Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Smart Speakers with Digital Assistants help simplify and manage life. Different speakers, however, have unique strengths and weaknesses.
This article augments the "Introduction to Smart Speakers" post. We compare key differences between the two most affordable, popular smart speakers - Amazon's Echo Dot with Alexa and the Google Nest Mini with Google Assistant (previously Google Home Mini).
Together Amazon and Google have 84% of the North American smart speaker market and they're in a battle to own your home! Amazon still dominates in the US but Google continues to grow and has the largest market share in Canada.
Both mini speakers retail for $50 in the United States and $70 CDN in Canada. Both frequently discount their list prices around the same times.
Download this Smart Speaker Comparison for a full list of popular features for aging well.
The best smart speaker for you will depend on your priorities and where you live. Some Echo features are only available in the United States.
Consider the Echo Dot with Alexa if your #1 priority is remote support and getting help when you can't get to your phone, especially if you live in the United States.
Consider the Google Nest Mini with Google Assistant if your top priorities are reminders and help remembering things.
Echo Dot Pros
#1. 911 for Americans. In the United States, Amazon supports adding a $35 Echo Connect to your home landline phone. Alexa inside the Echo speaker uses the Echo Connect to route the call through the home phone line so 911 will accept the call.
Home speakers calls over the internet are not accepted by 911 and Google does not yet have a device like the Echo Connect. The Echo Connect is not yet, supported in Canada so Canadians cannot call 911 from either speaker..
#2. Drop-in intercom feature. Drop-in acts like a remote two-way baby intercom using Alexa in-app communications. It's an easy way to stay connected and support a friend or family member from a remote location. Drop-In permission is assigned to friends or family through the Alexa app.
The intercom is only activated when a decision is made to drop in.
Example. I have permission to drop in on my Mom so I say "Alexa, Drop in on Mom" from my Echo or from the Alexa App on my SmartPhone. I can then call out to Mom and listen for her without her having to accept a call. Either one of us can end the drop-in session at any time. She now prefer Drop In to answering or making in-app Alexa calls.
For privacy, drop-ins can be temporarily blocked by turning on "Do Not Disturb" within the app.
Other Echo Perks
Alexa-to-Alexa in-app calling. In-app Alexa calling offers a back-up to reaching someone on the phone. This can be useful for someone who makes/receivers Alexa all calls all the time so it becomes a habit. It is less likely to work well in emergencies if not a habit.
Timer Names Are Announced. If you name a timer, Alexa automatically tells you what the timer is for when it goes off. Google will tell you if you ask. Timers are only good for one time alerts within 24 hours.
Online shopping by voice command. Voice purchasing is integrated with online shopping through Amazon Prime in the U.S. and Canada. If you buy through Amazon Prime you may find this feature convenient. Google's shopping options are limited.
Good visual light ring indicator. The ring let's you know Alexa is working on your request so you don't repeat your request. Repeating causes her to start over again! It also it changes to orange when you have a missed notification for something like a package delivery from Amazon.)
Echo Dot Cons
#1. Smart Phone set up required to enable communication features. Alexa can only place calls or support Drop-in when you set up the Alexa App through a compatible Smart Phone.
Mobile service is NOT required for set up. If you want the Echo but do not have a compatible phone, consider asking family or friends if they have an old phone lying around that you can use over WiFi. Another option is to get a lower cost burner phone.
#2. No named alarms for future or repeat reminders. Alexa cannot name alarms for repeat alerts or future events. (She can only name timers which must occur within 24 hours.) When the alarm goes off, she can't tell you what the alarm is for. If you have multiple reminder needs, this becomes a problem.
Named alarms are important because the official 'Reminder' feature is easy to miss on both speakers. 'Reminders' only give you a few short alerts then stop. I recommend using the Alarms feature because they persist for at least 10 minutes and are hard to miss.
Areas For Echo Improvement
Online search by voice. Alexa's natural voice recognition is pretty good but Google's is better. This doesn't matter for common commands you use all the time. It is something to consider if you plan to do a lot of online search through voice commands. Anyone planning to avoid or augment screen readers due to vision challenges may find Google Nest a better experience.
