Smart speakers haven’t quite hit the mainstream, but it’s clear that Apple, Google and even Apple are betting that they will. They’re the kind of gadget that you don’t know you need until you try it out.
People often ask why they’re better than having Siri or the Google Assistant on your phone: the difference is that these speakers are completely hands-free so you can talk to them and get results while you’re busy doing something else.
But which £50 speaker is the one to get? Echo Dot or Home Mini. Here’s what we think.
Where to buy?
If you prefer, you’ll also find them at Argos, Currys, John Lewis and other retailers.
Features and design
The Echo Dot lacks the curves and fabric of the Home Mini, but it’s so small that it’s not obtrusive. The range of colours – black or white – is also more restrictive than the Home Mini, although the Mini offers just one extra colour: Coral.
Both devices have built-in speakers, but the Home Mini’s sounds better. It’s louder and has a fuller-sounding range, despite it being about the same size as a Krispy Kreme donut.
It’s not great if you want to listen to a lot of music, but the Google Assistant’s voice sounds clearer and, frankly, nicer.
We like that there are no visible buttons on the Home Mini: you tap the left- or right edge to adjust volume (or simply ask it to be quieter or louder).
The disadvantage is that it isn’t as easy to mute the mic on the Home Mini because the slider is somewhat hidden at the base rather than on top with the Echo Dot, which also has a useful extra button for doing things like silencing alarms.
We also like the Echo Dot’s aux port which can be used to connect a better speaker using a cheap, standard minijack cable. It’ll also let you pair a Bluetooth speaker to get better audio.
The Home Mini allows none of this: there’s no aux out, and you can only connect it to a Cast-enabled speaker wirelessly – few speakers are compatible.
Yet, the Home Mini does have Bluetooth and, like the Echo Dot, can be a Bluetooth speaker for your phone or tablet.
What can they do?
The most important factor, naturally, is what the assistants can do for you. This is a tricky area because both have their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve also covered these differences in our Google Home vs Amazon Echo comparison.
You’ll realise fairly quickly that this isn’t ‘true’ AI. Neither Alexa nor Google Assistant truly understands what you mean all of the time (and sometimes it feels like most of the time).
Alexa, though, tends to need you to structure your requests more carefully than Google Assistant. Both require you to say the ‘wake word’ before they’ll listen to you, which means your conversations aren’t all recorded and listened to by Amazon or Google.
Amazon’s wake words trip off the tongue more easily, though since “Alexa”, “Amazon”, “Echo” and “Computer” are quicker and easier to say than “OK Google” or “Hey Google”.
But in terms of their real capabilities, Alexa is stronger when it comes to shopping (mainly because it’s tied into Amazon’s Prime ecosystem) and the Assistant is better at general ‘search’ questions because it has the power of Google search behind it.
Both will give you a news and weather ‘briefing’ which you can configure via the Alexa / Home app. They are also both great at playing music on request, whether from Spotify or their respective Amazon Music / Google Play Music services.
Alexa has a slight edge for controlling smart home kit such as Wi-Fi light bulbs, thermostats and other gadgets thanks to a large library of ‘skills’ which can be enabled either by asking Alexa or via the app.
You can use IFTTT with both devices, but this is more useful on the Home Mini where there isn’t any ‘app store’ of skills to enable as with Alexa. Some of the time you can control devices directly with no set up but otherwise it’s something you’ll have to set up yourself using IFTTT, which can be a bit of a hassle.
It gets hit and miss on both devices if you ask more complex questions such as “What’s on at the nearest cinema” because Alexa will respond with the address (not what’s on) and the Google Assistant usually picks a cinema miles away and not the nearest.
Similarly, you may or may not get a sensible answer when asking about opening times of local shops. You’ll either be lucky or get a response “Hmmm, I don’t know that one” from Alexa and “I’m still learning” from the Google Assistant.
Ask them about “How many days until Christmas”, “What’s 6 feet in centimetres” or “How tall is Mount Everest” and you’ll have no problems.
Enable the right skills on Alexa and she’ll tell you when is the next train to London Bridge or the current status of the Northern Line. Home Mini is not so well equipped to deal with such things yet.
Amazon is constantly adding new features to Alexa, the latest of which is calling and messaging. Soon – we hope – the ability to control your Fire TV using your Echo Dot will arrive in the UK as it’s already enabled for US owners.
For music lovers, you can group multiple Echos and play music in sync across them all, turning it into a proper multi-room system. And you can also now tell Alexa to play music on a specific Echo, which you couldn’t do originally.
The Home Mini, meanwhile, benefits from being able to hook into Google services which Alexa cannot, such as YouTube and Google Photos. You can also use a Home Mini to control a Chromecast, which opens up quite a few possibilities such as being able to search for specific shows on Netflix or displaying photos from a particular trip from Google Photos.