Monday, 26 June 2017

Amazon Alexa (Echo, Dot) vs Google Home for Kids and Families: A Comparison


We've been using both Amazon Alexa  (Echo and Dot) and Google Home since each came out. This comparison focuses on families with children using a voice assistant.

As a family we're deep into both the Amazon and Google infrastructures, and yes, we love our tech, so it made sense for us to give both devices a try and we've been using them side by side since Google Home was available (we've had Alexa since it came out in the UK.)

What is a Voice Assistant?

A voice assistant is a device that can respond to voice queries and requests. A common list of features is:
  • Respond to general information questions
  • Manage shopping and task lists
  • Play music
  • Control home automation devices
  • Set alarms and alerts
  • Integrate with a calendar
  • Support games and educational and informational apps
Both Alexa and Google Home are designed for adult use but of course children are going to be drawn to them. 

Note that there are also conversational toys for children with some of these features. 


Parental Controls

Neither device has parental controls or is designed for use by children. We're expecting that this will change over time. The devices need to be usable in households with children. You can't stop your kids talking (believe me, there have been times when I've tried!)

Alexa does have a pin to protect purchases so you can make sure that kids can't buy stuff on Amazon - just remember not to use the pin when they're within earshot!

Be careful with third party skills and actions which may not be password protected.

Google Home allows you to restrict explicit songs in Youtube and Google Play (subscription required.) This doesn't restrict songs you have paid for may and may not be okay depending on your music collection.

I have to admit that there are some songs that we listen to as a family that might not pass filters (but they're good songs!) We prefer to be the ones to decide what our kids can listen to. I don't think hearing Hank Green sing an occasional swear word is going to cause long-term damage. If something really inappropriate comes on I just stop it (it's not like you even have to get up!) I guess this gets trickier with older kids that are left home alone, but every request is logged. 

Both devices avoid swearing but you can certainly ask questions and get responses that some parents would consider inappropriate. My personal take on this is that younger kids should be supervised when using the devices and older kids should be told that their questions will be stored online so that they understand the privacy implications. 

Just tell younger kids that they can only use the devices when a trusted adult is present. If they break the rule then that's a discipline issue. Both devices recognise their wake words when they're talking so it's easy to stop them if something inappropriate (or more likely, irrelevant comes up.)

In practice, this hasn't been an issue with my kids but they're more likely to ask for the digits of Pi than anything inappropriate. 

I'm sure we'll see more parental control features in both devices in future because there's a strong demand for it.

Wake Word

To talk to Alexa, you just say her name (you can configure this to be Amazon or Echo instead.)

To talk to Google Home you say either 'OK Google' or 'Hey Google'.

The reason that the wake words are limited to specific words is that recognition of these words is done locally and audio is only processed after hearing a wake word. 

We've found that it's very natural to say Alexa and then start talking. On the other hand, 'OK Google' is a real mouthful and I'm slightly disconcerted by my kids saying the name of a company many times a day. (They don't use google as a verb like us older folks, they say 'search it up.')

It sounds daft, but this is almost a deal breaker for us.

My kids talk absolutely non-stop when they are playing multi-player games (we're always bemused by the idea that devices make kids anti-social!) and we get very few false positives from either device. Alexa is more likely to be triggered accidentally but the blue light and beep makes this very clear.

Design

When you say Alexa's wake word a blue ring lights up on top of the device to show that it's listening. Google Home also has lights on top but in our house the devices are in an area that gets a lot of daylight and we can't see the lights at all. 

Alexa's light is really useful as the kids know that she's listening as they talk. 

Success in Understanding

Both devices do a good job of understanding my children aged 8 and 10. We've been tracking and trialling voice recognition for a long time and it's come a very long way.

Google Home probably has the edge over Alexa for understanding. But both systems are usable. Note that we have UK accents and the devices if anything we'd expect the experience to be optimised for US accents.

