December 05, 2018

Part 2: Review: Google Home Mini vs. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation)

By Richard L. Kuper

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After publishing the first review, I've had conversations with a number of folks who had additional questions. I also acquired a second Amazon Echo Dot, which came as a free bonus when I upgraded my Sirius XM service. So it seemed that I needed to write a Part 2 to the review. It wouldn't surprise me if I end up writing additional articles as I learn and play some more.


Stereo-Pairing; More About Sound Quality; Technical Support


Let's start with what's new. I have a second Echo Dot. I'd read that Amazon has a feature that Google doesn't have (at least, not yet) -- the ability to create a stereo pair. So that's what I decided to try with this second device. I put it in the same room as the first device and positioned both so that they would be reasonably set up as if I were setting up speakers on a stereo system. I opened the Alexa app on my phone and then plugged in the new device. The new device essentially set itself up to be connected to the wifi, gave itself a name, and was ready to go in very short order. I was quite impressed at how simple that was. I then went into the app and decided to first change the names of both devices to include which was the left speaker and which was the right speaker. (I named them Echo Right and Echo Left.) I then found where in the app I could pair them for stereo. That too was pretty simple. I selected both devices and said to pair them. The app then asked which one was the "right" speaker. I told it and the setup was complete. I then asked Alexa to play something from iHeart Radio and it played the music on both speakers, in stereo. The sound quality wasn't wonderful, but it was stereo. (I should note here that stereo only works for music. When I asked Alexa for information, like what the temperature was, one or the other speaker responded, and they alternated which one answered, which was a little disconcerting.)


I tested further. Currently, only Amazon has the ability to stream SiriusXM. Google is apparently working on it but does not have a potential release date at this time. I first asked Alexa to play the Sirius XM 60s station (and it worked when I asked properly). The sound quality was better than that of iHeart Radio. I decided to try listening to the SiriusXM classical music station. That sounded much better than the rock and roll. I should also note that if I had a subwoofer that Amazon could have connected with, I could have added that, which probably would have improved the overall sound a bit. The bottom line is that, with better speakers, this might be an option for some folks for whom the sound of the Dot speakers just won't cut it, and might want to stream music in stereo. Of course, those folks might instead opt for a stereo receiver that works with wifi and would connect to higher quality speakers. There is also the option of connecting the Echo Dot to another speaker via wire - an option not available on the Google Home Mini. So Amazon wins as far as connection choices (having the hard wire to another speaker option) and the ability to pair speakers to get stereo music.


One additional take-away from the above experiment is that for either the Echo Dot or the Google Mini, and probably for the higher quality speakers from both companies and third-party vendors, the source of the music affects the sound quality. In my opinion, the music from Google Play Music sounds better than the music from iHeart Radio, for example, and as noted above, the music from SiriusXM sounds better on the Echo Dot than, for example, the music from iHeart Radio.


A few days after stereo-pairing the Amazon speakers, I asked Alexa to play a station on Sirius XM and it played it on only the speaker that opted to respond. I tried again. The other speaker responded and only played on that speaker. I then remembered that I was charging my phone and that it was turned off. I wondered if this meant that Amazon speakers only worked in stereo if the phone was on, so I turned on the phone (still charging). I then asked Alexa to play the station again and lo and behold, it played in stereo. This seemed like a bug to me, so I decided to see how to contact Amazon to find out. Well, I discovered that Amazon does not make it easy to find answers to questions like this, and they don't seem to provide their support number in the help. I searched the web and found a number associated with de-registering something or other and tried it. I called and it turned out to be the support number. I explained the situation to the support person on the other end. She didn't seem to understand what I was talking about when I said I'd paired the speakers to work as stereo. My hopes of getting an answer to my issue sunk even further when she came back after putting me on hold for a while and asked me to ask Alexa to pair --which has to do with pairing it with a Bluetooth speaker -- not the feature of stereo-pairing them to each other. After more time and frustration, I finally asked for a supervisor. Initially it seemed she didn't understand either -- but as I explained again, she probably looked up stereo pairing and then seemed to understand what I was asking. The entire phone call took almost an hour with back and forth and being put on hold and more questions and so on. This was a very simply described issue: Stereo works when the phone is on and it doesn't when the phone is off. I had to tell the supervisor to write it this way in her report, because she kept alternately putting me on hold and trying to describe it in ways that were totally different (just like the first support person). I also wanted the feedback and such to come by email once they figured out the problem, and that took another 10 minutes before she would note that I want email, not a phone call at a random hour, as I forgot to ask what country the support person was in. This would rate as a very poor customer service experience.


