Alexa's New Smarts Just Put Google Assistant on Notice

Amazon just went big, announcing about a dozen devices at its September event:

But while the devices themselves were impressive—if not for their depth, but for their breadth—it was the new abilities and skills that Alexa is gaining that will help keep Amazon's voice assistant one step ahead—or at least on a par with—Google Assistant.

We already know that Amazon is looking to kill the Alexa Skill as we know it, and these new smarts will help evolve the assistant into more of a conversationalist.

One of the more impressive demonstrations during the presentation was Alexa's ability to know the context in which a person was asking it something. For instance, by the end of the year, you'll be able to whisper to Alexa, and it will answer back in a whisper, too. This will be great for those who don't want to disturb a sleeping partner or child.

MORE: 5 Biggest Announcements from Amazon's Event

I was also intrigued by a new feature called Alexa Hunches, which will offer you suggestions based on contextual clues. For example, if you tell Alexa "Goodnight," it will look at all of your connected smart home devices, and ask if you want it to lock your door, or turn off your lights. It will be interesting to see how well this feature, coming later this year, will work in practice, and how Amazon will extend it beyond smart home devices.

Alexa Guard looks to turn your Alexa speaker into an ad-hoc security device, as it will be able to listen for breaking glass or a smoke alarm, and send you an alert. Another great feature, which we've seen in our favorite smart plugs, is the ability to randomly turn your smart lights on and off while you're away, giving the impression to any burglars that you're still home. 

A key feature that Google would be wise to copy is local voice control; this will let you still control your smart home devices via Alexa even if your Internet connection goes down. However, you have to be using either the new Echo Plus or the new Echo Show for this to work. This was one of the advantages of Zigbee and Z-Wave networks over Wi-Fi only smart homes, and if Amazon is able to successfully implement it, then it will remove a further obstacle for those who want to create a smart home.

MORE: 50 Best Amazon Alexa Skills

It sounded hokey, but the $59 AmazonBasics Microwave could actually make microwaving even easier. Personally, I don't think you save much time telling Alexa to turn on the microwave versus pressing a few buttons, but the shortcuts that Amazon has added to Alexa could simplify things for the culinarily disinclined.

For example, you can say "microwave a potato" or "microwave a bag of popcorn," and your Alexa device will automatically send a preset time command to the microwave. This will only be useful so long as Amazon keeps adding presets, though.

Still, there's some areas where Google Assistant beats Alexa, namely in general knowledge—Google has the power of its search engine behind it—as well as the ability to recognize multiple individuals. Those are things that Amazon will have to account for, too.

Yes, all these devices mean that Alexa will soon be everywhere you go, but it's what you'll be able to do with these new products that will make them useful for consumers. We're hoping to test out a lot of them over the next month or so—as well as these new features—to see how well they work. And, we're more than interested to see how Google responds.

Mike Prospero
U.S. Editor-in-Chief, Tom's Guide

Michael A. Prospero is the U.S. Editor-in-Chief for Tom’s Guide. He oversees all evergreen content and oversees the Homes, Smart Home, and Fitness/Wearables categories for the site. In his spare time, he also tests out the latest drones, electric scooters, and smart home gadgets, such as video doorbells. Before his tenure at Tom's Guide, he was the Reviews Editor for Laptop Magazine, a reporter at Fast Company, the Times of Trenton, and, many eons back, an intern at George magazine. He received his undergraduate degree from Boston College, where he worked on the campus newspaper The Heights, and then attended the Columbia University school of Journalism. When he’s not testing out the latest running watch, electric scooter, or skiing or training for a marathon, he’s probably using the latest sous vide machine, smoker, or pizza oven, to the delight — or chagrin — of his family.