Black Friday 2018 has proven to be quite the saga for the Apartment 18 household.
The Google Home Saga
In the past few weeks I've been told by an unignorable number of people that because I have a Google Pixel, this Black Friday I should move away from the Amazon "echo"system and towards Google Home instead. So, naturally, I researched the available Google Home devices, decided I wanted a Home Hub and immediately stuck my Echo Spot on eBay.
Fun Fact: The name "Rhys" actually means "ardour or rashness". Therefore, none of this is my fault.
The Spot sold within a few hours for £85.00. I was pretty happy with this at first, as I didn't think it would sell for more than £70 without the box. Nice.
I then continued my research of Google Home by installing the app on my phone and using it for my day-to-day activities. It integrated nicely with my phone – something Alexa can't do for the time being – and has some pretty neat features such as decent podcast integration and synonymous phrasing for routines. However as the days went on, I found myself getting less and less excited at the prospect of getting the Hub.
The Google Assistant (the Alexa of the Google Home ecosystem) does most of the things that Alexa can do, but in my short experience, none of them quite as well. The voice still seems very robotic considering Google's recent leaps in voice synthesis, and very often it wasn't able to do what I wanted it to do. Controlling my smart lights was a particularly challenging ordeal, where the Assistant struggled to understand simple phrases like "Turn on the bedroom light". It would eventually get there but it took a lot of patience – patience I simply didn't need when I was using my Echo Dot and Spot.
Actions vs. Skills
The Google "Actions" were the tipping point though. While we had a Spot, Flick and I would start each morning with the "Riddle of the Day" and "Question of the Day" – two third-party Alexa Skills. Invocation of these skills was pretty intuitive:
"Alexa, what's the question of the day?"
"Alexa, open Riddle of the Day."
How do you use a third-party Action through the Google Assistant? You're asking the wrong person. I don't have the foggiest.
As far as I could tell, the standard way to invoke a third-party Action with Google was to say:
"OK Google, talk to [Action Name]"
... and then wait several seconds for the Action to greet you, before going ahead and issuing any commands. This was, yet again, pretty frustrating. However Google takes things to the next level by not facilitating any sort of Action account registration, so there's no way (at least not one that I could find) to ensure that Google knows exactly which Action you want to invoke. At least with Alexa, you have to manually enable a Skill in order to use it. Many see this as a downside but for me it's a pretty low price to pay for the guarantee that Alexa will know every time which Skill you're trying to use. There were several occasions where I'd attempt to invoke an Action by name through the Google Assistant and it would straight-up deny its existence.
There's also no discernable way to search for available Actions without firing up a browser. The "Discover" tab in the Home app never does anything other than present a loading animation. You're able to search by voice, such as by saying:
"OK Google, let's play a game."
but then you have to actually continue the search using the touch screen and load the skills five-at-a-time. This may seem like a laughably minor complaint but in reality it makes the voice control completely redundant.
With this in mind, when I realised just how few Actions were available (or at least visible), I uninstalled the Home app and jumped straight back on Amazon.
Back to the Echosystem
Amazon are famous for their Black Friday deals and they did not disappoint this year. I didn't want to just buy another Spot as this would make my earlier decision (to sell my old Spot without properly testing out Google Home) seem silly. It was a silly decision, but that's besides the point.
I stumbled across a very well-priced bundle that included a Spot, a Philips Hue lightbulb... and a 2nd Generation Echo Show.
Part of why I got so excited for the Google Home Hub was because I was under the impression Amazon weren't offering a viable alternative. In my mind there was ony the 1st Generation Show, and, well...
So when I found the opportunity to retrieve my Spot (losing a whopping £0.04) while also completing my Hue lightbulb set and getting a large-screened Echo that doesn't look like it belongs on the back of an airliner's economy seat in 1988, I jumped at it. Only after guiltily asking Flick if it was a good idea, though.
The new Echo Show is a vast improvement on the first, cosmetically speaking, and the screen is much larger than the Home Hub's – 10.1" to the Hub's 7".
The fact that Amazon tries to upsell a stand for the Show whenever you try to buy it made me concerned that the screen would be at too much of an angle to comfortably view from around the flat – in particular the sofa, which is pretty low to the ground. In actual fact, the Show's screen isn't angled as much as the promotional perspective shots make it seem, so the display is perfectly clear from all parts of the room.
