Wouldn’t it be great if you could assign a robot to handle all of your mundane tasks? While we’re not quite there yet (at least for the average person’s use), you can use technology to make many aspects of your life easier (and have a lil fun with it).
We’re well into the age of the “Internet of things,” which for the average consumer has begun to most impact our day-to-day in the form of home automation and smart speakers. Meet Alexa, Siri, and the whole gang. With these voice-activated devices, you can get news and other information, purchase products online, and manage many of your home systems. They can also of course play music and provide other entertainment as you go about your day.
What Are Smart Speakers?
Smart speakers merge the power of the Internet and voice recognition software to bring information and automation for your home — and right to your ears. Rather than use your smartphone for everything, these are small standalone devices that fit on a desk, countertop or bedside table. They activate at the sound of your voice to serve up news, alarms, and reminders, as well as allow you to complete various tasks such as turning on the television, adjusting lighting, or playing music.
These devices work by passively listening all of the time, although most of what they ‘hear’ is not stored or acted upon. When hearing a preset “wake word” (like “Hey Alexa” or “Okay, Google”), the device becomes active and ready to act upon the following request by connecting via Wi-Fi to the company’s servers. You control settings on the devices through an app on your smartphone, but other than that, the speakers work independently of your phone and do not need to be in proximity to them to function.
One exciting thing about these personal assistants is that companies with devices (currently, Amazon and Google) have partnered up with third-party subscription services such as Spotify, Nest, Netflix, and Pandora, so that you can connect these devices to your accounts and control them by simple voice commands. Developers also have built independent apps you can ‘train’ your device to use. These apps further extend the functionality and information reach of your personal assistant, including connectivity to games, travel information, and other options.
Line ‘Em Up: Amazon and Google Devices for Different Needs
There are two primary contenders for the smart speaker market: Amazon and Google, although Microsoft has announced a device coming later this year. As the first out of the gate in 2015, Amazon now offers a few different devices, while Google’s Home has been available just since November 2016 and has only one device at this time.
Amazon Echo Family
The Amazon Echo (Amazon, $149.99-$179.99) is the first of the mainstream smart speakers to hit the market. It is a 9.25” cylinder speaker that uses your voice to control the personal assistant software known as Alexa.
The Amazon Echo Dot (Amazon, $49.99) is a 3” tall cylinder with almost identical functionality to the original Echo. The primary difference is that it has a smaller speaker. Unless you want a better speaker for music quality, the Dot may be sufficient. In fact, because of the price point, you can get three Dots for the price of one Echo, so you can put one in several different rooms. And to offset the speaker concerns, it includes connections for Bluetooth or a 3.5 mm stereo cable.
An Echo with a rechargeable battery, the Amazon Tap ($129.99) offers most of the same features of the Echo. Unlike the Echo and Echo Dot, it must be activated with a ‘tap’ as it isn’t always listening for commands. It’s most useful for people who travel frequently or want to have a more discrete device in their office.
For fashionistas and selfie-fanatics, the Echo Look ($199) combines the functionality of the Echo with a hands-free camera that allows you to take full-length photos of yourself. It has automatic LED lighting and a background blur. A service called Style Check can help you decide on the best outfit combinations, and share your favorite photos.
Just announced by Amazon, the brand-new Echo Show ($229) is an Echo with a video screen. You will be able to watch YouTube videos, see weather radar, or follow along with your favorite song lyrics. As of May 9, the Echo Show is available for preorder through Amazon, with the first units shipping at the end of June. If you’re tempted, Wired has an early review.
The Google Home ($114-$129) is a newer entry into the connected personal assistant space. Like the Echo family, the Google Home is a smart speaker that can accept various commands and control devices around your home. At 5.62” in height, it has a more stylized cylindrical design than the Echo and comes in a variety of colors. It runs on the Android operating system. The Home was first announced in May 2016 and released in the United States in November, meaning it’s still pretty new on the market.
Coming in Fall 2017 is Microsoft’s entry into the smart speaker race. Called the Invoke, it has a similar shape as the original Echo and is made by Harman Kardon. It runs the Cortana operating system also found in Windows 10. Early reports suggest the Invoke will function just like the Echo and Home with one notable exception: the Invoke will allow you to make and receive Skype calls.
