Google's new $50 speaker is a smarter alternative to the Amazon Echo Dot

  • The Google Home Mini is a small, palm-sized $US49 smart speaker powered by the Google Assistant smart voice assistant.
  • Google Home Mini is a direct competitor to Amazon Echo Dot, a very popular smart speaker that costs the same and is roughly the same size.
  • In my first tests, I like the Google Home Mini more than the Amazon Echo Dot because the Google Assistant agent is generally smarter than Amazon Alexa.

Amazon’s Echo Dot is a sensation: Affordably priced at $US49.99, the sleek, puck-shaped gadget seems to be leading the pack for voice-controlled smart speakers — and taking Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant into new places.

So it came as no surprise this week when Google announced the Google Home Mini, its own take on a smaller smart speaker, at almost the exact same price of $US49. It’s powered by Google Assistant, the search giant’s own voice assistant, and ships on October 19th.

Not only did I get to play with a Mini after the big Google hardware event this week; I got to bring one home and try it in my own house too. And I’m here to make the case that the Google Home Mini is, indeed, better than the Amazon Echo Dot.

Functionality-wise, the two devices are very similar. You wake them up with a magic word — “Alexa” for the Echo Dot, and “OK Google” for the Home Mini — and then ask them to do things. Both of them can play music from major streaming services, set alarms and timers, give you sports scores, and control your smart lightbulbs and other “connected” appliances.

The two devices are also very similar sizes, not much bigger than a hockey puck, though the Home Mini is a little shorter and a touch wider. The Google Home Mini sports an, ahem, unique fabric-covered aesthetic. You can get it in black or white, and Google itself will be selling an exclusive “coral red” colour.

The Home Mini has touch controls on top for volume, and a switch that mutes the microphone. In my initial tests, the Google Home Mini’s speaker seems both a little louder and a touch clearer than the Dot’s.

The Home Mini also supports Bluetooth, so you can connect other gadgets to it and control them with your voice. But it lacks an auxiliary port, which the Dot has. Generally speaking, though, if you really care about sound quality and don’t plan on using an external speaker, you’re going to want either the larger, original model Google Home ($US129) or Amazon Echo ($US99).

Both devices also carry some corporate synergies. With an Amazon Echo Dot, you can shop on Amazon, control a Fire TV streaming box and listen to Amazon Prime Music; with a Google Home Mini, you can control Chromecast streaming devices, access Google Play Music, and shop with new Google partner Walmart. It’s a matter of taste.

OK, so if the two devices are the same in so many ways, why do I like the Google Home Mini better? Well, to answer that, I’m going to have to take a big step back and explain why I like the Google Assistant better than Amazon Alexa.

Assistant over Alexa

Before equipping my house with my first Google Home, I tried the Echo Dot, but got really frustrated at its limitations. It can answer some basic questions (“When do the Yankees play next?”). But, despite Amazon’s efforts to smarten Alexa up over the years, it tends to stumble over anything more complicated (“How do I get rid of a depleted fire extinguisher?”).

You can enable Alexa “skills,” or apps, that extend its knowledge and functionality — skills for recipes, for games, and trivia, and relaxation. And Amazon, to its credit, has put in a lot of work in nudging you towards the right skill, depending on your question. Not every skill is great, though, and frankly, I don’t always remember which skill I need when I’m just trying to figure out a question.

Which is why I like the Google Assistant, and thus Google Home, better. Because it taps straight into Google’s base of knowledge, both global and personal, Google Assistant can answer lots of questions, even the really obscure ones. “What day was the battle of Hogwarts?” “How does Pikachu evolve into Raichu?” Even, “when is my flight on Tuesday?”

Google home miniMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderAll three colours of Google Home Mini available at its October 19th launch.

I don’t want to sound too down on Alexa. Amazon has put a lot of smarts into its assistant, and it’s really convenient to be able to check on my Amazon orders or place new ones with my voice. Functionality-wise, Alexa integrates with way more third-party apps, meaning I can use it with my preferred shopping list app. And yet, Google Home is my favourite.

When we started using the Google Home in my house, we were sceptical after our experiences with the Echo Dot. However, the Google Home has won us over to a frightening degree. “Just ask Google” has become a refrain in our house, for identifying actors in movies, to figuring out what the heck an “ancient grain” is in a recipe.

And the Google Home Mini makes it cheaper to stock our home up with that kind of intelligence, plus each individual unit is more demure and easier to stash on a bookshelf or endtable. We already love Google Assistant, so the only way Google could have messed this up for us by whiffing on the hardware. And so far, Google Home Mini is great.

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