My experience so far with Google support (which appears to be in the Philippines)  has been significantly more positive. The only support issue so far with Google was an offer from an online chat to switch to a phone conversation. Unfortunately that didn't quite work out because he never asked for my number (I assumed he had my account displayed based on my email), and so that callback never came. Other than that, Google support has understood my issues and either solved them or captured and reported them without making me re-explain a million times what the issue was that I was reporting. The next morning I tried to play music again with the phone off and the Amazon speakers played in stereo. Very odd, as the follow-up email from Amazon indicated that they wanted more information.


More Examples of the Differences in Getting Information


As indicated above, Sirius XM is available on Amazon Alexa, but is not, as of this writing, available on Google devices. Knowing that, you would expect that I could say something like: Alexa, play the classical station on Sirius XM, and it would find it and play it. You would be wrong. I have to know the station number or station name in order to play it. This may be an issue with how Sirius XM works with Alexa, rather than an Alexa problem. I am reminded of my issues with trying to listen to 1010 WINS radio on the Google Mini (and those issues would be exactly the same on the Amazon device). If I don't use a phrase that matches, I don't get the station. So I tried a different approach. I asked Alexa: What is the name of the Sirius XM Classical Station. Alexa couldn't help me. Then I asked Alexa: What is the number of the Sirius XM Classical Station. Alexa couldn't help me. I decided to ask Google, the device that currently does not provide the ability to listen to Sirius XM. I asked the same two questions. Google was able to tell me that what I was looking for was the Symphony Hall Station, number 76. So once again, Google proves to be the much better choice for finding information.


Pairing Phone to Speaker via Bluetooth


Pairing a phone to a speaker using Bluetooth was the same process on both Google and Amazon, up to a point. First, I needed to turn on Bluetooth on my phone and open the Bluetooth settings. Then, I was able to say to either the Google or the Amazon device: Pair Bluetooth. Here's where things got a little different. With Google, it told me to look for the name of the speaker in the Bluetooth settings and select it. That was all I had to do. With Amazon, I also had to open the Alexa App to complete the pairing, So Google wins on ease of Bluetooth pairing, because it works like most other devices that have Bluetooth.


So in this Part 2 review, Google still wins overall, including on all-important technical support. Amazon gets points for the ease of adding additional devices and having the ability to pair two Amazon devices to get stereo.

Amazon Wake Word

As I previously reported, the Amazon device wake word can be changed from "Alexa" to either "Echo" or "Amazon" or "Computer." I got tired of it answering whenever I used the word "Alexa" within earshot, or whenever the word came on the TV, so I changed it to "Echo" and a strange thing happened. Whenever I said Hey Google, the Amazon device answered. I don't really think that the words "Hey Google" and the word "Echo" sound anything alike, but apparently the device does. I've changed it to "Computer" and we'll see how that goes, since I tend to use that word in conversations.


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The Kuper Report

December 04, 2018

100 Million Quora Users Affected by Data Breach

By Richard L. Kuper

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Another data breach has been reported. Quora, a question and answer website, has discovered it's system was "compromised as a result of unauthorized access to one of [their] systems by a malicious third party." They estimate that 100 million Quora users were affected. Quora claims the following information was compromised:

  • Account information, such as: name, email address, encrypted (hashed) password, data imported from linked networks when authorized by users
  • Public content and actions, such as: questions, answers, comments, upvotes
  • Non-public content and actions, such as: answer requests, downvotes, direct messages
They went on to say: "The overwhelming majority of the content accessed was already public on Quora, but the compromise of account and other private information is serious."

As I stated in my article last week on the Marriot breach, I started reporting about data and security breaches over twelve (12) years ago. I am (and I suspect you also are) still waiting for corporations to put in place appropriate security measures to prevent such breaches, and to secure the privacy and personal data of their customers.

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November 30, 2018

Another Major Data Breach

By Richard L. Kuper

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Over the years I have written about/reported about various data breaches by large corporations here in The Kuper Report. (See this link to read some past articles.) Today (November 30, 2018), we've learned about another one.

Marriott Hotels has revealed a major breach of their Starwood guest reservation database. According to the Marriott news release they discovered the breach on September 8, 2018 and began an investigation. They discovered that there had been "unauthorized access to the Starwood network since 2014" and that the Starwood guest reservation database had been compromised. The release went on to say that about 500 million guests who had made reservations at Starwood properties were affected. The release further stated that for approximately 327 million of these guests, the information included:

"some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest (“SPG”) account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences. For some, the information also includes payment card numbers and payment card expiration dates".