So, Google Home vs. Amazon Echo: Which Do You Choose?
Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices provide similar functionality, but their platforms and third-party service partners vary. The Google Home draws on the power of the Google engine, while the Echo leverages the power of Amazon, including Prime and Kindle. It’s worth reviewing the pros and cons of each, and also consider which automated devices or subscription services you currently use or plan to purchase in the future.
We break down some of the strengths and weaknesses of each device family so you can be a savvy shopper:
|Google Home||Amazon Echo|
|Smart Home Connectivity|
|Voice command “Wake Word”||“OK Google” or “Hey Google”||“Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer”|
Amazon also offers a quick summary of each device they offer so you can choose the right one for your needs.
What Can You Do with Smart Devices?
With a simple request, smart speakers can:
- Wake you up in the morning
- Tell you what’s on your schedule for the day
- Update you on the news overnight
- Warn you about traffic jams
- Add items to your grocery store shopping list or immediately purchase items online
- Order food delivery
- Set reminders
- Keep track of your to-do lists
- Serve as a timer when you put food in the oven or hop on your exercise bike
- Provide up-to-date flight information
- Serve up your newest podcasts
- Turn on and off lights
- Provide automatic math computations and measurement conversions
Using Automation Makes Life More Fun: Our Recommendations
You might want an Echo or Google Home to become more productive, but they can also enrich your life. Here are just a few examples:
- Ask your assistant to play music from your favorite musician while you cook dinner, without having to touch your phone or stereo with greasy hands. Later the device can provide soothing sounds of the outdoors to help you sleep.
- Audiobooks and podcasts can help you learn while you get ready for work or while you clean the house.
- Put one in your child’s room so they can ask questions and learn about the world. (Just be sure to turn on the child safety feature.)
- When you get home, tell your smart speaker to turn on your television and your show will be ready to go as soon as you reach your comfy chair.
- Play games with your device. Options include word games and trivia. Try your hand at a Jeopardy-like game or a ‘choose your own adventure’ story.
And if all else fails, just ask them to sing you a song.
Always Listening: Should You Be Concerned about Smart Device Security?
Because most of these devices are always on, and ready to accept a new voice command, are these devices spying on us?
Both Amazon and Google claim their devices only record and act upon sounds immediately after the “wake phrase” and no other conversations get saved to the company servers. Both devices also require you to have separate accounts rather than access the devices through passwords coded in the hardware, so they would be much more difficult to hack by a third party.
Even so, what if the devices accidentally overhear something they shouldn’t? In a recent murder case in Arkansas, police tried to get Alexa recordings as part of the investigation. Amazon refused to turn over records, citing First Amendment protections.
Still, what does that really mean for our privacy? Could Amazon or Google—or someone else—use these devices to listen to personal conversations? Technically, yes, but before you reject smart speakers altogether, consider this: your laptop computer, tablet, smart phone, smart TV, and even landline phone could also be used to listen into your conversations. Most smartphones today come with a personal assistant (Siri, Cortana, etc.) that are always listening and react to “wake phrases.”
And with smart speakers, you can always turn them off.
How Far Can You Take Automation?
There are many devices that will allow you to automate various aspects of your home.
Your smart speakers can connect to the Nest or other smart thermostats, allowing you to adjust the temperature of your home just by making a verbal request. The Echo and Home can control special light bulbs and switches to allow you to adjust your home lighting and control appliances such as the coffee pot and other electronics.
You can also purchase home automation hubs such as the Wink Hub 2 or remotes such as the Logitech Harmony Elite to control smart devices or items controlled via Bluetooth or infrared, such as non-smart televisions or stereo systems.
Other forms of home automation include:
- Smart home surveillance cameras that can automatically record everyone who comes to your door
- Garage door openers and front door locks that can be controlled by your smart phone
- Wi-Fi enabled pressure cookers and smokers that will allow you to start dinner on your way home from work
- Smart-phone controlled vacuums, lawn mowers, and sprinkler systems
What are your thoughts on Google Home vs. Amazon Echo products? Are you ready to take the leap into the future?