our house wasn’t very good, and it kept disconnecting.  Even worse, when I came back into range, it didn’t give me the notifications that I missed.  For me this was unacceptable, but for my friend he didn’t seem to go out of range, and he loves it.

So I exchanged them and got myself the Samsung Gear 2 (shown in the image above) for around $299.  It could do all that the Pebble watch did, but instead of having buttons on the side for controls, it had a colour touch screen, and voice recognition.  The voice recognition is built in to the watch itself, and is better than any voice recognition I have used anywhere to date!  It also could be used as a bluetooth speaker phone, and could save some of your favourite music and be used as a music player.  It also had all the fitness apps, and watch faces.

In addition, this is the only SmartWatch that I have found to have sleep monitoring.  I found out using this watch that the reason that I needed 10 hours of sleep was that I was only getting 8 hours motionless sleep.  This information really helped me.

In general, I believe that this watch is designed by people who actually use it.  It is easy to learn, and things work the way you would expect them to.  Samsung has been leading the market, releasing 3 or 4 models before Apple and Android jumped on the watch band wagon.

The main problem with the Samsungs is that they only pair with Samsung Galaxy phones.  Also, my charging connector worn itself out.  After trying unsuccessfully to get it repaired, because I got it from Amazon and got an International model and the local repair depot only fixes Canadian models, I was able to locate the parts I needed online (as well as the tools needed), and fixed it myself.  I still think that this is the best watch ever invented!

Before I got my wife the Gear S, I heard a lot of good reviews on the Moto 360 SmartWatch, so I got her one of those, also for around $299.  It runs Android Wear, which has it’s pro’s and con’s.  Because it is Android, there is a lot of apps you can get, because it is easy to add the extra code to existing android apps to synchronize with them.  I like that my bank has an app that I have installed on my phone, and I didn’t even have to do anything extra, it just installed automatically on my watch.  Now I can check my bank balance on my watch, without pulling out my phone.  Google maps brings up navigation on your watch, however, because the screen is so small you shouldn’t look at it while you are driving, and it doesn’t show you much anyway. It vibrate to notify you when your turn is coming up, which does help.

On the down side, I still get annoyed when I want to see the time and the screen saver doesn’t turn off when I bring my wrist up at the usual angle.  The voice recognition is not on the watch, it relays your voice to the phone which relays to the Google servers….  It takes a long time, and is not as accurate as the Samsung.  It doesn’t have speakerphone capabilities, in fact it doesn’t have a speaker at all.

I currently am using this one, as when I fixed my Samsung, I lost a screw and it wasn’t water proof anymore.  This wasn’t a problem until I went swimming…..  :-O

Android Wear is not my favorite.  It does give me the time (if the screen saver turns off), and my notifications, but it seems like they are playing catchup with the Samsungs.  It’s awkward to use, and it just seems like the people who designed it didn’t think about how people use it.  For example, I use the timer when barbecuing.  On my Samsung watch, I can stop and reset the timer in the app.  On Android Wear the only way to stop it is to exit the app, and then I have to find the app, restart it, and pick the duration again.  Also, Android Wear doesn’t seem to relay my calendar events and alarms as the Samsung does.  I can turn off my alarms from my Gear watch, but I have to go looking for my phone if I want to silence it when I am using Android Wear.

Conclusion:

Most people would be happy with a Pebble SmartWatch.  It is compatible with almost every SmartPhone out there (even Apple), and it is not expensive.  Hopefully you won’t have the range problem that I did.

Android Wear is compatible with any Android phone and many of your existing apps.  However, they are still playing catchup with Samsung.  But if you Don’t have an Samsung Galaxy phone, it is an option.

Samsung is my favorite, but only if you have a Samsung Galaxy phone to pair with it, or go 3G.  I think Samsung would corner the market if they made it compatible with all phones as the Pebble did.