The screen feels high-quality and the Show is good at making use of the extra space. The adaptive brightness has a tendency to succumb to the Dark Side so I've switched that off, but that's not too much of an issue because the Show acts as a lovely digital photoframe when not active, so the extra brightness is appreciated.
I referenced the Show's apparent video-calling capabilities in my review of the Echo Spot. I was right to suggest leaving the video calls to laptops in the case of the Spot, but the show's camera is noticeably better. The camera resolution isn't exactly FaceTime-grade but it is very capable of picking up detail on the opposite side of the room, and captures enough detail in my face to make anyone to want to end the call right away. The field of view is much wider, and latency has vastly improved too, but that might be because the Show is pretty much sat directly on top of the Wi-Fi router instead of on the other side of a wall like the Spot was.
Despite these improvements I still regard the video-calling as a gimmick. Not enough people have even a non-screen Echo device for voice-calling to be useful, let alone Echo devices with screens. Still, it's nice to have the option, and hopefully uptake will increase in the near future.
For those with privacy concerns when it comes to the prospect of having an always-on camera in every room of your house, you can now buy a little slidable cover to stick over your devices' cameras, that allows you to physically obscure the camera when you're not using it. £4 for 2. Bargain (ish).
There's not much to say about the features that I haven't said before. It's got all the same Skills and settings as any other Echo device, only with a better microphone to pick up commands with - and even then it's difficult to test the microphone in such a small flat as even the tiny Dot could pick up a murmoured "Alexa" from the other side of the room.
Oh, I lied. There is one extra feature that the other Echo devices don't have – a browser. In fact it has two: Amazon's own "Silk" browser, and a version of Firefox. I doubt this will be particularly useful in my scenario, which is probably why I momentarily forgot that it exists, but it did surprise me when I found it. One of the things edging me towards the Home Hub was the ability to watch Youtube videos on it but now it turns out I can do that on the Show anyway. I've definitely made the right decision with this purchase.
There are also a few pretty neat features that have been added to the Echosystem as a whole since I wrote the Spot review. Follow-up mode has finally been rolled out in the UK, allowing Alexa to continue listening after commands so that you don't have to keep saying the wake word when issuing a sequence of commands. There's also the Amazon Photos integration that I alluded too earlier, which allows you to load a whole album of photos into Amazon's cloud and have them display in rotation on your Echo device instead of just the one. And finally, a few months ago they added a setting to allow 24-hour digital clock faces. I have no idea why such a simple feature took that long but I'm just glad now that it's here.
Still waiting on Routine synonyms, multi-room support for Audible and a decent podcast skill, but what really makes the difference for me between the Spot and the Show is the sound quality.
I was originally concerned about the Show's lack of 3.5mm" audio output port. Previously we had the Dot atop the Hi-Fi and plugged it in when we knew we wanted to listen to music for any prolonged period of time. Without the audio output, I worried we wouldn't be able to do the same with the Show whenever we felt music playback needed a bit more oomph.
Hah. Yeah. As it turns out, this really isn't an issue.
When I first switched the show on I got a sense for why Amazon chose that particular boot-up sound. For such a simple sound effect it really shows off the ... frequency range? (I know very little about music or speakers, I just know that both the treble and bass sounded pretty damn good.) Instantly I knew that the lack of audio output was very deliberate, and once the device finished updating and optimising I found out that the sound effects and voice that had previously filled the room were only turned up to 50% volume.
This thing doesn't need external speakers. It's a damn good speaker in its own right, at least for the average household.
I asked Alexa to play some Muse and opened up the taps, and instantly had to turn it back down for fear of pissing off the neighbours in all three directions. Already getting the sense that my old Hi-Fi may have just been made redundant, I connected my laptop to the Show via Bluetooth and started streaming Netflix. Sure enough the Show easily boosted the volume without any noticable lag. With the convinience of hands-free volume control and the automatic volume-dipping while issuing commands I knew I was never going to use the AUX cable plugged into the back of my Hi-Fi again.
So... would anyone like to buy an old Hitachi AXM898u? It has DAB support? No? Okay.