This is a serious breach, and, sadly, just one of many that seem to keep occurring. I first started writing about data security in this newsletter back in 2006, and my first article on the subject was titled: "Data Security: An Oxymoron". Sadly, over twelve (12) years later, data security still seems to be an oxymoron.

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November 20, 2018

Review: Google Home Mini vs. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation)


By Richard L. Kuper

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I have been playing with the Google Home Mini for a while. I now also have the newest version (3rd Generation) of the Amazon Echo Dot. Here are some of my impressions and findings.

Setup; News Podcasts; Routines

The Google Home Mini was very easy to set up using the app which I needed to download onto my smart phone. The app was reasonably easy to use to set up the device. The sound quality of the Mini is very good for voice items, like news podcasts, and surprisingly good for music. The Google Home Mini is responsive to commands, and answers to at least several different wake-up phrases, such as “Hey Google”, “OK Google”, “Hey GooGoo” and "OK GooGoo." It was easy and intuitive to set up a routine to specify news podcasts I wanted to listen to and the order I wanted to hear them in. It was easy and intuitive to set up a “good morning” routine.  I also did not encounter any issues asking to hear a class of podcasts, such as requesting “technology news”.  I note, however, that there are sometimes dead air pauses between each podcast when I am listening to a series of podcasts such as my good morning routine or “top news” or such.

The Amazon Echo Dot, using the app that I needed to download onto my smart phone, was not as easy to set up as the Google Home. By default, the device responds to “Alexa”. I discovered, however, that you can change that. The “wake” word can be changed to “Echo”, “Computer”, or “Amazon”. The sound quality, in my opinion, did not measure up to the Google Home Mini. Amazon also wants every bit of information it can get about you. In order to set it up, for example, I needed to use the same login as my Amazon account used for purchasing stuff, because it seems that the real purpose of Amazon devices is to get you to buy more stuff from Amazon. It was very difficult, and not intuitive, to figure out how to set up a routine containing news podcasts. It was even more difficult to figure out how to choose the order I wanted to have the podcasts in. I needed to search the web for help and discovered that Amazon actually had a website I could log into on my pc to manage my Alexa device. Amazon gets extra points for that, because Google does not offer such a web-based option. On the web version, I was finally able to figure out how to organize my news podcasts. This, of course, is perplexing and frustrating, since my guess is that most customers are using the app on their smart phone or tablet and probably very few people knew (before reading this) that there was a way to manage the device from a website. Having now listened a few times to a series of news podcasts (by asking to hear “top news”), I note that the flow between each is much smoother on the Amazon device than on the Google device. There are fewer or no dead air pauses between each podcast on the Amazon device.

Music

Google Home easily interacts with Google Music, which provides free music (you need to create a free account). There is also a paid subscription option available. If I ask Google to play, for example, “Who Loves You”, it tells me that it is only available to Google Play Music subscribers (meaning the paid version), but then says “try this ‘Who Loves You’ Google Play music station instead”, which contains a mix of music that usually ends up including the song I requested. I got a similar outcome when I asked Google to play Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons. I am never forced to only have the option of paying for a music service if I want to hear the music (or type of music) I request. Google Home can also connect to YouTube Music, which is free when connecting to a TV (a feature that will be discussed in a future article), and a paid premium option for YouTube audio. Google can also connect to Spotify (if you have an account), Pandora (if you have an account), and Deezer (premium subscription required). You also listen to music (at least some "stations") on TuneIn. For example, I asked Google to play "60s Hits on TuneIn" and it worked just fine. In addition, you can listen to music associated with any music app that is on your phone or tablet – you just need to specify which service you want it to use as part of your request.

Free music is a bit more challenging on the Amazon device. Unlike Google, Amazon does not provide a free music service of its own. You do, however, get free access to iHeart Radio. Also available are Spotify (if you have an account), Pandora (if you have an account), and TuneIn (if you have an account). It does not appear that you can access any additional music apps that you may have on your phone or tablet. The default choice for music is Amazon Music. The only other option listed on my phone is Spotify, if I had an account. There is a separate setting for “Station services”, and the default setting is Amazon Music. Here, you have the option of choosing iHeart Radio or Pandora (if you have an account) as the default. iHeart Radio is apparently included and integrated with the Amazon device. I was unsuccessful when trying to play music "stations" on TuneIn. For example, I asked Alexa to play "60's Hits on TuneIn." Alexa said it could not play by genres. I opened the Amazon Alexa web app, went to Music, selected TuneIn, and selected the channel called "60's Hits." Alexa started playing the station. I have no idea why it wouldn't work with a voice request.

