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Amazon Echo vs. Google Home in a virtual standoff

Amazon Echo (Amazon).

Amazon Echo (Amazon).

For decades, we have seen people talk to computers in science fiction movies. Dave spoke to HAL. Michael Knight was assisted by KITT. Captain Picard directed “Computer.” The computers were smart and personable, and they (usually) did what they were told.

When Amazon’s Echo hit the market two years ago, this dream came true — sort of. The Echo was an affordable futuristic device that responded to voice commands. You could ask “Alexa” a question and get an immediate response. This little black cylinder is clearly not full-on artificial intelligence, but it has wowed customers.

Now there’s Google Home, a similar device that rivals Echo in every way. As these high-tech machines vie for dominance, the natural question is: Which one is better? I’ve tried them both, and I can tell you that each has its benefits and drawbacks.

Here are some highs and lows about Amazon Echo and Google Home. For more details, click here for my handy, side-by-side feature comparison chart.

Form factor

Both devices look sleek and sophisticated, like small modernist sculptures. Their simplicity makes them appropriate just about anywhere, but they would probably look best on a Swedish shelving unit.

The 9.2-inches-tall Amazon Echo looks like a small black tower with a blue circle that lights up on top. It has seven microphones, so it easily picks up sound from any direction. It nicely complements the Echo Dot, a separate device that looks like a hockey puck and is designed to help you deliver voice commands in other locations in your home.

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The 5.6-inches-tall Google Home is shaped like a small vase. Its main body is white, but the base’s color can be swapped.

Home looks kind of like an air freshener. Echo looks kind of like a Pringles container designed for Darth Vader. But both are very slick devices that should look right at home in any home.

Voice Commands

Here’s the million-dollar question: How well do they respond to the human voice?

You activate either device by saying its name: For Amazon Echo you’d say, “Alexa, what time is it?” For Google Home you’d say, “OK Google, what time is it?” As long as you’re speaking in English and haven’t consumed an entire bottle of wine, both devices should recognize your question and tell you the time.

The big difference is each device’s frame of reference: Echo connects you to Amazon Assistant, which is a powerful tool for lots of questions, such as “What will the weather be tomorrow?” and “What year was ‘Dr. Zhivago’ released?”

Home connects you to the oceanic knowledge of Google. You will be astonished by how much Google Home knows, and you can even ask follow-up questions. For example, you might ask, “What year did Charles Lindbergh first fly across the Atlantic?” Then you could ask, “Where did he land?” Google Home should remember the previous question and know you are still asking about Charles Lindbergh.

Neither system is going to turn into your virtual best friend. The Echo answers who, when and what questions like weather forecasts, sports updates and measurement conversions. Much of the time, it will politely admit to being confused. Home appears to be a bit smarter because of the vast Google infrastructure it leans on.

But no matter which one you pick, it will sing you happy birthday on request.

Music Streaming

Many customers get so wrapped up in the interactive abilities of Echo and Home that they forget these devices started out as audio speakers.

Here’s the bottom line: Bluetooth speakers will never sound as good as cord-based speakers. True audiophiles will balk at all Bluetooth speakers, no matter how high-tech, because they can never capture the clarity of their predecessors.

That said, these are very nice speakers for casual listening, and they can fill a room with music. Both devices can stream music through the usual services — Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn — and each device has its own music service: Echo connects to Amazon Prime Music, and Home connects to Google Play.

Other Talents

Google Home is very impressive, putting the “smart” in “smart speaker.” But Echo has a two-year advantage, and Amazon has spent this time cultivating its third-party support.

With Echo, you can connect to Audible, track down your missing smartphone, play games and order items on Amazon.com. In smart homes, you can even dim the lights and switch on your security system. With 3,000 individual skills, Echo has come a long way in a short time. It’s incredible how much power you can access by saying, “Alexa…”

Google Home also connects you to smart appliances and a bevy of apps, but it hasn’t refined its network as much as Echo. Google may catch up, but for the moment Echo is leading the charge.

Privacy Issues

For Amazon or Google to answer your questions on demand, they have to be listening all the time. According to Amazon, when Alexa detects its wake word and glows blue, it streams "a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word" to Amazon's servers and closes once your command has been processed. That fraction of a second gets saved along with your main command.

Home operates in a similar way. It constantly listens for the phrase "OK Google." Once detected, its LED lights activate and the recording is sent to Google's servers.

I wrote an entire article about how these devices are always listening and what steps you can take to delete your recordings. Click here to learn more about this now.

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Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com