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Best smart home hubs: The differences between the Echo and other Amazon devices, Google Home, and Apple HomePod



Smart homes are seriously taking over the world. Remember when Disney Channel’s Smart House premiered in 1999 and we all thought that having a smart home assistant that could talk seemed like the distant future?

Yeah, not so far-fetched anymore.

No, our smart home assistants don’t appear as holograms of 1950s moms (yet). Instead, they come in the form of compact devices and respond to names like Alexa, Google, and Siri — which, honestly, is a lot less creepy than the movie.

The smart home market gets a bit more saturated every day, with new devices popping up all the time. Perhaps the thing stopping you from jumping into the connected tech deep is not knowing which device is right for you. Or maybe you’re shopping around for a gift.

With six devices in the Amazon Echo family, three in the Google Home family, and now with the newly debuted Apple HomePod family, trying to figure out which device best fits your home’s needs can be seriously overwhelming. 

Keep calm — and keep reading.

We’ve broken down the differences between each device in the Amazon, Google, and Apple families, and compared the features as well as customer reviews to give you an idea of WTF these things really do.

Amazon Devices

A huge advantage of the Amazon Echo family is the number of available apps and skills. Alexa is just so damn helpful — and these capabilities are significantly larger than that of the Google Home. We’re not saying the Echo can whip up a smoothie for you, but it is pretty cool that things like ordering pizza, calling an Uber, or getting a hand with recipes are now hands-free.

As you’ve probably seen while poking around on Amazon, Alexa is compatible with a ton of things you probably wouldn’t even think, like robot vacuums, essential oil diffusers, and pet feeders. 

If you’re in the smart home hub game for extreme hands-free control of devices and for a wealth of hands-free skills, something from the Amazon Echo family is probably best for you. (To see a full list of everything that Alexa can do, go here.)

Though each device has a different number of skills, there are a few features that are the same across the board. Each of the six devices is part of the Echo’s “second generation,” meaning they’ve all been updated with better tech. Other than the Dot and the Spot, the devices are each fully equipped Dolby Atmos speakers, which create a three dimensional sound effect and is said to fill the room with whatever’s playing over them, similar to a surround sound setup. Each device also has a feature called “drop-in,” which allows each Echo device in the house to act as an intercom for quick communication.

The device that started it all: the one, the only, the Amazon Echo. If you’re trying to transform your house into a smart home with voice controlled lights, garage doors, or thermostats, the Amazon Echo is a classic choice. Echo supports a massive number of smart home devices, including brands like Philips Hue, Nest, and Wemo. Not only does the 2nd generation’s updated speaker sport impressive, higher-quality sound powered by Dolby, it also incorporates seven far-field microphones so that Alexa can hear your voice commands from longer distances. 

According to Lance Ulanoff:

The new Echo has seven distinct, yet tiny holes on the top. It’s the company’s second-generation far-field array for better listening capabilities. In one noisy room, I asked the new Echo a question and it handled it easily.

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Amazon Echo

The Echo has options for decorative skins available in six varieties, including wood, metallics, and fabrics. Typically priced at $99.99, it often drops down to $84.99. Check it out here.

Looking for the quality of the Echo without the strings attached (literally)? The Amazon Tap is the portable, Bluetooth speaker version of the Echo. Unlike all of the other devices in the family, the Tap doesn’t need to constantly be plugged into an outlet, making it perfect for music on the patio, during a picnic, or at the beach. The Tap is not designed to be one of those rough and tough waterproof speakers, so take extra caution while outside. 

The Tap has a whopping nine hours of playback before needing to be charged again. Charge it as you normally would with any device or in its charging cradle: A brightly colored, silicone case with an easy strap for carrying or attaching to a bag. And yes, that’s included.

While it was originally named the Tap because it required a tap of the finger to launch functions, it is now a hands-free, Alexa-enabled device like the rest of its family. Worth nothing: The Tap does not support voice calling, and Alexa only works when connected to Wi-Fi or a mobile hotspot. But if you want a portable speaker that’s a little bit (a lot) smarter than the rest of the lot, the Tap is perfect for you. Check it out for $129.99 here.

