The best smart speakers on the NZ market

by Peter Griffin / 09 August, 2018

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A Google Home Mini smart speaker with built-in Google Assistant. Photo/Getty.

Between Big Brother concerns over them listening to you and the endless hype around artificial intelligence, there is a lot of fear and confusion around the gadget of the moment – the smart speaker.

I’m a smart speaker convert – I have five of them in my house (one Alexa and four Google Homes), one for each room, including the bathroom, where my Google Mini device reads me news bulletins while I have my morning shower.

As I wander around my house I am, after six months of living with smart speakers, using them to record voice memos and add events to my calendar, asking for the weather forecast and selecting music to stream – all with a simple voice command.

The smart speaker gives you an easy way to control technology, by simply asking a question. But for all their efficiency and convenience tidying up the admin aspects of my life, these smart speakers are very much first generation technology. They’ve a way to go to move beyond novelty gadgets to become really useful to me.

However, with the same artificial intelligence driving the speakers available for free through the equivalent smartphone apps, you don’t have to pay to test drive the technology and see if it’s for you.

Here then is NOTED Tech’s five point guide to what’s on the market, what to look out for and things to avoid when delving into the world of smart speakers.

1. It’s down to Amazon Alexa vs Google Assistant

Currently, there are four main players when it comes to the intelligence driving smart speakers: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Apple’s HomePod speaker isn’t available here yet, nor are any Cortana devices, so the choice comes down to Google or Amazon at the moment.

Even between those two, the Google Home devices are not officially on the market here yet and Google’s head of consumer devices wasn’t able to give me an expected date on when they’ll officially be on sale.

But you can easily buy them online through Dick Smith and PB Tech, and most of their functionality works in New Zealand.

I’m a big Google user – YouTube, Google Calendar and Google Search are go-to apps I use every day. As such, the integration between these services and Google Home is very good and I think Google has the edge on intelligence when it comes to delivering answers to my questions.

I also find Google has the edge when it comes to properly recognising voice commands, which may come down to Google’s extensive experience in natural language processing and translation.

Setting up and managing Google Home devices is very easy through the Google Assistant app, which allows me to network together all of those devices so the same music or podcast is playing all over my apartment.

The smart speakers are able to initiate internet phone calls to other people’s smart speakers and to users and their smartphones if they have the app installed. This is potentially a great way to keep in touch with people. But making calls on smartphones is still a fledgling service and not a primary reason to buy a smart speaker.

Calling and messages between Echo devices are possible, but as Google’s Home devices aren’t officially available here yet, the service isn’t supported. Calling will only really become useful when you can use the Echo or Google Home to make a call to a landline or mobile phone number. That functionality is likely some way off.

Amazon’s edge overall is in the so-called “Skills” its Echo devices support. These are useful actions that local companies have made compatible with Alexa voice commands. So I can say to Alexa “Ask Air New Zealand about my flights” and it will tell me what’s booked in my Air New Zealand app. I can ask for a news flash update and get an audio version of the news headlines from Stuff or NewstalkZB.

These services will come to Google Home when it is officially available here, but until then you’ll have to make do with generic news bulletins sourced from overseas. Amazon is at heart a massive online retailer and you can use the Echo to shop online. But with Kiwis only able to buy through the US Amazon store, you’re unlikely to be using Echo to make small, casual purchases. Until we have a local Amazon operation or access to the Australian store, you’ll be better off reaching for your phone or computer to shop on Amazon.

Bottom line: Amazon has more going on tailored to New Zealand users, but Google has the edge on overall intelligence. If you are a big Google fan, Google Assistant will definitely suit you better and it is only a matter of time before the devices are upgraded with New Zealand-specific services.

The entry-level Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker. Photo/Getty.

2. Does audio quality matter to you?

Amazon and Google have small entry-level devices, the Echo Dot and Google Mini, which at less than $100 each, let you get into the smart speaker game relatively cheaply. The speakers are both surprisingly good at picking up your voice commands from across the room and their small, hockey-puck design makes them unobtrusive sitting on your TV cabinet or sideboard. I prefer the understated fabric finish of Google Mini to the Eco Dot’s more robust design.

However, in larger formats, the Echo comes into its own, both in audio quality and looks. The full-sized Echo is a sleek black cylinder that does a good job of delivering clear audio which is fine for listening to an audiobook.

Google Home is slightly squatter and less elegant, but also delivers reasonable sound quality for the package. The devices support line-out, so you can feed audio from a Google Mini or Echo Dot into your stereo system to take advantage of the superior sound your full-size speakers offer.

Both Amazon and Google also have larger sized speakers available that compete with Bluetooth speakers from the likes of Sony and JBL. And with an increasing number of third-party speaker makers incorporating Alexa or Google Assistant into their own line-up, you have good options beyond Google and Amazon’s own devices.

The Harman Kardon Allure for instance, is a high quality, rich-sounding speaker that has all the Alexa capability you’ll get from an Echo. Sonos, one of the leaders in wireless speakers is set to release its flagship Sonos One, with capability for both Alexa and Google Assistant.

Bottom line: You’ll want a full-sized speaker for decent audio playback or see if you can use your existing speakers for playback. Third-party speakers are increasingly supporting voice assistants, so don’t limit yourself to the hardware on offer from Google and Amazon.