Google Nest (Home) Mini Pros
#1. Named alarms for future and repeat reminders. Google Assistant has the best ability to give you future one time or recurring reminders through Alarms. It's easy to name your alarms and set them up for different time of day and day of week. Alarms can also set them by specifying minutes or hours just like a timer thus all reminders can be set by using the one Alarm feature.
Example. Just say...
"Hey Google, set a Doctor's appointment Alarm for July 5th at 3PM."
"Hey Google, set my red pill alarm for every day at 8am."
"Hey Google, set my .Garbage Day alarm for every Tuesday at 2pm.
"Hey Google, set my tea alarm for three and a half minutes"
When the alarm goes off, just say "Stop" to end it, "Snooze for XX minutes", or ask
"Hey Google, what's my alarm for?"
#2. The 'Remember This' feature. Do you write yourself reminder notes? Are you like me and always forget where you put something for safe keeping? The Remember This Feature let's you tell Google to remember things for you.
Example. Just say
"Hey Google, Remember I hid Kate's birthday gift in my front hall cabinet".
"Hey Google, remember I put my spare car keys in the ...."
Later say "Hey Google, where did I hide Kate's birthday gift?" She'll give you the answer.
This feature works on the Echo in the US but not in Canada.
#3. Tablet or iPad set-up works for all features. Unlike the Alexa app set up, the Google Home app does not require a Smartphone for set up to activate voice calling features. Google let's you import a contacts list from other devices to your Tablet or iPad so the voice calling feature will work.
Both speakers use your phone contacts as part of set up for calling features. Importing contact lists to a tablet is doable, but it is more complicated and time consuming than set-up through a Smart Phone.
Other Google Perks
On-line search by voice. Google simply has more experience with search and still has the best Natural Voice Recognition. Alexa is best for shopping searches, but overall, Google Assistant has the best general search-by-voice capability. Both are pretty good.
this strength is most important for those planning to use their home speaker for a lot of online search, in particular, anyone with vision challenges who would like to augment or avoid using a screen reader.
Google Nest (Home) Cons
#1. For Americans. No Echo Connect add-on product for calling 911 in the United States. This does not matter in Canada or other countries because neither home speaker can send calls to 911 outside the US.
#2. No Drop In Intercom feature. As noted above, this Alexa feature helps care givers and family members more easily check in on their loved ones. I hope Google will soon find a way to offer such a feature.
Areas for Google Nest Mini Improvement
Visual indicators. The four lights on top of the Google Nest Mini can be difficult to see and notice unless it is dark. The Gen 2 Google Nest Mini has wall mount capability so the lights are facing out, not up towards the ceiling. This makes it easier to see the lights. Various speaker stands also allow for vertical placement to make it easier to see.
Alexa's in-app communication features make her a stronger fit for anyone who's number one concern is monitoring a vulnerable adult or friend. Even more so for anyone living in the United States who want the option to call 911 when they can't get to a phone.
The combination of Named Alarms with the Remember This feature make Google the clear winner for help remembering things no matter where you live.
Download these print friendly Key Take-Aways or read on for a deeper dive.
A Deeper Dive
The Human Factor and Technicalities
The Human Voice Factor
An injured or unwell person may be too weak to speak loudly enough to be heard or to be recognized by the assistant. With voice match, neither Google nor Alexa will respond if they don't recognize your voice. I first realized this problem when talking softly at night - Google would not respond until I used the day voice she was trained to recognize. Tired of being ignored, I deactivated voice match and it got better!
Both Google and Alexa also fail to respond when I speak too softly which suggests they may not work well during an emergency when a person's voice may be weak.
TIP: Consider deactivating voice match and test speaker for responsiveness to soft or weak voices.
The Human Usability Factor.
Will I remember to use it when needed most? Many people in their 80's tell me they doubt they'll even think to make a call through Alexa or Google during an emergency. And even if they did think to do so, they fear they won't remember how to make such a call.