As I mentioned previously, I discovered that there is a web version of the Alexa app. This version shows many more choices for Music and for Stations. Again, this is perplexing, since my guess is that most users will be using the app on their phone or tablet, which has many fewer choices and is more difficult to use.

I performed the same test on the Amazon Echo (with the default setting of Amazon Music set) to try to listen to “Who Loves You”. Alexa said it was only available on Amazon Music Unlimited and asked if I would like more information (which turned out to be how I can pay for it and offering me a 30 day trial). I said no to the 30 day free trial. It then teased me with a small sampling of the song and then stopped. Very annoying. I had slightly better results asking for Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons. Alexa found a “station” on iHeart Radio. However, I made a disturbing discovery about iHeart Radio during this experiment. It played a few songs from the musical Jersey Boys, but identified the artist as either the 4 Seasons or Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, which was wrong. I’ve notified iHeart Radio about this.

In order to try to have some kind of direct comparison between the two devices, I needed to download the iHeart Radio app on my phone so I could compare accessing it on my Google device with how the integration works with the Amazon device.  For some reason it took about 30 minutes for the iHeart Radio app to download and install. Here’s what happened:

I changed my default music station on the Amazon device to iHeart Radio (since I did not purchase Amazon Music) and asked it to play 60’s music. It chose the iHeart Radio 60s (it pronounced it sixty-ess) station and started playing. I asked Google to play 60’s music on iHeart Radio and it couldn’t do it. I eventually figured out that I had to ask Google to play “iHeart 60’s” in order to play the same station. Then I tried to get Google to play “December ‘63” on iHeart Radio and it said it couldn’t play “songs” on iHeart Radio. Then I tried to get Google to play Frankie Valli on iHeart Radio and it said it couldn’t play “artists” on iHeart Radio. So clearly iHeart Radio is integrated differently with Amazon, because Alexa would at least attempt to play something on iHeart Radio, albeit not necessarily what I requested. For example, I asked Alexa to play December ’63 on iHeart Radio. It repeated the full title of the song, said it was going to play it, and then proceeded to play Under the Boardwalk by the Drifters. When I asked Alexa to play Frankie Valli, it said it would play a Frankie Valli station, and then proceeded to play Venus by Frankie Avalon. So it appears that Amazon can provide a “station” with a mix of music similar to what you request on iHeart Radio, like Google does with Google Music. The difference is that Google tells you it will be in the ballpark of what you requested, while Amazon tells you it is going to play what you actually requested, and then plays something completely different. I’ve also reported these issues to iHeart Radio.

I tried another test. I asked each to play relaxing meditation music. Alexa said it couldn’t find any. Google found some and played it.

I should mention that on both devices, you can ask who is performing the music you are listening to, and each device will tell you. But as noted above, if it is playing on iHeart Radio, it won’t always be correct information, and this appears to be an iHeart Radio problem.

Streaming Radio

Sometimes you might want to listen to radio (other than iHeart Radio). For example, both now work with stations on Radio.com. For example, a news station that bills itself as “the most listened to radio station in the nation”, 1010 WINS, can be streamed on both devices. That was not the case for a while, when that and other stations moved from TuneIn to Radio.com. Radio.com was already integrated with Amazon when the stations were moved, but it took lots of nudging by me to get Radio.com to get their service up and running on Google Home devices. Google Home users were left high and dry by Radio.com for many months, Note, however, there seem to be continuing technical difficulties getting Radio.com to work consistently – on both devices. I've let them know.

Ambient Sounds

Both devices can play some ambient sounds, like white noise and such. I like the one called “Forest Sounds.” I asked each to play Forest Sounds. Alexa just played it. Google introduced it first, saying: “Here is the sound of a forest”, and then played it.

Weather

There are differences in the weather report between the two devices. They must use different weather services. Both devices have information that tells them exactly where I live, as entered in their apps. Amazon recognizes that and gives me weather for my location. Google gives me general area weather. I have to specify my area for Google to give me more local weather. Neither volunteers the humidity or the predicted winds and neither is able to provide information on what the temperature really feels like outside when asked.

