One of the largest problems and discussions around our smart(er) home has been around what assistant to use. While in PA, we were subjected to 2 weeks or so of Alexa use in a household of a similar size. The family dynamic was different as were their needs and how they used the assistant. How ever, it seemed that the Alexa platform was decent enough. They had one in the kitchen/dining area and one in 3 of the bedrooms. Running commands across different bedrooms was simple and effective. I really like simple and effective.
After returning to NC from our trip, Mari and I had made up our minds that we were going to move forward on doing this ourselves. During a lunch with some coworkers, I was encouraged to try the Google Home assistant. Both of the guys we were with were pretty sold on that platform. Since I work with both of them very closely I decided to take their advice and try something new. So to BestBuy I went, since they sold both the Amazon and Google product lines. I spent a bit of time looking at different accessories like lights, switches, thermostats, etc. Compatibility between the two platforms looked ok, the Apple Home was probably the least compatible – a surprise to me.
The only question regarding compatibility that was never cleared up was regarding our TV, the sony xbr-55x700d. Its a 55″ 4k Sony Bravia with Android OS, I had specifically gotten one with Android because…. well I know Android compatibility pretty well and felt like the firmware/updates would have a longer life. On the Sony support page, basic features such as power control, volume control, input control were all supported. It appears as though Pandora support may also come with that – but no netflix. This isn’t really much of an issue, since we do float around various apps in the TV. Just turning it on/off and volume control is a big deal for us. What I couldn’t find was a statement regarding Google Home’s compatibility. Nothing could seem to confirm nor deny that it would work.
The Phillips Hue kit and lights claimed to work with equally between the 2 major providers. That was reassuring, since the investment into that platform was rather high. I already knew that both devices could play Pandora and Spotify directly. Both can do weather stuff, routines, and so on. One thing that Alexa has that Google does not was an aux out port. With Google, you’d have to stream directly to a bluetooth audio device. I was a bit ‘meh’ about that, but it wasn’t a make or break sort of thing – we do have bluetooth speakers through out the house. So on paper, these 2 guys look pretty close to the same. They both look like what I need for the job. Again, I feel encouraged to try something new and grab a Google Home. After $50, I’m folding back into the car to head home and get started with this thing. I specifically bought it from a local retailer so that if it didn’t work out, I could take it back.
Once home, I carefully unpackage it, apply power. Once it has started up, it tells me to grab the Google Assistant app and continue set up – which was pretty simple. Once I got it online, I attached my Philips Hue hub via the app. The only thing I didn’t care for immediately was that I had to push a button on the hub. I’m sure there are some security concerns around that – and thats okay – but if I have to press a button too often, then its no longer easy to use. After the hub is added, it picks up all 7 lights, and the bedroom. Remember, the hub knows about 7 lights, even though 3 aren’t set up yet. Testing, testing, “hey google, turn on the lights” gets yelled across the room. Within seconds, they come onto the familiar yellowish wash of lights, with an acknowledgement of “Okay, turning on 7 lights in the bedroom”. Hum…… but not all 7 are assigned to the bedroom….. they’re just present on the hub. Maybe this is because the other 3 haven’t been assigned to another specific room yet. That would sort of make sense, based on my experience with logic and programming. That yellow temp setting though…. ugh. It has to go. “Okay google, change the lights to energize”, energize is my favorite Hue Scene, very cool and full power.. “Im sorry, but I don’t understand how to do that but I’m learning more every day” was the response I was given. Silly language barrier….. I’ll just do it in the philips app. No big deal, lets go set up the TV now that I can turn my lights on and off.
Setting up the TV wasn’t crazy either. The app on the TV to bind it to the app on my phone was already there. I opened the app on my phone, went to smart home, then devices, and added it. “Okay google, turn off the TV!”, the simplest of commands. “I’m sorry but I cannot do that function on that device, try something else like Watch trending videos on Youtube”. Oh god. Yeah, that isn’t going to work. That isn’t at all what I wanted. Eventually, I actually got it to open Netflix, by accident, but it wasn’t able to do anything else – at all. Now, lets remember, I never got an answer about this, also. Well, I’m not going to bother fighting this battle – its already lost. Google Home: -1.
