THE LATEST range war on the technology front is literally a shouting match, with Google and Amazon bidding for supremacy at taking orders barked from across the living room.
Google fired the latest shot this week with the release of a product it calls Home, a sort of electronic butler that responds to your voice and has the potential to control a limited range of Bluetooth or wifi-enabled household gadgets.
Like Amazon’s established Echo range, the Home is a “smart loudspeaker” with a built-in microphone that listens for voice commands and then responds, using the same “artificial intelligence” that powers Siri and Google Now on your phone.
That is the supposed attraction but it’s also the problem, because neither the Home nor the Echo does much that your phone doesn’t do already. You can say to one or the other, “what’s on BBC1 tonight?” and it will read the schedule to you… but so will your phone. In any case, it’s information you can digest more easily by reading on a screen than by having read aloud to you, parrot fashion.
The irony is underscored by the fact that in order to set up either system, you have to first install an app on your handset.
While your phone can only really play music through headphones, the Echo and Home do have the advantage of being self-contained. Both have credible integral speakers that are are loud enough to fill a room, but they are too small to ever replace your hi-fi units. Using a single speaker to play your music, just for the convenience of voice recognition, doesn’t sound to me like a significant step forward, although depending on what type of connectivity your existing speakers have, you may be able to stream the sound to them.
Google Home can be bought off the shelf for a little under £130. It measures five and half inches tall and just under four inches around the middle, and looks a little like the sort of table lamp you could have ordered from the Green Shield stamps catalogue in the 1970s. The Amazon Echo costs £30 more and looks like a flour shaker with the holes on the sides instead of on top. A smaller version, the Echo Dot, costs £50 but must be connected to an external speaker, by cable or Bluetooth, for music playback.
In all cases, you cue up a song by saying, “Play She by Charles Aznavour”, and if you’re lucky, the speech recognition system will understand what you meant and oblige. It doesn’t matter whether you own that song, because the device will connect to Spotify and other online services and play it from there. However - and this is what undermines the principle on which both systems are based - it’s not really any easier or quicker than selecting the music from a phone or computer.
Which system is best depends on aesthetics as much as technology, though with the benefit of two years in the marketplace, the Amazon Echo is the more mature product, especially in the number of third-party products - light switches, and so on - that it supports. However, if you use a Google Chromecast with your TV, you may find the Home a better choice.
But both are solutions looking for a problem. Talking, rather than typing, is a genuine time-saver - but why holler across the room when you can do it discretely into your phone?