Here are the smart home products that are most worth your time this year.
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd generation):
Amazon’s entry-level Echo Dot had the edge over the competing Google Home Mini speaker, but with the arrival of the newer, rebranded Google Nest Mini, we’re officially calling the entry-level smart speaker category a tie. Both speakers will run you about $50 on a normal day, and you can find both of them discounted regularly.
The two voice assistants are pretty much at parity right now. Amazon usually boasts about more skills and support for more third-party devices, but the numbers for both voice platforms are in the tens of thousands, meaning the difference isn’t enough that you’ll really miss out on anything significant with Google.
Google Assistant does a better job at mimicking natural conversation flow, but the difference is that it isn’t really that noticeable in your day-to-day interaction with each speaker. Most of the time you’ll ask a smart speaker for the weather, to set a timer, and maybe have it play a song or two. Both devices are good at all of that.
The Amazon Echo Dot was our pick due to one small hardware advantage. It has an audio-out jack. The Google Home Mini doesn’t, and neither does the Nest Mini. Now, the Echo Dot also offers a variant with an LED clock embedded around its edge, for $10 more. That’s a convenient quality-of-life feature.
Google’s new Nest Mini smart speaker improves on its predecessor, the Google Home Mini, in a few ways.
Google improved the audio quality in the Nest Mini, giving its bass output more oomph. It also added a wall mounting notch to the underside it, if that’s what you’re into. An interesting new presence detection method that uses the speaker and microphone to determine your proximity to the Nest Mini helps it trigger LED indicators that help you make better sense of the otherwise obscured physical volume controls.
That’s all fine, but the thing that puts the Nest Mini over the edge is the machine learning chip embedded inside the tiny speaker. With that chip, Google says the Nest Mini can learn what commands you give to it most often, and it will then begin to process those commands locally, rather than on Google’s servers.
Anything that helps to keep control of your smart home inside your home is worthwhile. Letting you still issue certain voice commands even if the internet goes out, and improved response times are great, too. For all of that, the machine learning chip puts the Google Nest Mini at parity with the Amazon Echo Dot and its distinct audio-input jack. Now let’s see a speaker that has both.
Amazon’s midtier smart display is the best one in its line. For $130, the Echo Show 8 has great audio quality, a highly visible screen and a convincing nod to privacy with a physical shutter you can slide over its camera. We still like the interface better on the Google Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max. Those Google Assistant displays also have the edge in useful video due to the voice-activated YouTube integration, which Amazon’s lineup lacks. Regardless, for those of you who are committed to an Alexa-only ecosystem, the Echo Show 8 is the best smart display.
Siri’s first smart speaker adapts its sound to the room you’re in and sounds fantastic playing all genres of music. Its sound quality outclasses the Sonos One and even squeaks by the similarly priced Google Home Max. Thanks to Siri, you can also use an Apple HomePod to control your smart home products with your voice, ask for help as you would with the other smart speakers and answer phone calls coming to your iPhone.
The HomePod is more limited than the rest, however. You can only play music from Apple’s music service with voice commands. Other smart speakers give you a few popular streaming options to pick from, like Pandora or Spotify. As for the smart home, you’re limited to devices that work with Apple’s smart home platform, HomeKit. So the HomePod has a few limitations the rest don’t have, but that shouldn’t matter to you if you’ve already invested in Apple products and just want great sound quality.