When Google introduced the Home Mini two years ago, it was playing catch-up to Amazon's Echo lineup. The Echo Dot, a tiny and affordable version of the larger Echo smart speaker, had been on sale for more than a year and a half, and Google was clearly responding to the Dot's popularity. The Home Mini bested the Dot in several ways, though, including a better speaker and more attractive design.
Naturally, Amazon responded a year later with the third-generation Dot. It ditched the glossy black plastic and took inspiration from the Home Mini's fabric-covered exterior. But more importantly, it fixed the older Dot's terrible speaker with something that was pretty impressive for casual listening.
This year, the back-and-forth continued with Google's Nest Mini, a $49 speaker that looks identical to the original Mini but includes a wall mount, proximity sensors and (you guessed it) an improved speaker and microphone setup. Amazon responded with a small tweak to last year's Echo Dot -- it's basically the same, but you can now spend an extra $10 to get a model with an LED clock on the front. These are two of the most popular smart speakers on the market, so if you're looking to pick one up this holiday season, here's what you should know before casting your lot with Alexa or Google Assistant.
Gallery: Nest Mini vs. Echo Dot | 14 Photos
Gallery: Nest Mini vs. Echo Dot | 14 Photos
- Surprisingly strong audio quality
- Clock is handy if a bit superfluous
- 3.5mm audio output jack
- Alexa is a mature and powerful voice assistant
- Hardware buttons make it easy to use
- Alexa app is still kind of confusing
If you've seen the original Home Mini, there's almost nothing to distinguish this new model. It's a small, circular, fabric-covered speaker that comes in four colors (gray, black, coral and Sky Blue). In fact, the only way to know tell the Nest Mini from its predecessor is the small wall mount built into the back. I've never personally thought about mounting a speaker to the wall like this, but it's clearly something people were doing, and it's nice that it doesn't require extra hardware any more. Indeed, my colleague Terrence O'Brien said he would kill to get his Home Mini off the counter in his kitchen, so perhaps I'm underestimating the wall mount's appeal.
The only physical switch on the Nest Mini is a microphone mute switch on the back; the Echo Dot, on the other hand, has volume up and down buttons, a mic mute and a button to activate the speaker without saying "Alexa" first. The Nest Mini does have physical controls hidden under its fabric top, though. Tapping the left or right side of the speaker lowers or raises the volume, and you can tap the center to pause audio. That's a slight tweak from the original model; Google disabled the top center touch button after it was inadvertently causing the Home Mini to record and upload more sound than intended.
On the Nest Mini, tapping the center is re-enabled, but there's one other tweak: The Nest Mini has proximity sensors that cause it to light up and give you visual cues for where to tap when you reach for it. Honestly, it doesn't add much to the experience, and while I prefer the Nest Mini's unadorned top, the Echo Dot's buttons are certainly more user-friendly. That said, the Nest Mini's capacitive volume controls generally worked without an issue, though it's naturally more prone to inconsistency than a physical button like the Dot has.
As for the Echo Dot, this year's model includes the LED clock in the front that lights up and shows the time by default; it can also display the outdoor temperature or your timers. It's a clever feature, particularly if you're going to use the Dot as a bedside alarm clock, but it doesn't really change the experience. Otherwise, it's physically identical to last year's model, with fabric-covered sides and a plastic top. The Dot doesn't have the Nest Mini's handy wall mount, but it does include a 3.5mm audio out, so you can hook the Dot up to another speaker for better audio. That's something I definitely wish Google added to the Nest Mini this year, especially with the death of the Chromecast Audio.
Setup for both the Echo Dot and Nest Mini hasn't changed much in the past few years. Plug it into the wall, download either the Alexa or Google Home app to your smartphone, and follow the fairly obvious "add new device" prompts. During setup, you'll do things like adding your default music service so you can reliably ask the speaker to play songs. At this point, the Echo / Alexa ecosystem works with more services. Both support Spotify and Pandora, but Alexa also works with Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer and Tidal. On the Nest Mini, you can use YouTube Music or the dying Google Play Music services in addition to those aforementioned options. Making sure your music service of choice is supported by your speaker is crucial, so double-check that before deciding which to buy.
The Alexa and Google Home apps are also where you'll link up various smart home devices you have so you can control them by voice. Alexa originally had a big head start over Google Assistant, but at this point basically any smart home device worth buying supports both services. Again, it's worth double-checking to make sure everything you want to control is supported by your assistant of choice, but you likely won't have any problems.