is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
I’m sure I’m not the only person who got both an Amazon Echo and a Google Home over the holidays and is putting both of them through their paces. But I’m definitely the only person who got both and who writes on this blog, so here are my thoughts about the two.
My wife gave her parents an Amazon Echo for Christmas and the whole extended family played with it last week when we were visiting. What I saw was that, for both adults and kids encountering this kind of technology for the first time, it’s a blast to learn, play and explore the device’s capabilities. So much so that the Echo’s novelty just about eclipses how rough Alexa’s natural language processing still is.
The Echo’s a blast—so much so that its novelty eclipses its still very rough natural language processing.
Alexa is clearly able to understand your commands—and act on them—better than Siri is able to, but it doesn’t feel leagues better. In practice, it’s not uncommon to have to issue commands three, four, five or more times before Alexa understands what you’re trying to say—or until you learn the way Alexa wants you to say it. In fact, I found that the mere act of listening to other people of varying tech savviness negotiate with Alexa to get things done can be a frustrating experience. I bit my tongue several times as family members wrestled with slight variations on phrasing, emphasis and syntax—and then I went ahead and encountered exactly the same problems when uttering my own commands. Nevertheless, none of this dissuaded people from continuing to talk to Alexa. In the pantheon of this past Christmas season’s gifts, it was a hit.
At home we also received an Echo Dot as a present, a product which I think could be a home run. For just US$50, you get everything that the Echo does except for the higher quality speaker (which means Amazon is basically charging you US$130 for the full fledged version’s speaker, when you think about it). At that price point, I could easily imagine having a Dot in each room of the house, which would make for a really powerful system.
After we got back to Brooklyn, I hooked up the Dot to my Todoist account. Task management has always been my top priority for any kind of A.I.-based assistant; one of my biggest complaints about technology is that it still hasn’t solved the use case in which a task occurs to me and, somewhere between having that thought and pulling out my phone, unlocking it and opening up Todoist, I’ve somehow forgotten entirely what it was I was trying to record. Fewer things are more frustrating.
Technically, Alexa does solve that problem, but not very elegantly. You can certainly ask it to record items for you, and if it understands what you’re saying (again, phrasing, emphasis and syntax are important, and assigning dates via voice can be a frustrating challenge) it will add them to both its Alexa-based to-do list and to Todoist itself. But it often misinterprets dates, and it’s difficult to edit or correct what it records. The end result is something less than a well-formed task, as it may require editing and/or tagging and filing on a screen. A friend of mine says he uses Alexa-plus-Todoist to merely capture what he said and then massages the data later; to me, that’s just one step up from a voice memo.
By comparison Google Home and Todoist make for a moderately better pair. For one, Home lets you “talk” directly with Todoist—literally, a different voice takes over (that’s a meaningful change in the user interface that has the effect of making you feel that you’re interacting directly with the service, instead of through a middleman)—where Alexa merely syncs its tasks to the third-party app. Additionally, you can mark items as completed, add labels and move items to different projects. On the whole, this is a step up from Alexa and so I find it much more useful. But what I also discovered was that it’s relatively difficult to navigate a to-do list by voice; I have lots of items on my list at any given moment, and it’s time-consuming to go through them via audio. I also felt gun shy about editing them or marking them completed, afraid that I would inadvertently mess up my tasks somehow. Maybe more experience with these systems will bring a greater level of confidence. As it stands, I don’t yet feel proficient getting things done by voice.
On the other hand, both systems do relatively well with lower stakes tasks, like playing music. In fact, having a virtually unlimited catalog of music, as you get with Spotify, that can be controlled by voice will probably, for most people, be the single most useful aspect of these devices. In the case of my in-laws, when we added a Spotify account to their Echo and they realized that you could ask for just about anything and the Echo would give it to them, the device seemed to become much more useful.
However, here I still have a complaint. Neither Echo nor Home are able to play music via Spotify Connect. Which is to say, as of today, they’re only capable of playing music through their own speakers (or the ones that they’re directly linked up to). I have a network of AirPlay speakers set up in my house, and what I would like to do is to tell Alexa or Google Assistant to play music on, say, the living room speaker, or in the kitchen and in my office at the same time. That’s currently not possible, though this capability will come to Sonos speakers sometime in 2017. Hopefully Spotify is not deferring a solution to this problem entirely to Sonos, as I’m on record for having no real use for Sonos in my house.
A few more comparison notes: both devices include prominently placed buttons that allow you to turn off their listening capabilities instantly. As a somewhat privacy-minded tech consumer, this was important to me, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the buttons are essentially useless if you want to use the smart speaker, and the smart speaker is essentially useless if you want to use the button. It seems pretty unlikely that I’ll ever have the wherewithal to use this feature if I keep these devices in my home; it’s just not practical to try to remember to turn off the mic and also remember to turn it on later. The end result is that, like it or not, these devices are always listening. In fact, this always-on user experience is why these machines succeed where Siri doesn’t; they save a click, which is all people really want out of technology innovation.
And finally, design. The Google Home comes in a nicer package, is a much nicer form factor, and is just gorgeous. It’s a very handsome expression of impressive technology. That said, the Amazon Echo, and the Echo Dot, look like they’re gadgets that you would buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond and are packaged exactly that way—and I don’t mean that pejoratively. An Echo looks like it belongs in your home, alongside your Kitchen-Aid and your fancy coffee maker. An Echo is not a miniature totem of technological achievement, it’s an appliance that makes your life easier. That says a lot about the difference between these two.+