Amazon Echo vs Google Home: Which is Better for a Blind Person to Use?

In a previous blog post, I talked about the skills available on the Amazon Echo range of smart speakers.  The Amazon Echo first appeared in the UK in late 2016, and in April 2017, the Google Home range became available.  These smart speakers are a real challenger to the Amazon Echo and they have their own strong points.  Deciding which to buy can be tricky, so I will be comparing both smart speakers.

Like the Echo, the audio version of the Google Home is available in two versions; Google Home and Google Home Mini.

The Google Home and Google Home Mini both have the same features but the Google Home is larger than the Mini and it produces more bass.  At first glance, the Google Home range and the Amazon Echo range are quite similar in functionality but there are a few differences to consider when buying.

The Amazon Echo works with Amazon services such as Audible books and the Amazon shop.  Google has just introduced Audiobooks in the UK, but the service is not as well-known or extensive as Audible.  Also, although Google does have the ability to shop, it’s not in the same league as Amazon!  In general, the Amazon Echo and Google Home do not interact with each other, so you must choose whose services you prefer.

The set up process for Google Home requires either an android or an iPhone.  Access to a smartphone is essential to register the Google Home and connect it to Wi-Fi.  You can use any computer with a web browser to connect the Amazon Echo.  However, I feel that the set up process for the Echo is not as easy as the Home.

Moreover, you’ll need to consider whether and how you intend to connect your smart speaker to other speakers for improved sound quality.  Both systems benefit considerably by being connected to higher quality speakers such as a Hi-Fi system.  The Google Home can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth or by using Google’s own wireless connection system called Chromecast.  You can’t however, connect the Google Home to speakers with a cable such as a 3.5 mm stereo jack, typically used for headphones.  This is a real disadvantage for those who might want to connect to older systems which need a wired connection.

With the Echo, you can connect to other people with an Echo by using your phone’s contact list.  At present, the Google Home does not have the ability to let you talk to others with a Google Home.  Instead, you can ring anyone in your contacts list whether they have a landline or a mobile phone.

Both the Echo and the Home can have apps written for them which give increased functionality but they take a different approach.   Anyone can write an Amazon Echo app and publish it.

These apps are called skills.  To enable skills, you ask Alexa to enable a skill name.  For example, there is a skill to find out if there are delays on the Tube and to enable this I can say “Alexa, enable fast Tube status.”

Google does not have skills but they work with an increasingly wide range of partners, so you can now shop with supermarkets such as Asda because Google has partnered with them.  You don’t get individuals writing skills for the Google Home but the partnerships with other services that you do get tend to be higher quality.

Moreover, Google tends to be smarter when answering questions than Amazon, particularly when you want to ask related questions.  I can ask Google “How many hits has Elton John had?” followed by “How old is he?” and Google will understand I mean Elton John in the second question, whereas the Amazon Echo will forget the first question I asked.  In conclusion, Google tends to be that little bit smarter but it’s a close run thing.

Amazon Echo & Google Home
Photo of the Google Home and the Amazon Echo Dot

Written by Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

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Accessible Radio for the Vision Impaired

As the Assistive Technology Advisor at ELVis I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.

In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.

Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. I will cover Television in my next blog entry.

In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.

Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than there used to be and some even have no DJs so song titles and artists are never announced.

In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales and manufacturing ceased some years ago.

Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display and this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.

For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.

The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.

I have recently being demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The amazon Echo is available for £50 or £150 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129.

Manufacturers such as Apple are also bringing out high-end smart assistants so there is likely to be increased choice in this field over time.

Devices such as the Victor Stream available from www.humanware.com also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £250.

Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund at www.blind.org.uk they offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.

So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are useable by a blind person with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.

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Photo of Graham with the Google Home device on his office desk.

Listen to Graham talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about accessible radios.

Written by Graham Page

The Amazon Echo Dot Review

Every now and again, smart devices are introduced without needing modification for vision impaired people to use because they function by using other senses. An example of this is the smart speaker/voice assistant. Smart speakers are screenless and can only be activated by voice.

A smart speaker which I highly recommend using is the Amazon Echo Dot, which is a speaker with a microphone that connects to the Internet. You use your voice to speak to the device and Alexa, the voice assistant, will talk back to you.

The range of skills Alexa has includes:

  • Finding out the current time
  • Setting timers and alarms
  • Playing radio stations
  • Getting a local weather forecast
  • Controlling lights, mains plugs with timers and other smart home devices
  • Planning journeys on public transport
  • Playing audiobooks
  • Creating to do lists and calendars
  • And much more!

Before you can use the Echo Dot it requires setting up, which you will only ever need to do once. You will need a smartphone, tablet or computer connected to the internet in order to link the Echo Dot to your Amazon account. If you don’t have an Amazon account you will need to sign up on the Amazon website prior to setting up. After you’ve completed the setup process you’re ready to use the Echo Dot.

As a blind person the Echo Dot has been extremely useful in assisting me with my daily routine. I’m surprised at how much I use the device to perform the aforementioned skills, as it is a lot quicker to use voice commands than using my computer, even though I am a competent computer user.

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Photo of Graham, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser, with an Amazon Echo Dot.

The Echo Dot costs £50 on the Amazon UK website, although Amazon has regular sales so you can probably buy it for less.  It is also available as the Amazon Echo with a bigger speaker which costs £150. Moreover, Google has recently launched its own smart speaker called Google Home with voice control. Both products can be purchased online but are also available at retailers like PC World and John Lewis.

In conclusion, smart speakers are beneficial for vision impaired people, however I recommend that you research thoroughly which product is able to meet your needs before buying one.

Here is a YouTube video demonstrating the Amazon Echo which is definitely worth watching!

Written by Graham Page