Bring Amazon’s infamous smart home assistant into any room in your house — for under $50. Named a Mashable Choice product in 2016, the Echo Dot is the perfect device to dip your toes in the water of smart devices and Alexa voice commands, so things like turning on lights, locking doors, and ordering pizza can now be 100% hands-free. 

Like its parent the Echo, the Dot also has the far-field microphones. Plus, it’s tiny — so if you’re not into super high-tech decor, your Dot will blend in seamlessly. The Dot is ideal for rooms in the house where big sound isn’t necessary (like the bedroom) but where you still want to be able to ask questions and control devices. 

According to Raymond Wong:

The new Echo Dot will get a new feature called Echo Spatial Perception (ESP). If you have multiple Echos or Dots set up in your home, ESP is supposed to prevent all of them from going off at once when you say the Alexa command; only the one closest to you should activate. Prior to ESP, the only work around was either to whisper to a specific Echo device or name it something else like “Amazon.” 

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Echo Dot

While the Dot’s speaker is not exactly comparable to that of its bigger Dolby counterparts, it can easily connect to another speaker. So if you already have a favorite Bluetooth speaker of your own, just connect it to the Dot. And if you’re in it for the smart home controls and not as much for the crisp music playback, then the Dot is definitely your best bet. It’s regularly priced at $49.99, but frequently goes on sale for $39.99 — check it out here, and check out Dot cases here.

If you’re more of a visual person, the Echo Spot may be calling your name. Not only is it the cutest member of the fam, but the Spot was the first of the Echo family to have a touch screen display in addition to all of the same voice commands. The Spot’s built-in camera affords some super convenient visual features, like hands-free video calling to anyone who has the Alexa app on their smartphone. 

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Echo Spot

Named a Mashable Choice product in 2017, the Spot can also show flash video news briefings, music lyrics, and act as a visual clock or thermometer — because having to physically ask Alexa what time it is every single time could get old. The screen also allows you to take smart home controls to a whole new level, such as live monitoring of smart home security cameras or baby monitors. Gotta make sure the pizza delivery guy isn’t actually a robber, right? Originally priced at $129.99, the Spot frequently drops down to $114.99 — check it out here.

Pause: What’s the point of getting a smart home assistant if you don’t actually have any smart devices? If your home is not yet equipped with app-controlled lights or locks yet, there’s an Amazon device for you. The Echo Plus is more than just a taller, skinnier version of the Echo — it actually has a built-in Zigbee smart home hub, which basically means insanely easy setup of Zigbee smart devices.

Writes Lance Ulanoff:

Its built-in Smart Hub is designed to cut down the steps required to introduce a new smart device to your home down by a factor of 15. 

It even ships with a Philips Hue light bulb to prove this point. lights, locks, plugs, and in-wall switches from brands like Philips Hue and General Electric. 

If your home already has smart devices and you have your eye on an Echo Plus, be sure to check that they work with ZigBee protocol first, otherwise you may not get the functionality you’re looking for and should probably opt for the Echo.

The Amazon Echo Plus comes in three colors and while it’s originally priced at $164.98, it frequently goes on sale for $149.99. Check it out here.

And for the grand finale: the Amazon Echo Show. Everything you love about Alexa is truly brought to life with this sleek device and its giant 7-inch screen. Named a Mashable Choice product in 2017, the Echo Show includes eight microphones to catch your commands, plus Dolby-powered speakers. Like the Spot, you can see flash news briefings and schedules, monitor security cameras, and enjoy video calling. With the Echo Show you’ll also get access to Prime Video and movies, and it can also be used as a digital picture frame.

Writes Lance Ulanoff:

Amazon Echo Show is always on, and by on, I mean engaging you with information. The home screen displays the time and a rotating carousel of news and offers to help you discover more about Alexa’s deep well of capabilities. 

Don’t confuse the Echo Show screen with a tablet. Amazon didn’t cram one of its Fire tablets inside a box. There are no apps here, and touch is a convenience you’ll use mostly as a last resort.

