Smart Speakers: What are Echo and Google Nest?

Maybe this year you are receiving or giving an Amazon Echo or a Google Nest for the holidays, or you’ve already got one and are wondering what it will do. In this month’s blog, we are going to look at the two most popular smart speakers, Amazon’s Echo—aka Alexa—and the Google Nest—aka Google Assistant.

So, let’s get started with the most basic question: what are Smart Speakers?

Smart Speakers are devices that you add to your home.  Smart speakers are wireless speakers with an integrated Virtual Assistant (VA) that can complete tasks hands free.

The Amazon Echo and Google Nest (formerly Google Home) aren’t just speakers, they’re platforms. While their physical hardware doesn’t get updated very often, the services that power them—Alexa and Google Assistant—are in a constant state of change and are updated often.

Smart Speakers are “always listening,” which means they hear everything that is said in your house, but will only respond when they are spoken to, or if you “wake them up.” To get their attention, you have to call them by name. If you have an Echo, you say “Alexa,” and if you have a Nest, you say “Hey Google.” This tells the device to start listening to your request. After that, you can ask for the weather, to play a song, for sport scores, to add an item to your shopping list, to control other devices in your home, and more!

Let’s talk about how to talk to these devices.

Once you’ve called them by name, you need to speak to them.  Alexa needs to be spoken to with clear and concise syntax in order to accomplish some tasks.  If you ask Alexa for a weather report, that’s easy for her.  Just ask “Alexa, what is the weather going to be like today?” and Alexa will give you the weather report based on your home’s IP address. Hey Google is easier to talk to.  Here is an example from PCMag’s Angela Moscaritolo illustrating this point in her review of the second-gen Nest Hub:

“At night, I just say, ‘Hey Google, turn off my bedroom lights,’ and the room goes dark,” she wrote. “When I give Alexa that same command, the virtual assistant responds with, ‘A few things share the name ‘my bedroom lights,’ which one did you want?’ When I say, ‘All of them,’ Alexa asks, ‘Did you mean my home?’ After this I reply, ‘Yes,’ before Alexa says, ‘OK,’ and does nothing.”

In this example, Moscaritolo would have had to say, “Alexa turn off all of my bedroom lights” in order for Alexa to understand the request and complete it. Also, both devices can do things like spell words, set timers, and read you the news. The Google Assistant is more conversational: It will often remember what you were talking about or let you carry ideas throughout a conversation. For instance, if you ask, “Who was the leading actor in Big?” you can follow up with, “What other movies was he in?”

Alexa leans heavily on Wikipedia for general knowledge queries, while Google’s search is more comprehensive. One area in which Alexa beats Google, predictably, is shopping-related queries—Alexa really wants to help you buy things from Amazon.

Now let’s talk about Smart Home Integration.

The smart home brand gap between Alexa and Google Assistant has closed, and almost all major third-party smart home device manufacturers work with both. However, Blink and Ring are owned by Amazon, so their devices only work with Alexa. While Nest is owned by Google, Nest thermostats and cameras still work with Alexa.

Both Alexa and Google Assistant let you combine your devices into rooms, so you can say commands like, “turn on the living room lights.” They both also support Routines, which let you combine multiple actions into one command.

The Echo and Nest speakers both link up to TVs using their associated streaming sticks. If you buy a Chromecast (Google) or a Fire TV Stick (Amazon), you can tell them to open Hulu or play a show. Several smart TVs, including models from Roku, can be set up to be directly controlled by either voice assistant. My smart TV came with the Google Assistant built in because it is an Android device.

Things that one can do that the other can’t.

Google Nest responds to up to three commands in a row. Communicating with other assistants can sometimes feel like talking to a small child who can only pay attention to one thing at a time. “Alexa, turn off the lights. Alexa, set volume to 5. Alexa, play my bedtime playlist.”

With Google Nest, you can say, “OK, Google, turn off the lights, set the volume to five and play my bedtime playlist” to accomplish that same series of tasks, all in one breath. Granted, this works better when the commands are relatively simple—and it helps if they’re related. For example, the string “Hey, Google, turn off the kitchen lights, turn on the bedroom lights and lock the front door” is likely to go off without a hitch because all of those are smart-home operations.