My mother is a good example even without the emergency. She found the in-app Alexa call feature easy to use but forgot how to use it when we went back to regular phones after a while.
TIP: Consider making at least one call per day, or placing all calls, through your assistant to build a new habit if you want to use voice calling for emergency purposes when you can't get to a phone.
Smart Phone set-up requirements.
Before purchasing, ensure you have the devices you need to set up the app. If you plan to ask Alexa or Google to place calls, they'll need your contacts from your Smart Phone.
Alexa was designed to set up voice communication features through integration with your Smartphone. Alexa communications cannot be set up from a computer or tablet.
Google let's you use set up contacts through your Smart Phone or a contact list on a tablet. On the upside, mobile phone service is not required when using the Smart Phones for set up and management. A WiFi connection is all that's required.
For the Echo, this means you must have a compatible Smart Phone to set up the Alexa app - an iPhone on iOS 9 or higher or a Smartphone on Android 5.0 or higher.
For the Google Nest Mini, your apple device (iPhone or iPad) must run iOS 12 or higher and your Smart Phone must run no less than Android 5.0, or a tablet running no less than Android 6.0.
Any feature that uses your contacts will have these same set-up requirements. Examples include sharing lists (like shopping lists with family) and Alexa's Drop In intercom feature.
Understanding 911 Limitations.
Complex systems tell 911 your location when you call from a landline or cell phone. This information is not provided when a call comes from a home speaker over the internet. As such, 911 won't accept a call from your home speaker. However, if you live in the United States, you can buy an Echo Connect for $35 US and turn your Echo into a hands-free speaker for your home phone line. When you ask Alexa to call 911, she will use the Echo Connect to route the call through your home phone landline. The Echo Connect is only supported for set up in the United States when associated with American Amazon Alexa accounts.
These smart speakers are not designed to be an emergency service product and there may be times when you cannot make a call. Wifi modems sometimes get hung up and need resetting. The speakers themselves sometimes get hung up and need resetting. While a reset can be as easy as disconnecting and reconnecting the power to your device, sometimes a full reset is required. And you don't want it happening during an emergency. The Smart Speakers provide a great back up but do not expect the same reliability you get from those super simple life line pendants that connect to your home phone line!
Alarms, Timers & Reminders. What's the Deal?
Why care about alarms? Why not use the official 'Reminder' feature or timers? We care about alarms because
regular reminders are too easy to miss and
timers are only good for one time events within the next 24 hours!
Saying the words "Remind me to...." activates the feature called 'Reminders'. (A technical carry over from our computers and calandar systems.) This feature creates one or two, short, easy-to-miss alert notification. Alarms, however, continue to sound for 10 minutes and are much harder to miss.
Timers are limited to one time events that must occur within 24 hours. They can be useful but don't help much with recurring or future alert and reminder needs.
Alarms are good for any one time task, recurring event, or future event. Just like calendar reminders they can be set for every day, a specific day of the week or a specific future date and time. Google's alarms can also be set just like a timer - by specifying minutes or hours.
Because I have so many alarms, I need to name them. For example, Google reminds me to give my dog her red pill with Monday breakfast and Thursday dinner. She reminds me to order Nishi's prescription refill 3 day's before it's due! I also ask Google to set alarms to check the stove and turn off the sprinklers.
Google names alarms, Alexa does not. This makes alarms very useful with Google but far less useful with the Alexa inside the Echo.
TIP: Avoid using the word "reminder" when setting your alerts.
TIP: Always ask Google to set an Alarms. You can use timer commands but it's easier to manage and respond to Google if you're using just one group of commands words!
Blog Post. Introduction to Smart Speakers
Blog Post. Best Tech for Falls and Getting Help (A comparison of Home Speakers, Smart Watches and traditional Medical Alert services.)
Printable. Feature Comparison Checklist. Echo Dot and Google Nest Mini
Printable. Print Friendly Key Take-Aways for This Post - Best Home Speaker For Seniors (Includes Feature Checklist)
Wishing you the best,