They also don’t always agree on the forecast. For example, this morning, Alexa said it was going to be cloudy, while Google (when asked about my specific location) said it was going to rain first and then be cloudy. This time Google was more accurate. On other occasions, Alexa was more accurate. Also, on a day when both predicted rain, I asked each device when the rain would start. Google had no problem answering the question. Alexa, on the other hand, ignored the question and repeated its forecast.

Travel Directions

Each device will provide broad general driving directions (not step by step). Sometimes, Alexa was confused and gave me directions to a totally different place/country. Google was also able to give me general directions by public transportation, even telling me when the next train was going to arrive at my nearby station. Amazon was unable to provide public transportation directions of any kind.

Jokes

You can ask either device to tell you a joke. If you like corny jokes, you’ll like the jokes they tell.

Multiple Queries

By default, you can only ask either device one question at a time or to perform a single function. If you have another request, you need to repeat the wake phrase (e.g., “Alexa” or “Hey, Google”) to make another query. Both devices, however, offer the option to enable them to continue listening for a few seconds to see if you have another request, without requiring you to have to repeat the wake phrase again.

Compound Queries

Google can handle compound queries. Alexa can’t. For example, I asked “What time is it and what’s today’s date”.  Google had no problem answering this compound question. Alexa responded with something about a romance novel with the month and day included in the title.

Ignoring Requests

Typically, if either device didn’t understand or couldn’t provide an answer, it would apologize and say it didn’t know or couldn’t do that. Sometimes, though, Alexa simply failed to respond. The lights flashed, showing Alexa was listening and heard the request, and then it just went silent. 

Audible Queues

By default, neither device will audibly let you know that it heard you and is listening. Both, however, offer the ability to have an audible sound when you say the wake phrase, so you know it heard you. Both also have the option of enabling an audible sound when it stops listening.

Sensitivity

If the room is quiet, it is not necessary to speak very loudly for either device to hear you. However, if it is noisy near the device, it may not hear your request and you will likely need to either lower the sounds in the vicinity of the device, or get much closer, or shout to be heard.

Technical Issues

I’ve encountered some technical issues with both devices and have done other testing of both devices. Both have suddenly stopped responding or lost contact with the internet, while my phone and computer were not having any issues at all. I’ve had to reboot both the Google and Amazon devices. I was on the phone with Google the day before publishing this article and mentioned this. They are apparently aware of the problem and are working on a fix. I have not been in touch with Amazon about this, but hopefully they are aware and working on a fix as well.

Overall Impressions

Based on the above tests/experiences, the Google Home Mini is the overall winner.

In my opinion, the sound quality is much better for music on the Google Home Mini. Music on the Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation) was less pleasant. I should also mention that to my ears, the music quality of Google Play Music is superior to the other sources I tested.

For voice-only, the two devices are reasonably comparable in sound. For podcasts, both provide a varied selection to choose from in their apps. I thought it was much easier to do this on a phone with the Google app (especially defining the order I wanted the podcasts to play), and challenging to do using the phone app for Amazon. However, Amazon also provides a way to do setup on a PC, and that was more straight-forward and easier than their phone app.

Both devices provide the ability to create customized instruction sets (for example a good morning routine).

Google offers more free music, while Amazon is looking for you to buy more music from them. 

Setup on a phone or tablet is easier on Google.  However, with the latest update, the Google app has become a bit less intuitive. Setup for Amazon is easier on the web (but I am guessing that you probably need the phone app in order to do initial setup). Google does not provide a web setup option.

Amazon seems more geared to getting you to buy stuff rather than provide service. I read somewhere recently that most folks who get Amazon devices spend lots more money buying stuff on Amazon.

Summary

These have been highlights of my experience so far with the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation) devices.

I do not have any household devices that would connect to either to, say, turn the lights on and off, so I won’t be reporting on those features. From articles I’ve read, they are reasonably similar in their ability to turn devices on/off, set thermostats, etc.

Related

I have a Google Chromecast and recently purchased an Amazon Fire TV 4K device with Remote (I do not have a 4K TV, but it works with my TV). I will write about my experiences with those in a future article.

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Richard L. Kuper
The Kuper Report
http://TheKuperReport.com

November 19, 2018

Relaunch of The Kuper Report

For a variety of reasons, The Kuper Report has been on hiatus for a few years. We are re-launching the publication and hope you will visit and share. At the moment, we are not promising a specific frequency of publication, so please just subscribe and enjoy when an edition makes it out. The focus will be the same - business and technology-related news, opinion, and ocasional product reviews. Your thoughts and input are, of course, welcome.

Our first article is coming shortly -- a comparison between the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot.
Thank you.

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