The time when you would pick up your smartphone to check the calendar, weather, maps (to see how long it would take to get to work), or read the news, is passé. Now, you simply have to call out to a smart assistant in a speaker and it’ll give you a response or indicate an action—music, weather, sports scores, reminders to manage smart home devices such as Philips Hue smart lighting, or getting up to date with your calendar.

Artificially intelligent (AI) speakers running Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa now face competition from Google’s Assistant- powered speakers, Home Mini and Home. While you have to call out to Alexa in any speaker based on Amazon’s virtual assistant, you need to say “Hey Google" to the Home speakers. That may take a bit away from the personality element, because there is no name, so to say, for Google’s Assistant.

Audio company Harman Kardon now also has an Alexa-powered speaker called Allure, which is making a strong case for itself among music fans. The Allure is essentially Alexa in a different box, and the AI-based assistant works in the same fashion that it would on Amazon’s own Echo speakers.

Finally, then, there is choice. At present, you can choose Alexa’s corner, with the Echo Dot (Rs4,499), Echo (Rs9,999) and the Echo Plus (Rs14,999), or Harman Kardon’s Allure (Rs22,499). If you think Google’s Assistant is more interesting, your choices are the Home Mini (Rs4,499) and the Home (Rs9,999). As of now, Google has held back the Home Max speaker ($399; around Rs26,000) and may launch that in India at a later date.

We put the Google Home and Allure as well as the virtual assistants through the paces, using them as you would in your homes, to see how they stack up.

We believe a lot of people would opt for smart speakers to listen to music more conveniently. “The voice platform changes everything. I think the convenience will drive adoption in the next few years, but then we’ll start to see those deeper, richer experiences that we all know the music industry needs to sustain and grow," said Pete Downton, deputy chief executive officer of digital music platform 7digital at the NY:LON Connect conference in New York in January.

As if on cue, Alexa links your account to Amazon Music, TuneIn Radio and Saavn, while Google Home lets you access Google Play Music as well as Gaana and Saavn, for instance. The advantage of Amazon and Google having their own music streaming services is that it can drive subscriptions and give users the flexibility of listening to the playlists they create.

If you would like to play a particular track on loop, that’s as easy as, “Hey Alexa, repeat this song," on the Allure—Google Home, however, doesn’t seem to understand the terms loop or repeat.

The Home ecosystem plugs in with apps such as YouTube or Play Music and hardware such as Chromecast audio and video and Android TV-based televisions. For instance, we have an Nvidia Shield TV console that allowed us to say, “Hey Google, play Premier League videos from YouTube on my TV." While Amazon offers something similar if you have a Fire TV Stick device, it isn’t as dynamic as Google’s implementation.

With the Voice Match feature, Google has given Home the ability to distinguish between six different voices. Basically, you can link up to six Google accounts with the Home speaker, and each account will be linked with the owner’s voice pattern (this option is available in the app settings). Once done, personal account details such as calendar details, for instance, will be voiced only after Home identifies your voice. While the privacy of content may not be such an issue for many users, this does mean that each user can get access tohis/her Play Music playlists or YouTube playlists on the same speaker.

Google Home integrates with Netflix and lets you to play a specific show, episode, pause or stop playback on the linked TV, via voice.

When it comes to third-party apps, however, Amazon is still far ahead in the game with what is known as Skills—this is where third-party apps, such as Uber, Practo and ESPNcricinfo, plug into the platform—you can simply call out to them with a command.

If you are someone who likes to know the weather before heading out in the morning, Google Home’s responses are a touch more detailed and accurate. We asked both Home and Alexa about the chances of rain on a particular evening, and while the former said it would rain, the latter said it would not—the former was correct. But though we set the temperature read-out preference to Celsius, Home insists on reading out the temperature in Fahrenheit.

At the moment, it is hard to pick a winner in the battle of smart speaker platforms. Google’s Assistant-powered Home and Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo speakers are pretty close in terms of what they offer, give or take a few of the finer elements. So, it is game on in the race to add new capabilities and features.

Harman Kardon Allure is definitely an improvement over even the high-end Amazon Echo Plus.
Harman Kardon Allure is definitely an improvement over even the high-end Amazon Echo Plus.

Harman Kardon Allure

Rs22,499

Harman Kardon is using Amazon’s Alexa in the Allure. It is large in size and there is a reason for that—it pumps out powerful, home-filling audio with lots of bass. It’s definitely an improvement over even the high-end Amazon Echo Plus. Inside are three audio transducers, each 38mm in size, and a 90mm subwoofer, sending out 360-degree sound. When you play music, the clear panel on the top puts on a light show in blue or red. The Allure can pair with your phone via Bluetooth—the switch between that functionality and activating Alexa is instant. The HK Alexa app is only used for setting up the device and doesn’t offer any features, which is a miss for a music speaker. Alexa, however, works brilliantly, and that makes the Allure worthwhile.

Google Home stands out with a rounded bottom and a sliced-top design.
Google Home stands out with a rounded bottom and a sliced-top design.

Google Home

Rs9,999

Google Home stands out with a rounded bottom and a sliced-top design. It is incredibly compact, yet loud enough for a fairly large living room, with clear sound. If you listen to music often, expect more than acceptable sound, though there isn’t a lot of bass. We did notice that volume equalization isn’t ideal, and Home sometimes sounds too low when you are listening to news, and too loud when you are listening to music. But it’s a must-have for your home if you are embedded in the Google ecosystem for mails, calendar, music, photo storage and more.

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