Best introductory option: Google Home Mini

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The Google Home Mini offers a surprising amount of sound from a tiny package — and a ton of question-answering prowess, to boot. While it doesn't have Amazon's skills or Apple's commitment to privacy, Google's speaker stands out by offering an easy-to-use app, support for routines and custom phrases, and cross-platform compatibility.

Bottom line: If you're considering getting into the world of smart speakers and you don't need anything fancy, the Google Home Mini is the best overall smart speaker for you.

Why the Google Home Mini is the best introductory option

Simple to use, easy to talk to, and LOUD: the hallmarks of a good smart speaker.

I own a bunch of smart speakers, and none are perfect. They all have omissions and issues due to various fragmented platforms and exclusivity, and there's not much that can be done about that just yet — we're in the midst of the smart speaker wars, and no platform is a perfect choice.

But here's the thing: Most people coming into the smart speaker world don't need a platform, or fancy skills. They like the idea of talking to a device and it reliably giving them information — and maybe they'll listen to some music on it, too. Of the smart speakers out there, the $49 Google Home Mini ($80 in Canada) is our best all-around pick for those criteria.

Note: Like most of its smart speaker kin, Google Home Mini isn't available worldwide: You'll need to live in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, or the United States to use all its features. In contrast, Amazon's Alexa platform is available in more than 80 countries as of March 2018. If you live outside of a Google Home-supported country, an Amazon Echo product will likely be your best bet.

Let's start with ease of use and reliability: Google Home Mini has by far one of the nicest, cleanest apps when setting up a smart speaker. It's simple without obscuring important information, routinely suggests commands to help you learn how to use the speaker, and — perhaps the biggest win in my book over Amazon's Alexa app — doesn't stutter or crash.

The speaker itself is similarly friendly: You need only plug it in and set it up with the app and your Google account to get going. If you have multiple users in your home, you can even use Google's Voice Match service to link multiple Google accounts (so that it's easy to get personalized information depending on who's speaking).

Once you're connected, you can ask Google Home Mini just about anything — and I do mean anything. The Google ecosystem benefits the Mini greatly here: Any query you give it, if not specifically tied to a skill, will go through Google's search engine. Results are specific, give web sourcing where appropriate, and rarely will you get a "I'm sorry, I couldn't answer that."

Its voice control is excellent, with commands easily given across the room at various decibel-levels. I was able to trigger "OK Google" at all but a whisper with music playing at 1/3 volume — not quite as good as the HomePod's freakishly attentive speakers, but a solid experience all-around. Google's two voice assistant models don't speak quite as smoothly as either Siri or Alexa, but most users shouldn't notice the difference.

The Mini also gives you access to weather and traffic reports, news sources, smart home integration with the Works with Google program, and music. Though far more limited than Amazon's platform, Google still offers integration with Spotify, TuneIn, Deezer, Musixmatch, Saavn, 7digital, and of course Google Play Music.

Google's Spotify integration in particular seems better than Amazon's: The Home Mini can note both likes and dislikes, and add songs to your music; these commands are unavailable on an Amazon speaker.

The speaker's sound is better than you'd expect for a tiny bagel-shaped device, though it won't win any contests with its larger siblings or Apple's HomePod. It has solid vocals and highs, though the mids and lows tend to drop out in more layered songs. But if it's simply music quality you're judging, it outright slaughters the equally-priced $49 Amazon Echo.

Should you have Chromecast-enabled devices, you'll additionally be able to use your Home Mini to control them; unfortunately, this comes at the expense of Bluetooth controls — unlike Amazon's speakers, you can't hook up the Mini's voice interface to a fancier Bluetooth-capable system (unless it's connected to a Chromecast).

With all the data you might provide to your Google Home (and in the wake of major privacy violations elsewhere on the web), it's worth weighing the privacy aspects of a smart speaker.

Like Apple, Google anonymizes your data before it's transmitted to the company's servers for processing. But rather than separate each command, Google lumps everything together using a unique advertising ID. Here's more on Google's data security from Android Central's resident Security expert, Jerry Hildenbrand:

Google disassociates it all from your personal identity as it's collected and processed. No human being is reading your stuff because there is too much stuff to read. These things are associated with what's called your "unique advertising ID" and Google keeps track of things that this ID searches and buys and gets directions for and everything else it thinks is important.

You have some control over all of this. Visit your Google My Account pages and see just what you're sharing, and how you can manage it all. Opting out of interest-based ads is easy, though it doesn't mean Google stops collecting the data — it just stops associating it with your advertising ID.

It's also important to note that there are some things that Google does not associate with your advertising ID. Anything about your race, religion, sexual orientation, or health or other sensitive categories is never associated with you, even anonymously.

In other words: Google won't sell your data or tie personally identifying information to it, but it does use it to sell potentially-relevant ads and services back to you. In an ideal world, I'd prefer my voice assistant as locked down as Apple's HomePod — but if you don't have the cash to drop for the pricier speaker, Google's platform is preferable to Amazon's database of voice recordings.

Best for Sound and Privacy: Apple HomePod

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Apple's HomePod has far and away the best sound quality of any smart speaker on the market (somewhat expected given its $349 price). Its microphone array is best-in-class as well, picking up whispers even when your music is blasting around the room. Apple's privacy policy is also the best of any smart speaker we've tested, giving it a leg up in that arena, too.

Bottom line: While Apple's smart speaker falls short in overall assistant functionality, if it's music and privacy you care about, it'll be the best smart speaker on the market for you.

Best for Third-party Integrations: Amazon Echo

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Amazon originated the smart speaker category with the Echo in 2014; four years later, the $99.99 speaker is one of the most widely available smart devices out there. It supports a wide array of third-party skills and home automation devices; easily connects to Bluetooth; and hooks up to your Amazon account for easy streaming and shopping.

Bottom line: If you plan to hook up a lot of third-party services or live in a country without HomePod or Google availability — and don't mind a more lax privacy policy and merely acceptable sound — Amazon's Echo is a solid choice.

The smart speakers we didn't pick: Sorry, Sonos

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While I'm personally a fan of the Sonos One's excellent sound, its Amazon Alexa integration is far too limited to actively recommend; the microphone array in the Sonos One is also weaker than any smart speaker I've tried, often requiring multiple "Alexa" requests when music is playing.

We also considered some of the other speakers in Google's and Amazon's lineup, but they weren't the best in their respective classes.

Bottom line: There are some other smart speakers that fill niche roles, but none worth recommending over our three overall picks.

Best for most people: Google Home Mini

See at Best Buy

The Google Home Mini offers a surprising amount of sound from a tiny package — and a ton of question-answering prowess, to boot. While it doesn't have Amazon's skills or Apple's commitment to privacy, Google's speaker stands out by offering an easy-to-use app, support for routines and custom phrases, and cross-platform compatibility.

Bottom line: If you're considering getting into the world of smart speakers and you don't need anything fancy, the Google Home Mini is the best overall smart speaker for you.

Conclusion

If you're curious about smart speakers, Google's Home Mini is the best introductory option out there for dipping your toe into the voice-assistant world. For those who prefer sound quality and the best privacy policy out there for voice commands, it's hard to beat the HomePod. But if it's solely third-party skills and integrations you need — including compatibility with just about every home automation device — then you'll be happy sticking with the original smart speaker, Amazon's Echo.