Voice recognition is obviously trickier with little kids who don't speak clearly yet, but we're impressed with the results for slightly older children. It might motivate little kids to try and speak more clearly. 

Voice and Personality

Both devices use a female voice. Google Home has a much more technically realistic voice but both of my children prefer Alexa's voice. It has more warmth and personality. 

Alexa's responses are also packed with humour and character. Google Home feels a lot more corporate.

Jokes and Singing

As far as kids are concerned, quality of jokes is a key features of a voice assistant. 

Both devices have a repertoire of terrible jokes. My kids prefer Alexa's jokes as they understand more of them. Google Home seems to have more jokes that they just don't have the background knowledge for. 

When asked to sing a song, Google Home sings a selection of short songs as herself. Alexa sings Auld Lang Syne which pleases my Robbie Burns loving 10 year old and would be great at new year, but seems rather odd in the summer! We've had different responses from Alexa in the past. Let's just say there's room for improvement for both devices. 

Story-telling

Google Home's responses to "tell a story" are very clever and meta. We've not discovered any actual story-telling.

Alexa does tell stories. She has a collection of short stories. The ones we've heard are suitable for children (though not specifically for them) and explore some interesting concepts. 

Alexa also has story-telling skills and there are some really good options including interactive stories. 

You can also listen to audio books with Alexa. You can play Audible books (which have audio recorded by a narrator) and you can also play text-to-speech enabled Kindle Books. This is pretty cool. We've been listening to the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy audiobook.

We were surprised to find that Google Home doesn't have a read aloud feature yet and also doesn't have audio books because Google Play doesn't sell them. You can cast audio from a device, but that kind of breaks the voice assistant idea for us. 

Shopping List

We use the shopping list feature in Alexa a lot. My kids add things to the list if they notice we've run out. It makes them independent and means I don't have to remember everything. 

I can then access the list from Alexa or the Alexa app to find out what's on it when I do a shopping order for delivery. The shopping list doesn't order things from Amazon it's just a list. This works well for me, I regularly shop with a supermarket for home delivery and I order some items from Amazon. 

You have to go into the app to delete items from the list but that's not too bad as I'm at a device when I'm placing a shopping order anyway. 

We've been happy with the Alexa feature so hadn't really explored Google Home's shopping list. There's been a recent change which means that the shopping list goes to the Google Express app. Google Express is Google's shopping service which is only available in some areas in the US and not at all in the UK. It used to link to Google Keep which would have been much more useful for us. 

Success in Answering Questions

My kids tend to ask Alexa first and if they don't get a good enough answer they'll move on to Google Home.

These are just examples and the responses could change at any time (or be different on repeated asking.)

Question
Alexa
Google Home
What is the Terra Blade form Terraria?
No answer
Good answer
What is your favourite colour?
Range of fun answers
She likes the Google colours
What is Pi?
Gives lots of digits plus a ‘wowser’ and ‘this goes on for ever’
Pi is 3.14. (Not really the level of accuracy they were looking for.)
Which album is Pinball Wizard from?
Sorry I don’t know that. But can play the song and then you can ask ‘what song was that?’ and the answer includes the album and band! And can then play songs from the album.
Tommy by the Who

This is pretty representative of the kind of things my kids ask. Google Home often returns better answers to general knowledge questions that require factual answers. But Alexa is the winner on giving entertaining responses to their less serious questions.

My kids tend to ask Alexa (we have an Echo and a Dot) first and then might also ask Google Home depending on the response they got.

Games and Apps

Both devices can roll a dice which is quite a useful feature. Google Home adds a dice roll sound effect which is nice. Both devices can roll multiple dice and give you the total. Lots of kids magazines and annuals have printed board games, now you don't have to go hunting for a physical dice. 

They can both flip coins too. Again, Google Home adds a sound effect. Now you can solve family disputes easily!

Google Home supports Akinator which my kids love (it tries to guess the person or character you are thinking of by asking yes/no questions.) Unfortunately, it's not available for devices with British English so we couldn't try it.

