At this point, let’s assume everyone is familiar with home voice assistants like the Amazon Echo (a.k.a. Alexa) and Google Home. Ask them questions and get news/weather/traffic, order an Uber, have them tell jokes, make free phone calls — and, of course, play your your favorite music simply by calling out its name. “Play ’80s pop hits.” “Play Billy Joel.” “Play classical piano.”
Fans of the devices, like me, have come to embrace the way they make minor but not insignificant parts of daily life easier. But when arch-rivals Amazon and Google started slapping touchscreens on these things, I was skeptical. Wasn’t the whole point to be able to use them from across the room, without having to look at them? At least that’s what I thought when, a few months ago, my family got a touchscreen Google Nest Hub as a gift. But after setting it up, I soon realized the point I’d been missing: The screen is there but also not there — meaning you can still bark orders at it from across the room and listen to the replies, but when a visual is useful, you’ve got it.
We keep our Nest Hub on our kitchen counter, and most of the time its screen takes the form of either a giant digital clock or a slideshow of photos that we’ve chosen from a free Google Photos account. But when it’s time to cook, hoo boy! The device has a killer recipe feature: “Show me shrimp quesadilla recipes,” you say, then just tap one that looks good, and the thing walks you through the process. “Next step,” you say, without ever getting your grubby hands on the machine as you cook. My kids have also been known to watch YouTube videos on it while they shovel down their cereal in the morning. And if you keep your calendar in Google Calendar, it’s nice to see a map of your day when you say, “What’s on my calendar?” From its perch on the countertop, we also use the device to control our Sony TV (“turn on the TV”), Nest thermostat (“make it two degrees warmer”), and Nest doorbell. The screen is especially valuable on that last one. “Okay Google, show the front door,” you say, and the live feed from the doorbell cam appears, so we can see if whoever’s there merits getting up from the table.
The Amazon Echo Show does all of that stuff, too, although with more setup. (Some of its apps also require a Prime membership in order to take full advantage of them.) In fact, Google and Amazon are locked in a death grip for dominance in the screened voice-assistant market. Each makes its devices in a couple of sizes with tiny differences, and there are some traits unique to either brand that you should consider when choosing your model. Google’s strengths over Amazon: better screens; a far more natural-sounding voice; simple setup for Nest and Android smart-home gadgets; better abilities to translate languages; effortless playing of YouTube videos. Amazon’s strengths over Google: great for ordering stuff from Amazon; audio output jack for connecting better speakers; compatible with Microsoft and Apple calendars. With these in mind, below are the various Google and Amazon touchscreen voice assistants you can buy.
Google’s touchscreen voice assistants
This is the Nest Hub that my family owns. It has a seven-inch screen, and of all the touchscreen voice assistants on this list, it’s the only one without a camera — something that may be a plus if you’re a privacy paranoiac. On the one hand, we can’t make video calls to other people who have Nest Hubs. On the other hand, we don’t know anybody who does, so who cares?
Google also sells this hi-fi ten-inch version of the Nest Hub. Aside from the larger screen, you’re paying for much better sound. It’s got stereo speakers in front and a three-inch woofer in back. (Google has also licensed the identical software to smart screens from Lenovo or JBL.)
Amazon’s touchscreen voice assistants
This fall, Amazon will debut its in-between Echo Show, with an eight-inch screen. As it’s similar in size to our Nest Hub, this would be the model for your kitchen counter. [Editor’s note: The Echo Show 8 is available for pre-order, and will ship on November 21, according to Amazon.]
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