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How Smart Are They, Really?

By Lisa McManus Published

We tested smart displays by Google and Amazon to see how helpful they were in the kitchen.

At first glance, the latest smart displays from Amazon and Google are pretty similar. Both the Google Nest Hub Max and the Amazon Echo Show have 10-inch screens, operate by voice or touch, and can control other linked devices in your home, from lights to smoke detectors to small appliances. Both can play music, make calls, report the news or weather, and show photos and videos. 

Smart displays are assuming an increasing role in the home, and more than half of all American households expected to have at least one smart display by 2021, according to Juniper Research. Many people put a smart display in the kitchen, which is often the hub of home life. Smart display manufacturers believe that using these devices as kitchen helpers and reference tools is one of the most important ways people have adopted this technology. 

“We see cooking as one of the most retentive things we have,” said Lilian Rincon, director of product management for Google Assistant, the virtual assistant of Google Nest Hub Max. “People who discover that they can use Assistant in the kitchen tend to come back.” 

So which one is a better kitchen helper: the Google Nest Hub Max or Amazon Echo Show? To find out, we devised a list of 58 cooking-related tasks and questions of increasing complexity. We started with tasks such as setting and adjusting one or more timers and basic questions such as “How many tablespoons are in ¼ cup?” Then we moved to slightly more complicated questions, such as those about ingredient substitutions. Finally we moved to an advanced round, asking a series of complex cooking-related questions with potentially hard-to-find answers. We ranked the responses as good, fair, or poor, assigning a numerical value to each rating, and totaled up the scores. 

Along the way, we judged how easy or difficult it was to communicate with the devices, noting if we needed to carefully construct our requests or could use natural human speech and if the devices got stumped (and if they asked for more information when they did). We considered the accuracy and completeness of the answers we got and the relative reliability of their sources of information—if they provided a source at all. 

We also considered the devices’ designs and controls as well as other functions and features that they offered, which we tested whenever possible.

Google Nest Hub Max let us set a reminder (which came out awkwardly worded) for another household member. It appears when that person approaches the display.

Who’s Smarter, Alexa or Google Assistant?

Before we get to the scores, here are some kitchen-related abilities the devices had in common: Both were able to keep shopping lists, set timers, provide and display reminders at appropriate times, calculate recipe measurement conversions, answer questions about substituting ingredients, and display a selection of recipes as well as walk users through the recipes step by step. But the ease of communicating with the devices, and the quality of their answers, differed in subtle ways. 

In general, we found that Amazon’s Alexa (the Echo Show’s virtual assistant) has slightly better natural-speech recognition as well as a slightly more human-sounding voice. It was a little easier to ask Alexa questions off the cuff and have her grasp what we were asking. The Google Assistant had a slightly more stilted “computer” voice. It also sometimes gave us the runaround; for example, when we wanted to add 5 minutes to a timer named “cookies” that we’d previously set, it kept creating more 5-minute timers called “cookies” until we carefully rephrased our request. 

At the most basic level, we also found it a bit easier to say “Alexa” to engage the device before asking a question than to say “OK, Google” (“Hey Google,” which also works, rolled off the tongue a smidge easier, with one less syllable). Both devices routinely display the question they think you asked on their screens (sometimes to comical effect). This can be helpful when things go wrong, so you know how you might want to rephrase your question. 

That said, both devices were generally good at gathering relevant information. There were some shortcomings: Neither device had a clue about setting a “count-up” (stopwatch) timer, no matter how we asked. Both mistook the cooking term “braising” for the metalworking term “brazing.” Alexa first thought we said “freezing,” then “brazing,” and finally got it when we rephrased the question to include “braising in cooking.” Google Assistant provided a link to “braising in cooking” at the bottom of a screen about brazing in metalwork.

Google versus Amazon: Consider the Source

If you’re going to do as we did and ask your smart display for lots of information about cooking, we recommend you choose the Google Nest Hub Max. Asking Google Assistant is exactly like typing it into the search engine, and you have all of Google’s range and depth at your disposal (and the same search results and links). Google Assistant always showed the source of its information, which helped us judge the reliability of the answers. 

