Is Amazon’s wonder assistant enough to take on Google?
Amazon’s entrance into the Australian market has been quixotic at best. The notoriously secretive company relied on third-party leaks from analysts and investors to let the public know of its slow path towards introducing its main event – the Marketplace – after a quiet but strong introduction via Amazon Web Services. AWS is by far Amazon’s most successful and profitable property, but Marketplace and its associated products and services, are its public brand. This was a brand that existed purely on its international presence, which is very unusual for Australian retail, and pulled in billions from a population desperate for access to reasonably priced electronics, books and fashion.
Amazon’s clumsy (although some say planned) relaunch of its hero website didn’t get a lot of great press, although apparently it has and continues to gain healthy sales volume. Part of this stepped approach included delaying most of Amazon’s primary benefits, including Prime, Fulfilled by Amazon, and, of course, Alexa. In the US, Alexa is well and truly the most well known digital assistant, helped by Amazon’s enormous popularity in the country, coupled with heavily discounted bundles designed to get Amazon’s hardware inside homes ahead of Google or any other competitor.
In Australia, however, Amazon’s reputation sits in a bit of a holding pattern as it struggles to build out its logistics and services, and to supply the range, delivery and pricing promises it touted over the past year or so. Google also had a healthy head start, introducing its Home range with a strong advertising campaign, bundle pricing and inclusion with Pixel 2 handsets. Google has significant brand awareness across its hardware offerings in Australia, with the Chromecast being popular as a cheap streaming option for apps like Netflix and Stan, along with native support for Android devices.
The day my package from Amazon arrived with the full Alexa range – The tiny Dot with its Mum and Dad – Echo and Echo Plus – I already had a Google Home and four minis throughout my house for a number of months. Popular with my family due to voice-activated music and weather, asking “GOO-GOO” for Wiggles songs was a regular Sunday afternoon event. For the purposes of a fair test, however, I packaged up the Google gear and scattered Alexa around the house to see how she fared instead.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the Alexa’s look standard – aside from the Echo which arrived in a very fetching fabric cover – a thick solid plastic cylinder with controls on the top for volume and general functionality. When activated, a blue or green halo appears to signal whether Alexa is listening, thinking or working, which is a nice touch and much easier to see from a distance or in bright settings. Alexa clearly lets you know what’s happening during setup when necessary, or when the device needs to restart to install an update.
Setting up the devices is simply – download the app (iOS or Android) and turn on the devices. Once the first Alexa is setup, Amazon allows you to save your Wifi information on its servers to speed up setup for any future devices – a nice touch – and within a few minutes you’re good to go. That said, Amazon’s Alexa app is awful in almost every way. Unlike Google Home’s brilliant, fast and intuitive app, Alexa’s doesn’t take into context what is happening – rather it pushes you through pointless sets of menus to find out what’s playing, activating smart devices and so forth. If voice is your primary point of interaction, then this is less of a problem, but it doesn’t need to be.
When it comes to voice however, Alexa shines. The 6 microphones in each unit means Alexa can hear your trigger words even as its playing music or while other devices, like TVs, are blanketing the area with sound. Her responses are smooth and conversational – she’s great at the weather but when it comes to the stuff you’re used to Siri or Google just “knowing”, Alexa helpfully refers you to the app to fill in things like your address or your workplace. But one of the biggest boons Alexa features over its competition are “skills” – expansion packs of sorts that you can turn on in the app that connect Alexa to banks, airlines, and other services. One of the cooler examples is a built in Choose Your Adventure game that is perfect to play with kids who can just speak their responses naturally. You can also connect to Westpac or NAB to check your bank balance or Qantas to see if your flight is on time.
Skills are easily the best part of the Alexa experience and elevate it over its competitors – while Google Home has a few the breadth of available skills in the Alexa library is wide and they have done well to quickly on board quite a lot of Australian services. There are also the same local Easter eggs, jokes and silly phrases that Amazon’s local programmers have generously offered for the launch of the products. I’m still wondering why Alexa can’t install skills herself however? But that’s not the only thing she struggles with.
Alexa can’t talk to any Fire products, including the one Amazon currently sells, as they aren’t set up for Australia just yet. No Audible either. It can’t order products from either the US or AUS websites. It sometimes says miles or pounds for no reason, even after being set up for metric by default. It also has a few problems understanding custom triggers – names for smart bulbs or for Alexa herself – especially if they are multiple words. I named my (supplied) Smart Bulk “Entry Light” and Alexa fell over herself for days understanding it until it suddenly seemed to click one day. Machine learning for the win.
Currently, Alexa only allows voice control with Spotify, Amazon Music and Tune In – which is fine for the majority of users with Spotify, and they also have a generous 90 day trial for Amazon Music. Google Play Music users? Sorry. In any case, Sonos is probably the only smart speaker platform with a truly generous array of support, so it’s not fair to penalise Amazon too much for this, since Google Home and the Apple HomePod both prioritise their own services as well. This leads us to what I would consider one of the most important aspects of a smart speaker – how it sounds.
Straight off the bat, I have to note that the Echo Dot's sound quality is well below average. Unlike the Google Mini, which can passably perform a basic level of sound quality (especially in collaboration with other minis and a few larger homes), the Dot sounds like a broken clock radio. Extremely tinny, weak and scratchy, I couldn’t listen to anything other than Alexa’s voice for more than a few minutes. If you’re planning to play music primarily, stay well away from the Dot.
Thankfully, the Echo and Echo Plus are leaps and bounds ahead of both the Dot and any of the available Google Home products. The sound, while not at Apple Homepod levels of quality, is clean, rich and has a decent amount of bass. Speakers can be combined for an even better stereo sound, with the Echo Plus just edging out the standard model thanks to its wider tweeters. Audiophiles will probably disagree, but for the majority of people who just want something to play music when guests are over or for a bit of Sunday afternoon dancing with the kids, it does the job very well.
All in all, Alexa is an impressive work in progress. Although it currently lacks the large Amazon ecosystem in Australia, namely access to Prime, Shopping, Fire TV, Audible and Fire Tablets, what it does do, it does incredibly well. Alexa's AI is very advanced for its age and, like Google Assistant, becomes smarter and more capable everyday. As Amazon gradually rolls out more of its services and becomes a more mainstream part of the landscape, so too will the capability and usability of the Echo hardware.