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Amazon Echo Show

While the Drop-In feature acts as a household intercom on screenless devices like Echo and Echo Dot, the Show allows you to “drop in” on someone with a video call without them having to answer. (!!!) While a college student may not appreciate his mom being able to walkie-talkie him whenever she wants, many customer reviews claim that this feature was very useful for contacting elderly parents who have limited mobility or short term memory as it doesn’t require them to pick up a phone or use any buttons.

The Echo Show is the most expensive device in the Echo family and regularly runs at $229.99, but often goes on sale for as low as $179.99. Check it out here.

Google Devices

The biggest competitor to the Amazon Echo family is the Google Home, as it is one of the only other voice-activated smart home hubs with a personal assistant. Google Home is available in three levels and sizes: The Google Home, The Google Home Mini, and the Google Home Max. Note that none of them have a screen, so video calling is a no-go as of now. To activate, just say “OK Google” before your command, and wait for the spinning Google logo colored dots to spin. Note: The dots are slightly harder to see than the Echo’s blue light ring, so it may take a few tries before you know that Google is listening. Enjoy control over tons of devices in your home including from brands like Philips Hue, Wemo, Chromecast, and August.

One advantage that Google Home has over the Amazon Echo family is in the name: Google. While the Echo’s claim to fame is Alexa’s extensive number of skills, a robust search engine powers the Google Home. As such, it’s been said that Google Assistant answers questions significantly more often and more accurately than Alexa. 

Another main draw of Google Home is its ability to understand questions of different structures: meaning that conversation is more natural with Google Home and doesn’t require such specific requests like Alexa. Google Home is also ace in recognizing different voices, so if your home is full of people running around in different directions, Voice Match comes in handy to provide each user’s personal schedule, playlists, and Netflix account. To see a complete list of the smart devices it’s compatible with, restaurants it can order from, games it can play, and the rest of Google Home’s skills, go here.

Named a Mashable Choice product in 2016, the classic Google Home is super minimalist and aesthetically pleasing, with a modular base that can be swapped for alternate color options. Group any combination of Google Home devices, Chromecast, or Chromecast speakers together for synchronous music all over the house and control smart plugs, lights, or any other smart home devices.

Google Home can also make hands-free calls, help with online shopping, and more. While Google Assistant’s number of capabilities cannot yet compete with that of Alexa, it is the hub you’ll want if you’re in the game for fact checking and synchronous music streaming.

Writes Mashable’s Raymond Wong:

Despite its small size, the Home is a decent speaker. Google says it included a “high-excursion speaker” for clear highs and rich bass. The speaker sounds good (comparable to most $50-75 Bluetooth speakers), but the Echo sounds better with deeper bass and clearer highs at the loudest volume. You’ll hear more distortion at louder volumes with Home.

Google Home is originally priced at $129.99 but frequently drops down to $99.99, the same price as the Amazon Echo when it’s not on sale. Check it out here and snag a Chromecast here.

Echo Dot is to Echo as Google Home Mini is to Google Home. This little guy is shaped like a pebble and a perfect, inconspicuous way get the power of Google Assistant for under $50. 

While it does not host a 360-degree speaker and is not ideal for crisp, quality music playback, voice commands via the two far-field microphones are still a go, and an external Bluetooth speaker can easily be connected if you’re in need of higher-quality sound. 

The Mini is ideal for rooms in the house where big sound isn’t necessary (like the bedroom or laundry room) but where you still want to be able to ask questions and control devices. Like the Google Home, the multi-colored dots on the top will light up and spin when it hears “OK Google.” Ask Google for the weather, make a hands-free call, ask a question, order from Applebee’s, and control smart devices like lights, thermostats, or a smart TV. 

Writes Mashable’s Karissa Bell:

Google Home critics like to point out that Google’s developer ecosystem is still pretty far behind Alexa’s skillset, which now has more than 15,000 skills. But the reality is most people probably aren’t going to use more than a handful of apps, and Google is doing a pretty good job of bringing the major players onboard. Unless you have a lot of smart home gadgets not yet supported by Google, chances are Google is more than able to handle what you need — even more so if you’re already at all entrenched in Google’s ecosystem of gadgets and services. 