By contrast, Alexa apparently avoids using Google, the world’s biggest search engine: When it did say where it got information, it frequently came from four sources: Wikipedia, WikiHow, amazon.com’s product-page descriptions from manufacturers, and answers posted on amazon.com by customers responding to other customers’ product questions. Using its own selling site to answer cooking-related questions led to some odd responses, such as this one, when we asked how to tell if bread dough has risen correctly:

Because Amazon's Echo Show often uses customer responses to questions on its retail site as a source of information, the device frequently gives partial or incorrect responses from potentially unreliable sources.

When we asked Alexa a question about how to cut carrots into batons, the answer—apparently gleaned from Amazon's retail site—went south pretty fast. (This was a follow-up question to one where we'd asked how to dice carrots.)

We’d also like to know the source for Alexa’s creepy response to “When do I use a serrated knife?”

Alexa answered our question about when to use a serrated knife (see top of screen image), but it certainly wasn’t the answer we expected.

When we asked the same question of Google Assistant, it answered less helpfully but more mildly, “Sorry, I don't know how to help with that yet, but I'm still learning.”

Smart Displays Learn over Time

As Google Assistant pointed out, these products are always “still learning” because they’re in constant development; their manufacturers add skills and features to their repertoire and update their abilities on an ongoing basis, partly in an arms race to win the bigger market share. So when we report that the two devices’ final scores were both in the “good” range, with Google slightly ahead, we recognize that this is subject to change. 

Beyond testing both devices with our cooking-related questions, we explored some of their other features: The Google Nest Hub Max uses facial and voice recognition and has ultrasonic sensing, so it detects when you or another member of your household (who has been added to your account) is nearby and can deliver reminders or messages to the correct person, but only on the device’s screen; it doesn’t send these notifications to phones, which might be more helpful for time-sensitive messages. You can pause the device by looking at it and raising a hand, without speaking, which is currently unique to Google. Amazon just added a feature where you can hold something in a specific position in front of the device and ask, “Alexa, what am I showing you?” We tried this with several common food products, such as a can of beans, and it correctly identified most of them after several long seconds. We struggled to figure out why this would be useful: It might be helpful for people who are visually impaired, but they’d have to hold the object in the right position for it to work, and the responses were not always accurate. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a party trick at this point.

Both devices successfully set and labeled multiple timers.

On both devices you can play music, follow along to the steps of a recipe, set timers, add items to your shopping list, and ask questions, all at the same time; they’re increasingly capable of multitasking. We tested these functions and they worked fairly smoothly, improving as the users learned the best way to navigate them. 

We tried pairing the Amazon Echo Show with a Philips Hue light bulb that we’d put in a lamp and turning it on and off by voice. The onboarding for the device was remarkably simple: We just selected it on the app and manually turned the light on and off. It was done in a few seconds, without all the usual frustrating back-and-forth involved in pairing older devices. (When we tried to pair a Wemo smart plug that we’d had for a few years to operate a slow cooker using Alexa, it was not particularly swift or easy.) We assume that newer devices are programmed to pair faster; manufacturers have been working to smooth out the start-up process with smart gadgets.

Both of these devices are designed to serve as the hub of a whole “smart home” setup. The Google Nest Hub Max works with all Nest devices, such as the smoke detector, thermostat, smart doorbell, lock, and video for home security. Amazon’s Echo Show recently added Alexa Guard home security; it can be set to detect the sound of breaking glass or other signs of a break-in and send notifications to you (and, if you choose, to home security companies Ring or ADT), as well as turn smart lights on and off to make it look like you’re home.

Amazon Has a Better App Than Google

Both devices work with an app on your phone or tablet, but Amazon’s app was far and away more user-friendly and intuitive, especially when we wanted to check our shopping list or pair a device. The Google app was frustratingly cryptic and difficult to navigate. 