Back into the bedroom, I get pretty comfortable with getting music going, basic functionality of volume, pandora, and weather. I’m still fumbling around the app, nothing is where I would expect it to be. I need to figure out these Hue scenes – the primary reason why I invested a few hundred dollars into that. I try a combination of “hey google”s, including “adjust the scene”, “turn on ‘scene name’”, “turn the lights to ‘scene name’”. None of them work. Welp google, time to turn to google. After a few minutes of searching, it appears that Google Home doesn’t actually support the scenes feature. That was not the compatibility conveyed by the “Works with” statement on both products. This is actually pretty frustrating. My coworker, with the strongest pro-google home attitude, says that the bridge is the problem, and that I probably need the IFTTT app. Ugh. Seriously? More apps and hardware to bring support to a feature that Alexa natively supports? Yeah, I don’t think so. Another -1 for Google Home. I was really looking forward to using their shortcuts, even though they were at the last branch of the confounding app, to tie music and mood lighting together – but its not supported like that. And, no, I’m not installing and buying more stuff to abstract another layer of incompatibility into submission – that is the kind of crap I do at work.
With an attempt to forgive and work around, we try a few things over the next two days. How ever, the app is now very confusing and weird. Mari can’t even get it to cooperate. At 3 strikes, its 4 day adventure at Casa Del Seguras is over. Bestbuy happily takes it back and I grab an Amazon Echo, and we’re on our way back to happy Alexa land. I even get $10 back, yipee! Once I get home, its like de ja vu. Unbox, apply power, download the app, add the devices. Do the things. Adding the bridge here was just as easy as before. In the app, I see all 7 lights, the bedroom again. There is a section in the app for Scenes…. but its empty. Hm….. why is it empty? A quick google search reveals…… add a skill from philips. OH… okay…. In the Alexa app, there is a skills section, a simple search for Philips Hue returns an app from Philips. Once enabled, I go back and use the ‘Discover Scenes’ button, which imported all set up scenes from the bridge. I, again, try my verbal skills to get the scenses to activate but with no luck. “Alexa, activate scene energize” was just too star-treky for her. Another quick google has the answer, though. “Alexa, turn on energize in the bedroom” was the guidance given, and as soon as I ended the command, the lights swelled with clean blue light from all 4 lights. And that was it. It works, +1 to Alexa for actually doing the thing.
Now what about that pesky TV? Well. I did a quick search on how that should go, also, since the Google Home required an app and I see that Skills are a thing for Alexa. Big surprise, I would need the Sony Bravia skill enabled, and I would need to use an app on the TV to bind the two. Not hard, and not something to fumble with after initial set up. After the success message, I ask alexa, through the app on my phone, “Turn off the TV”. After a moment of completing the command, the screen goes dark. Perfect. Now, I can turn that pesky TV OFF when the kids tell me just a moment when asking for something. Mom plays no games. The TV has an android remote app on our phones, so moving around netflix or youtube… or anything else is super easy with out the assistant.
One thing that was obvious as soon as I opened Pandora on the Echo Dot was that the audio was pretty shitty. There was nothing flattering about the sound, and actually Google did a much better job there – but the solution there was to just plug the damn thing into the speakers that were already in the room. Problem solved. Nothing compares to a full range system. I even added a thunderstorms skill in alexa to pair with a green/blue/purple-white scene with the lights. Relaxing to that was perfect – if only I could have smelled the rain – it might have tricked me into thinking was laying on a porch in the spring during a storm.
So at the end of the day, Alexa won hands down. I should have stuck with my gut on that, but bestbuy made it easy enough to take a risk with something new. Sorry Google, but you’re just not there. With all that learning you’re saying you’re doing, I hope you figure out where you belong soon or the market is going to leave you in the dust.