Alexa can whisper back to you. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you no longer have to look at your phone’s bright screen to see what time it is. Instead, you can whisper to Alexa and ask it what time it is—or any other command, like turning the lights on. You don’t have to change anything in the settings to do this, you just have to whisper to your Amazon Echo and it’ll go into whisper mode.

Google Nest can translate in real-time. Although you may not be housing a foreign exchange student or international diplomats any time soon, Google Nest’s ability to act as a real-time translator for up to 27 different languages could certainly come in handy if, say, a student in your home has language class homework. To put Google Nest into interpreter mode, simply voice what you need as you would naturally. For example: “Hey, Google, translate into Spanish.” “OK, Google, I need an interpreter for Mandarin.”

Alexa can tell when you’re annoyed.  Amazon announced a while ago that it’s giving its voice assistant Frustration Detection. That means if Alexa notices a tone of irritation in your voice, it will apologize and try to clarify what you actually want it to do.  For example, if you ask Alexa to play Adele and it plays something else, the voice assistant will recognize the anger in your voice — “Alexa! PLAY ADELE!!!” — and will try to adjust, much like a person does.

Both Google Nest and Echo will let you make phone calls from your smart speaker. Alexa and Google make free phone calls directly. Google Nest will call numbers in the US and Canada through Google Duo. Alexa will call anyone in the US, Canada, and Mexico, but not toll-free numbers.

As for calling 911 in an emergency the answer is yes and no.  Yes, if you have the right software or app installed on the device. No, if you do not have the software.  The best recommendation would be to check with your device’s manufacture and see what steps are needed to enable it to call 911.

There are also some security and privacy issues with Alexa and Hey Google.

Though we could spend another entire blog on these issues I’m going to try to condense them here.  The privacy of smart speakers is a worry for many users, especially when it concerns how their conversations are handled. Generally, a speaker from Amazon or Google is safe to use. But an “always-on” microphone does come with some risks and ethical concerns. Smart speaker microphones are always listening by design. This is how they are able to hear your requests at any given moment and passive listening is always on. Recording only happens if the wake phrase is used (like “OK Google” or “Alexa.”) The device records to capture and process your command. However, accidental recordings are possible if the wake command is given or misheard from the speaker.

Smart Speaker Security Concerns, the security of homes and businesses, are at risk if users are not careful about their smart speaker setup. So, while security might not be your immediate first thought when it comes to your Amazon Alexa or Google Nest, it should be because while it is not common right now, hacking and unapproved eavesdropping are very real threats when it comes to smart speakers.

Tips on How to Limit Risks

Check your privacy and security features by becoming familiar with your smart speaker privacy and security settings. Dive into your device’s app to explore your options. Google and Amazon have been rolling out their own settings to lower safety risks for users.

Mute the microphone when you don’t want to be heard. Some devices have a physical switch, while others can be deactivated by voice command. This can prevent misfired wake phrases.

Delete your command history to erase local and Cloud storage of past recordings. This information is used to understand your voice better. However, not regularly deleting this could risk your security. Commands can be deleted on most services either individually, in a time range, or in full.

Activate and train your speaker for voice recognition. Your smart speaker can recognize your unique voice like a fingerprint, which can lock any unwanted users from waking and using it.

Deactivate personalized features that pull sensitive info for your convenience. Ease of access to your calendar, contacts, and more can mean it’s easier for anyone to access this data. Safe practices would have you turn off any settings that dive into your personal information.

Be wary of connecting security devices to voice assistants. With any point of connection, you are introducing another potential weakness into your home. Smart door locks, security cameras, and home alarm systems are more likely to be hacked if connected to the internet

Change default passwords. Many products are accessible using factory-set credentials. Cybercriminals can easily grab this information and breach your devices unless you switch to a custom password. Best practice suggests using complex passwords or passphrases and do not use anything obvious like your name, date of birth, etc. as this will be a security risk and update all devices to their newest versions. The current software will have security fixes for all known risks. This includes any firmware, operating systems, drivers, and apps on your devices.

We certainly don’t want to scare you into not using your smart speaker. These are just some common-sense tips that will help secure your device and keep your home network in good working order.

We hope we’ve given you some useful information on the two most popular smart speakers on the market today. If you have a new smart speaker, use it and enjoy it!

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