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini comes in three colors and is regularly priced at $49.99, but frequently goes on sale for $39.99 — in line with the Echo Dot. The are often deals for two-packs, which is perfect for connecting all of the important rooms in the house. Check it out here.

If you’re looking for a seriously powerful home Bluetooth speaker with the power of AI, the Google Home Max is a top contender. While the Amazon Tap was made to be a portable grab-n-go Bluetooth speaker, the Google Home Max is the opposite: It’s meant to stay in place and it’s rather hefty (12 pounds, to be exact). Its six internal microphones are said to measure the acoustics of the room using machine learning, so the speaker can use that info to adjust the equalizer and give more balanced sound. Google has named this Smart Sound, and according to the reviews, the clarity and bass quality lives up to the name and then some.

Writes Mashable’s Karissa Bell:

The Google Home Max […] is designed so that its sound will easily fill a whole room. It has dual 4.5-inch woofers built in, and it’s not difficult to tell that Google spent extra time making sure the bass sounded good. 

Though the Home Max doesn’t have a screen, it does have have a camera — and, when connected to your Chromecast, your live security camera feed can be streamed on any TV your Chromecast is synced with. Of course, voice commands and smart home controls are also available, and Google Assistant is apparently superb at detecting “OK Google” commands even with music blasting. The Home Max can lay horizontally or vertically, depending on the look you’re going for.

The Google Home Max is available in two colors and is regularly priced at $399, which is pretty steep and significantly more expensive than any of the Echo products. However, if you’re a serious music junky and covet crisp sound over all else, dropping that wad of cash is well worth it. Check it out here.

APPLE DEVICES

HomePod automatically calibrates itself whenever it's moved so it always sounds great.

HomePod automatically calibrates itself whenever it’s moved so it always sounds great.

Image: Lili Sams / mashable

It’s no secret that diehard Apple fans have been waiting for a Siri version of the Echo or Google Home. And lo and behold, the newest addition to the smart home hub market is the Apple HomePod, unveiled and made available to the public in February 2018. Named a Mashable Choice product in 2018, it’s the only one in the HomePod line as of now, but we won’t be surprised if Apple starts releasing different sizes as fast as they release new iPhones. 

Say “Hey, Siri” to get the HomePod’s attention, and the LED waveform will indicate it’s listening. Six internal microphones allow Siri to hear your commands or questions, even from a distance.



Writes Mashable’s Raymond Wong:

Apple’s HomePod comes with a long list of fine print. If you own an iOS device, subscribe to Apple Music, can live with Siri’s limited capabilities, care about music quality, and you’re OK with dropping $350 on a smart speaker, you’ll love HomePod. It’s phenomenal.

But if you don’t meet these exact requirements (i.e. you use Android or prefer Spotify), you should stop reading right now because HomePod’s shortcomings will only frustrate you.

One unique feature of the HomePod is that it uses spatial awareness to sense its own location and will adjust and tune the music to sound awesome wherever you are in the room. Sound is just as strong, if not stronger than that of the Google Home Max, and comes in a much less hefty device. 

Like the Home Max, the HomePod is not a Bluetooth speaker, but Siri can play almost any song imaginable through Apple Music (however, if you’re a Spotify or Pandora user, you’re out of luck). 

SEE ALSO: Read Mashable’s full review on the Apple HomePod

Of course, Siri can control smart devices like lights, thermostats, and your Apple TV, or make hands-free calls. As of now, the HomePod does not yet support food or Uber ordering and cannot recognize different voices, but we’re sure those updates aren’t too far off. Basically, the HomePod is the best smart home hub for those who want super quality sound and ultra compatibility with other Apple devices, since an iPhone or iPad is required for operation.

The HomePod comes in black and white and is regularly priced at $349, which is about $50 cheaper than its closest competitor, the Google Home Max. Because it’s so new, it’s likely that it won’t go on sale anytime soon — but then again, if you’re a diehard Apple fan, you probably won’t mind. Check it out here.



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