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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Richard L. Kuper
The Kuper Report

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

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