The Harman Kardon Allure. Photo/Supplied.

3. Not quite the gateway to the smart home – yet

The ultimate aim for smart speakers is to be able to use them to control everything in the home, from the TV and fridge to the heat pump and security cameras. Both Amazon and Google are using the “Zigbee” technology standard to make that happen, but the functionality is currently limited and a bit clunky.

A few gadgets are available that smart home enthusiasts can take advantage of now. Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home are compatible with Philips Hue LED lightbulbs, so you can adjust your rooms’ lighting with a voice command, which is a nice touch.

Some Nest devices, such as its smart thermostat works with these smart speakers but isn’t yet on sale in New Zealand. Google’s own Chromecast device that plugs into your TV works with Google Home. It allows me to use voice commands to choose video clips on Youtube or select shows to watch on Netflix.

Amazon Show is like an Echo device with a screen on it, which is great if you want to use the Echo as a sort of digital alarm clock to display the time, weather forecast and calendar alerts. It is capable of showing data from smart home devices, such as a security camera’s video feed. But again, very few of them are available yet in New Zealand.

Bottom line: The smart home functions of these speakers is not really a selling point at the moment, but expect more compatible devices to come onto the market this year and a software upgrade will give Google Home and Amazon Echo long-term potential as smart home hubs.

Amazon Echo. Photo/Getty

4. Safe and useful for all the family

Both Alexa and Google Assistant now support multiple users, which is sort of essential to make it genuinely useful to a household of people with different schedules and priorities. The voice recognition in both systems can be trained to distinguish between different people and in both cases is actually pretty good.

It means that I can’t ask to hear details from my partner’s calendar events or voice memos and she can’t hear mine. The preferences linked to each user’s Amazon or Google account will also apply to what the smart speaker serves up, so you are likely to get the music playlist from Spotify you actually want.

In terms of security, these smart speakers are no less secure than entering information into your smartphone or using the voice assistant app on your phone. The smart speakers are actively listening for trigger words that will then record the command you are issuing, so that it can be sent over the internet to the servers of Google or Amazon, to find the answers.

In Amazon’s case “Alexa” is the trigger word, for Google it’s the phrase “Hey Google or “OK Google”. You’ll get used to the smart speaker overhearing what it thinks is the key phrase mentioned on a TV show or among family members conversing in the lounge, in which case it will pipe up to say something like “what would you like me to do?” or “I can’t help you with that yet”.

But by and large, the speakers are unobtrusive unless you call on them. The fragments of voice commands you give are retained by the companies and in the case of Amazon and Google, you have the ability to delete these through your account management console.

You’ll notice that everything you search for by voice is combined with your computer or phone-based searches in the Alexa or Google Assistant app. That means there’s a heck of a lot of information about you and your search history in one place. You are able to delete those records, but bear in mind that the more information that is recorded, the better your smart speaker will know your preferences and the more useful it will be.

There has been a lot of hype around the Big Brother aspect of smart speakers and fears about them being used by hackers to listen in on your conversations. This risk is no greater for smart speakers than for the smartphone that’s sitting on your coffee table.

Bottom line: Multi-user accounts let you keep your information separate when using smart speakers and make them much more useful for each individual member of the household. From a security point of view, smart speakers are no less secure than smartphones and each virtual assistant maker lets you control exactly what information is recorded and retained from your smart speaker usage.

5. The smartphone may be all you need

It is worth remembering that the voice assistant powering this new generation of smart speakers is also available as a free app on your Android or iOS smartphone and tablet, and indeed on desktop and laptop computers.

The smart speaker will give you a greater level of convenience as you won’t have to reach for your phone and open up the voice assistant app, just to pose a simple question. If you are keen on reducing the amount of time you spend in front of your smartphone screen, that’s a very useful attribute.

But the reality is that Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are quite effective on the smartphone and simply by training the assistant and using it regularly, you may get enough functionality from it to suit your needs.

Bottom line: Ultimately, these tech companies are building the assistant into every device you are likely to interact with, from your smartwatch to your car stereo. They want to make information as readily available as possible, so we’ll increasingly be using voice commands as an alternative to text-based commands and searches.

Conclusion

Smart speakers are great for bypassing the screen to deliver you nuggets of information about your life and the world around you. They will become smarter as more services are adapted for local use and as they increasingly become a hub for the smart home.

There are devices available in numerous different formats to suit your audio needs and the entry-level models are cheap enough to allow you to scatter a few of them around your home for virtual assistance across the household.

We currently miss out on a lot of the functionality of these devices due to a lack of local integration, but that will improve over time and a smart speaker you buy now should be suitable for several years of use as software upgrades introduce new features.

My picks

Google Home Mini
One of the cheapest routes into the world of smart speakers, easy to set up and definitely has the edge over Alexa when it comes to intuitively understanding your voice and accurately answering your questions. $69

Harman Kardon Allure
The best option currently in the third-party market for speakers supporting voice assistants. It has all the functionality of Alexa, but built into a visually stunning speaker with a great lighting feature, and a powerful speaker providing rich bass and enough sound to make it suitable for music playback in mid-sized rooms. $430

Amazon Echo Alexa
The full-sized Echo is great for playing back Audible audiobooks, Spotify playlists and with the local integration of services, is currently the most functional smart speaker and good value for money. $179

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