We also considered their design and appearance: The Google Nest Hub Max was lighter and sleeker—it looked like an iPad on a cloth-covered stand. The recently updated second-generation Amazon Echo Show is a bit thicker and clunkier-looking, but it’s an improvement over the first-generation Echo Show model.

The Best Kitchen Assistant: Google Nest Hub Max

Despite minor frustrations and amusing moments, we found both of these devices useful and enjoyable as kitchen assistants. We have a preference for the Google Nest Hub Max, primarily for its access to Google’s search engine, which seemed to provide more reliable information to cooking-related questions, along with links to delve into more detail.

58 Questions We Asked During Testing

 

CATEGORY 1: Easy: Timers and Basic Commands and Questions

1. Set a timer for 3 minutes

2. Pause the timer verbally

3. Stop and cancel the timer during countdown

4. Set timers for 1 hour, 30 minutes, 3 minutes, and 3 seconds. Cancel all timers

5. Name and set three timers (“cookies” for 8 minutes, “roast” for 1.5 hours, “mixing” for 4 minutes) and ask about the remaining time on one of the timers

6. Add 5 minutes to the timer called “cookies”

7. Set a count-up (stopwatch) timer

8. How many grams are in 6 ounces?

9. Convert 20 grams to ounces

10. How many tablespoons are in ¼ cup?

11. Convert 350 degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius

12. Convert 190 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit

13. What’s one-half of ¾ cup?

14. What is ⅔ ounces in grams?

 

CATEGORY 2: Reminders, Messages, Shopping List, etc.

15. Remind me to feed the dog at 9 a.m. every day

16. Remind me to get coffee at 3 p.m. today (and then try to change it to “tomorrow”)

17. Remind a person (someone other than myself, to be specified) to feed the dog

18. Add canned tomatoes, six chicken breasts, and whole milk to my grocery list

19. What’s on my grocery list?

20. Send my grocery list to my phone

 

CATEGORY 3: Intermediate: Basic Cooking Questions with Definite Answers (How-Tos and Substitutions)

21. How do I dice carrots?

22. What's a substitute for buttermilk?

23. What’s a good substitute for cake flour?

24. Is barley gluten-free?

25. What temperature should I cook chicken breast to?

26. When is salmon cooked?

27. What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder?

28. What’s the weight of ½ cup of sugar?

29. What’s the weight of 1 cup of King Arthur all-purpose flour?

30. Can I eat ice cream if I’m keto?

31. Can I eat oatmeal if I’m gluten-intolerant?

32. What is a chinois?

 

CATEGORY 4:Advanced: More Complicated Cooking Questions (Answers Might Also Be More Complex)

33. How long is this cilantro going to stay fresh?

34. What is braising?

35. How do I broil?

36. What cooking oil should I use?

37. Can you broil in a nonstick skillet?

38. When do I use a serrated knife?

39. Is a serrated knife the same as a bread knife?

40. How much water do I add to cook white rice?

41. What are the best measuring spoons I should buy?

42. What’s the difference between vegetable oil and canola oil?

43. How do you blind-bake a pie crust?

44. What’s the difference between skirt steak and flank steak?

45. What’s a Delmonico steak?

46. What do I do if I burn myself?

47. How do I fix soup that's too salty?

48. How do I know if my bread dough has risen enough?

49. How do you clean mushrooms?

50. How do I know if this hamburger is spoiled?

51. Is it bad to use soap in my cast-iron pan?

52. How do I clean stains out of my Dutch oven?

53. How do I double this recipe? (first choose recipe for brownies that I can access on both devices)

54. How do I cut this recipe in half? (first choose recipe for beef stew that I can access on both devices)

55. What water temperature should I use for pour-over coffee?

56. What's the best way to cook brown rice? (If there is a default recipe, listen to ingredients and instructions and evaluate the answers.)

57. I have celery, chicken thighs, and spinach. What can I make?

58. What should I make for dinner tonight?

Equipment Review Smart Displays

We tested smart displays by Google and Amazon to see how helpful they were in the kitchen.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.