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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Richard L. Kuper
The Kuper Report

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