We asked Alexa to play a game and she offered to enable the Memory Flow skill. This tests recollection of a list of words, adding another word on each turn. This is pretty neat.

There are lots more games available as Alexa skills and Alexa offers new one when you ask to play a game. This is a really interesting way to play games. My 10 year old loves Yeti Hunt where you have to move around and listen to clues to hunt a yeti.

Google Home offers a Crystal Ball 'game' which gives a random yes/no answer to a question. Mildly entertaining. There's also a quiz game but this is tricky and also quite US-centric.

Google Home also offers an RPG game called 6 swords which sounds interesting but isn't available with a British English device. It does work on Alexa with linked accounts which means that we can play it, but each player needs their own linked Amazon account.

Gaming using voice assistants looks really promising. There's a lot more content available for Alexa at the moment.

Music

"Alexa, play Pinball Wizard. ... Alexa volume up ... Alexa repeat" - My 8 year old
Being able to play music is important in our house. When we play board games and card games we like to have music on. 

With Alexa we can access Amazon Prime music (well we can when it's switched to my account) which gives us a reasonable choice of music. We can really easily take turns choosing specific tracks or asking for a track by a particular artist. It's so easy to switch songs without disrupting our game and everyone feels that it's a fair way of doing things (we don't all have the same taste in music!)

We haven't found a good way to work with music on Google Home. My partner has all of his extensive library of music in Google Play but we haven't found a good way to access this music via Google Home without paying for Google Play account. My partner is not willing to do this to get access to his own music! You can set up specific play lists and access those and that may be a good approach for some families. It doesn't work well for the way we use music. Neither does casting from an Android device - we don't want to be fiddling with devices when we're playing games. 

You can use a premium Spotify account and other providers with both devices so your music experience will really depend on your media setup. 

Chromecast and Fire TV / Stick

Google Home can be used to control a Chromecast device which is handy if you have one. We have a Chromecast connected to our main TV so we've been using Google Home to control Netflix, YouTube etc. Using Google Home to play YouTube videos on the Chromecast via the TV does give us another option for playing music. 

Amazon have taken a different approach and added Alexa support to their latest Fire Sticks so you don't actually need another Alexa device to control them. This support has been added to existing Fire Sticks that have a voice remote. Yep, you guessed it, we have a Fire TV too. This means we can use Alexa on our other TV to control Netflix, Amazon video, YouTube and other media. 

Verdict

We're loving having voice assistants. They're great for all those questions that kids come out with that you can't actually answer. Especially at the dinner table. 

The alarm setting features make the kids much more independent. They have alarms set up on Alexa but this is because she came first. 

We've focussed on the features of Alexa and Google Home that kids are likely to interact with. We'll do a fuller comparison of other features once we get access to multiple accounts for Google Home in the UK. Not having multiple accounts is a real blocker in our household. Multiple account support is available in the US for Google Home. Alexa has support for multiple accounts though we'd like full sharing rather than having to switch between accounts.

Whether you choose an Amazon Alexa device (Echo, Dot or Tap) or a Google Home will depend partly on which ecosystem you're more tied into.

It's also important to consider that both devices are gaining functionality all the time. This is great for us as it keeps pushing the technology forward.

At the moment we'd say Alexa would be our preference because of the way the kids interact with the device (they like Alexa), the wider set of skills that are available, Amazon Prime music and support for audio books. My kids definitely prefer Alexa's 'personality', it seems more, well, personable.

Google Home does provide better responses to some of the kids' questions. They were particularly impressed that it knows what a Terra blade is.  Being able to control our Chromecast device is also handy.

For us, having both devices is the ideal at the moment.

Buy: Amazon Alexa US | UK           Google Home US | UK




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Comments:

Jo Jaquinta said...

Thanks for the shout-out for 6 Swords! FYI: The account linking has been turned off now for both Echo and Google Home. I hope that helps with playability.

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