Q. Of the devices Amazon Echo and Google Home, which do you recommend?
A. I've often joked to my audiences that if you want to see the newest technologies coming our way, just watch some Star Trek reruns. Since the first Star Trek episode aired on Sept. 8, 1966, many of the futuristic technologies shown on the show (and its subsequent series, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation) have become a reality. For example, doors now open automatically as you approach them, we all carry personal communicators, and the handheld device that Jean-Luc Picard uses to manage his crew assignments looks a lot like today's iPad. Now, the Amazon Echo and Google Home are making more of Star Trek's futuristic technology a reality. (I can't wait until transporters and hologram rooms arrive.) Specifically, these devices are computers that accurately receive and execute voice instructions. For those who have not yet used such devices, examples of voice commands the Echo responds to are shown below. (I have programmed my Echo to respond to the name Computer, rather than default name Alexa, so that I feel more like I'm on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.):
Examples of Amazon Echo voice commands
- Computer, play some ’70s music, or play music from the Marshall Tucker band.
- Computer, what’s the weather like today?
- Computer, what movies are playing in my area?
- Computer, how’s the traffic in my area?
- Computer, what’s the current score of the Georgia Tech game?
- Computer, what’s on my calendar today?
- Computer, turn the lights on or turn the fan off. (extra outlet devices required)
- Computer, lock the front door or shut the garage door. (extra devices required)
- Computer, add grape jelly and dog food to my shopping list.
- Computer, read me my messages.
- Computer, reorder shaving cream and Vitamin D tablets.
- Computer, read to me the book Pride and Prejudice (or any book from Audible.com).
- Computer, how many feet in a mile? Or convert 2.5 liters to cups.
- Computer, how long will it take me to drive to the Atlanta airport?
- Computer, how big is the moon?
- Computer, open Domino’s (to order a pizza).
- Computer, order an Uber to come pick me up now.
- Computer, what’s the status of Delta Flight 1219?
- Computer, when will my package arrive?
- Computer, set an alarm for 5:50 a.m.
So which device is better: the Echo or Home? Through continued improvements, they keep leapfrogging each other in functionality in specific areas. As examples, Home recently added instructions for 5 million recipes, while the Echo now enables voice calling to your other Echo devices (no phones are required). Some of the differences between the devices as of July 2017 are summarized below.
Based on my use of both devices and a comparison of the features summarized on the following page, it appears to me that the Echo and Home are fairly equal. Because the Home costs almost 28% less than the Echo, the frugal CPA in me leans toward Google. However, neither device may be your best choice, as recently Amazon released Echo Show ($230 as of August 2017). This new device is basically an Echo-type device with a built-in video screen. This feature is a game-changer that enables the device to support video calls, voice-assisted shopping, YouTube and other videos, weather radar displays, music lyrics, photographs, live-video feed from a baby monitor, security cameras, and more. However, because Echo Show has a small, smartphone-like screen, it's too small to use at a distance, in my opinion. I predict that ultimately, this type of voice command/video technology will migrate to the larger smart TV systems, and then my 1994 prediction that televisions and computers will one day merge to become a single device will be fulfilled.
Privacy note: Some people worry that because these types of devices are always listening, they represent a potential invasion of privacy. While it is true that these devices are continually listening, they record only what's heard just before and immediately after hearing the designated wake word (these devices record a second or two prior to the wake word based on a short streaming buffer, for better clarity). Therefore, they mainly record only those sentences directed toward them. Of course, it is possible for these types of devices to mishear the wake word and record unintended comments, especially if your wake word is a common phrase such as the word "computer," like I use.
These devices do include on/off switches, which you could use to disable and enable the listening capabilities as desired, although turning the devices off undermines their convenience. It is also possible to log in to your device app and delete the recorded history files, but this measure doesn't ensure much protection. The reality is that installing one of these devices is akin to bugging your own house/office; hence, the real question to be asked is whether you trust that the device manufacturers, hackers, and governmental agencies will not leverage this technology to invade your privacy. I certainly don't. Nonetheless, because I feel I have nothing to hide (and I'm probably wrong about that), I therefore continue to use these types of devices to make music and current information instantly available whenever I ask. To me, the convenience is worth the risk.
About the author
J. Carlton Collins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a technology consultant, a CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.
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