This week we’re taking a dive into the three big home automation platforms built by Amazon, Apple, and Google, looking at the benefits that these unified home automation platforms provide in general, and how they compare to each other in the hopes of helping you better understand the pros and cons of each.
In part one we offered a brief overview and history of Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Home, and today we’re going to start talking about some of the key factors to consider when choosing a home automation platform, and how each one stacks up in these areas.
Since one of the key benefits of a unified home automation platform is to bring together accessories from a lot of different vendors, one of the first questions you’ll probably want to ask is exactly how many devices are supported by each, and how likely is it that your favorite devices will gain support.
In this area, it’s a simple numbers game, at least on the surface: recent reports have Amazon boasting support for more than 12,000 devices — almost all of which you can naturally buy on Amazon — while Google announced 5,000 supported devices a few weeks ago, jumping from only 1,500 in January. By comparison, with only around 200 supported accessories, Apple’s HomeKit is so far behind it’s almost not on the same playing field, although it does include almost every major brand in terms of mainstream home accessories such as lights, plugs, sensors and door locks.
Of course, pure numbers don’t tell the whole story, since most people aren’t installing hundreds of different devices in their home, much less thousands. However, the point is that you have a better chance of finding a device that’s compatible with Amazon Alexa or Google Home than you do with Apple’s HomeKit, so Amazon and Google definitely deliver on providing platforms that will work with just about any home automation accessory you can find, while HomeKit will force you to limit yourself primarily to standard accessories by well-known home accessory brands.
It’s also worth mentioning that Amazon Alexa provides the broadest range of device support of the three, so you’re more likely to be able to control things like ovens and coffee makers with Alexa. Google is open enough that it’s able to catch up in this area as well, but Apple typically only releases support for new classes of accessories with its major iOS releases; for example it wasn’t until iOS 10 that you could control things like air conditioners, dehumidifiers and garage doors via HomeKit.
All three of the major players provide their own voice control capabilities for home automation. With Amazon, in fact, it’s the voice assistant — Alexa — that serves as the foundation of the service, and Google’s Assistant was also developed largely with home automation tasks in mind. On the other hand, Apple’s Siri virtual assistant has been around since 2011, so it predates modern home automation platforms.
Chatting with your assistant
If you use a virtual assistant for other things, there will naturally be reasons to prefer one over another. But that’s a much more complicated subject, so we’re going to leave aside the debate about which voice assistant is better in general. When it comes to purely using them for home control systems, they all work well, and are about on par when used purely for home control actions.
All three let you use fairly intuitive voice commands to do things like turn on lights individually or as part of a room or a scene, check on the status of lights and doors, and even check sensors for things like temperature or humidity. Alexa and Siri can be used to trigger fairly versatile routines or scenes, while Google Assistant is limited to that platform’s more limited pre-defined set of only six routines.
Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant recently gained a slight edge over Siri here, however, since they now allow for commands to be more easily strung together to do multiple things — Google Assistant has limited support for simply joining two phrases together with the word “and” (e.g. “Turn on the lights and set the temperature to 72 degrees”), although it’s quirky at best in our own experience, while Amazon now allows you to simply add follow-up statements without having to say “Alexa” each time, although you’ll still have to wait between each statement. Perhaps surprisingly, Siri can’t do this at all, so if you want to control multiple HomeKit accessories with a single phrase, you’ll either need to invoke Siri several times or create a scene in your HomeKit configuration, although it’s also worth noting here that HomeKit’s scenes are considerably more versatile than the Amazon and Google equivalents, so it’s kind of a wash.
Accessing your assistant
One other thing to consider about a voice assistant is how you’ll go about accessing it, and this is where the three assistants actually differ quite a bit. For all practical intents and purposes, Alexa lives entirely in speakers — while Amazon has begun offering Alexa support through its mobile apps and even a web interface, it’s just not convenient to have to open an app and press a button to bring up a voice assistant when you can just as easily open a home control app and press the buttons necessary to control your accessories directly. That said, Alexa is available on a lot of third-party speakers now — not just those sold by Amazon — but to get practical use out of it, you’ll need to drop a few of them around your house. That’s not a huge investment, however, since you can buy an Echo Dot for as little as $50.
Google Assistant can also be accessed from one of Google’s own Google Home speakers, which again start at $50, but also from most of the better Android phones and — in a limited fashion — on Android Wear devices. This provides some flexibility, although the implementation of Google Assistant varies on different Android phones, which can make it a frustrating experience unless you’re using Google’s own Pixel phone, which most Android users consider to be the gold standard for Google Assistant capabilities.
While Amazon and Google have focused primarily on deploying speakers around the home, Apple takes the opposite extreme, requiring you to purchase a $350 HomePod speaker if you want the same assistant experience of being able to call out commands anywhere in the room. While Siri is expected to arrive in third-party speakers later this year, we’d be very surprised if a sub-$100 Siri assistant speaker appears any time soon.
If you get away from speakers, however, Siri has a definite edge on the other two for device ubiquity, since the voice assistant has been baked into every iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch released since 2011, is included in the fourth-generation Apple TV remote, and can be called up handsfree on any modern iOS device or Apple Watch — and it works consistently no matter where you call it up from. This means that while an Amazon Echo is pretty much a requirement for Alexa, the use of a HomePod is simply a bonus for a typical Apple HomeKit user. For example, if you’re wearing an Apple Watch, it may actually be easier to just hold up your wrist and say “Hey Siri” from wherever you are — even when away from home — than to worry about whether your speaker can hear you. Similarly, you can say “Hey Siri” and issue home control commands to any iPad or iPhone laying on a nearby table.
Check back next week when we’ll be continuing our series on home automation platforms with a look at some of the other factors that differentiate Alexa, HomeKit, and Google Home, including direct accessory control, security, remote access, and handling of more advanced automation tasks.