Smart speakers have edged their way into our homes. As the technology matures and we become more comfortable talking to Alexa, Siri and Google, they are proving handy personal assistants to help organise our chaotic lives.
After two years in the smart speaker world, I use them to record voice memos, add events to my calendar, ask for the weather forecast and pick music to stream – all with a simple voice command. One of them, Amazon's Echo Show, even has a screen I can use to call up videos and weather reports.
Smart speakers are great for bypassing the screen to deliver you nuggets of information about your life and the world around you. 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.
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.
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 – plus, my top picks.
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 (which seems to be on the way out). 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 – though you will find them as parallel imports from the likes of Dick Smith and Noel Leeming. Google only enters a market when it feels it is large enough to justify the investment, hence the absence of its Home devices and Pixel smartphones in New Zealand. Still, they are easy enough to get hold of and while there aren’t any Google services tailored to New Zealand companies for smart speakers yet, the core functionality works here just fine if you buy a parallel imported Home device.
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 Home 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 a great way to keep in touch with people using the Google Duo app and if you have a smart display – a smart speaker with a video display – like the Amazon Echo Show or JBL Link View, you can do video calls with other users too.
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. It works with the likes of Air New Zealand (so you can ask Alexa about your upcoming flights), TVNZ and RNZ (for locally-tailored news bulletins).
However, the New Zealand Skills collection is still small and I don’t tend to use them very much, so there’s work to be done there.
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 and integration with popular services like YouTube. If you are a big Google fan, Google Assistant will definitely suit you better and it’s only a matter of time before the devices are upgraded with New Zealand-specific services.
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. The newest versions have a stylish fabric finish and tasteful lighting to show when they are listening to your commands.
In larger formats, the Echo comes into its own, both in audio quality and looks, thanks to the arrival of the Amazon Echo Studio.
The regular Echo is a sleek black cylinder that does a good job of delivering clear audio which is fine for listening to an audiobook, but the Echo Studio is a fully-fledged speaker that supports Dolby Atmos and really packs enough power to deliver rich music throughout a room.
Google Home is slightly squatter and less elegant than the Echo, but also delivers reasonable sound quality for the package. Smart speakers 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.
There is an increasing number of third-party speaker makers incorporating Alexa or Google Assistant into their own line-up, so you have good options beyond Google and Amazon’s own devices.
The Harman Kardon Allure for instance (from $299), is a high quality, rich-sounding speaker that has all the Alexa capability you’ll get from an Echo. Sonos, which is well-known for its high-quality networked stereo products, has Alexa built-in. You can pick up the Sonos One smart speaker priced from $328. Some TV soundbars from the likes of Yamaha and Bose also have Alexa built in, so you can effectively talk to your soundbar to call up info or music, using it as a regular speaker when the TV is switched off.
Bottom line: You’ll want a full-sized speaker for decent audio playback or see if you can use your existing speakers for playback by plugging in a small smart speaker device. Third-party speakers are increasingly supporting voice assistants, so don’t limit yourself to the hardware on offer from Google and Amazon.
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. Apple, Amazon and Google are using the “Zigbee” technology standard to make that happen, but the functionality is currently limited and a bit clunky.
Still, a joint venture between those companies and others to develop standards this year to ensure compatibility between all of their smart devices and hubs, should smooth the way for more progress in this space.
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.
Nest devices, such as the Nest video cameras, work with these smart speakers. 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’s Echo Show, a smart display, is great if you want to use it 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. The JBL Link View does the same in the Google world.
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.
4. Safe and useful for all the family
Both Alexa and Google Assistant support multiple user profiles, 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. That’s a requirement to make them work, otherwise you’d have to walk up to the device and press a button to activate it. The same system is in play on your smartphone or smartwatch.
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.
As you start to use your smart speakers for home automation control, more information about your behaviour – when you turn on the lights, what video cameras you have in use, will be sent to those companies that supplied them.
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. Still, I like that JBL has a physical camera cover built into its video display and that the speaker can be disabled with the touch of a button.
You need to get into smart speakers in the knowledge that the information you generate will be shared with Amazon or Google and other third-party companies running apps or devices in conjunction with the smart speakers. Keep your eyes open and regularly delete your private data if you are nervous about prying eyes seeing it.
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.
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.
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. $49 or get a pack of three for $140 (via Dick Smith Online)
Sonos One Black
Sonos is a big name in the small speaker space when it comes to audio quality and ease of use and the Sonos One Black delivers on both counts. The Sonos app makes everything easy and intuitive and the integration of Alexa is well executed. Sonos makes it easy to pair with other Sonos One devices for stereo listening. A stylish, decent-sounding speaker. $328
JBL Link View
An 8-inch screen gives this Google Assistant-powered smart display speaker an edge in terms of functionality. Great for pulling up YouTube videos and recipes and you can mirror your smartphone screen by using Chromecast. Excellent audio quality for the size – the perfect bedside or kitchen companion. Read NOTED’s full review here. $349
Amazon Echo Studio
The latest addition to the Echo line-up sees the smart speaker go big with enough power to keep the party cranking. The audio quality is top-notch compared to its rivals and the overall design is slick. Great value for money and with support for high-quality audio formats, should keep audiophiles happy. Read NOTED’s full review here. $359