Buyers' guide: choosing a smart speaker
for your home.
While Amazon pioneered the internet-connected speaker that responds to voice
commands, it now has plenty of competition from other tech heavyweights.
Even the original Amazon Echo has six Alexa-powered alternatives vying for
your attention and dollars.
Digital assistants on these speakers — Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant,
Microsoft's Cortana and soon Apple's Siri — can play music, set timers and
read off your calendar events. These speakers can also serve as a gateway to
controlling other internet-connected appliances, such as smart lights,
thermostats and even streaming video on TVs.
Here's a guide to choosing one for you or a loved one.
Amazon's $180 Echo (2nd Gen) is smaller and costs half
what the original did at its 2014 debut. Variations range from the $85 Echo
Dot, which has a lower-quality speaker, to the $495 Echo Show, which has a
Google's speaker, the $165 Google Home, no longer challenges the main
Echo on price. Bargain hunters can get the Google Home Mini for $65 or
splurge for high-quality speakers in the $650 Google Home Max.
Apple. Early next year, Apple will compete at the high end with the
Microsoft. Microsoft's assistant appears on Invoke, a $185 speaker
made by Samsung's Harman Kardon business. Samsung is also planning a speaker
based on its own Bixby assistant, but there's no word yet on when.
Other manufacturers are also making speakers with Alexa or Google Assistant
You can talk to Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana as you would a friend.
Ask any of them, "Do I need an umbrella today?" to get the forecast for
rain. (Siri's capabilities on HomePod won't be fully known until it comes
out.) Nonetheless, no single assistant does everything well. Alexa, for
instance, won't let you set an alarm more than 24 hours out; its rivals do.
All three are learning. At first, Alexa was able to make calls only to other
Alexa users. Now, it can dial regular phone numbers, too, for hands-free
conversations. Google Assistant was the first to distinguish different
voices, so it knows to play music on your playlist, not your teenager's.
Alexa got that capability a few months ago. Cortana is still behind in many
ways, but all three are racing to get better. Don't choose a device solely
on what it can do today, as any small lead could be short-lived.
Of course, each device will work best with its manufacturer's own services.
Alexa, for instance, can read Kindle e-books in her computer-generated
voice. If you just finished Chapter 23 on the Kindle e-reader or app, Alexa
will continue with Chapter 24. You can also buy toilet paper and other
items, on Amazon of course, with a voice command.
Cortana, meanwhile, can make calls using Microsoft's Skype service. When you
set up Invoke, Microsoft's Outlook.com calendar is automatically linked; you
have to add Google's yourself. Google Assistant can read only your Google
calendar, not Apple's or Microsoft's. (Alexa is the only one to work with
all three.) The assistants will work with many other services, though.
Amazon is at the forefront in enabling third-party capabilities, so Alexa
can call you an Uber ride or track progress on your Fitbit fitness tracker.
Google and Microsoft are catching up. Meanwhile, Amazon and Microsoft have
agreed to let their assistants summon each other; when that's enabled soon,
Alexa can fulfil something Cortana can't do on its own.
These speakers can, of course, play music. If that's important, pay more for
a quality device. Invoke is made by Harmon Kardon, experts in audio. Home
Max and HomePod are also designed with sound quality in mind. As tempting as
the $50 Echo Dot might be, Alexa sounds as though she's coming over a
speaker phone, but if you already have good wireless speakers, you can pair
them to the Dot with Bluetooth. You need Google's $35 Chromecast Audio
device to pair other speakers with Home.
The three major assistants all work with Spotify. Alexa and Google Assistant
work with Pandora as well, while Amazon and Google work with their own music
services. Alexa also has Sirius XM.
Security and Privacy.
Expect your kids to mess around with the speaker, by asking an assistant to
make fart noises, for instance. Parental controls are limited. Microsoft
says it's still working on them. Google's controls are limited to its
YouTube service. Amazon lets you set a PIN for ordering products by voice,
but a lot remains unfiltered, including news that's not always pleasant.
Even among adults, there are security and privacy considerations.
These speakers are always listening, unless you hit a mute button. Companies
insist that nothing is sent over the internet unless the device hears a key
word, such as "Alexa" or "OK, Google." You can view your history of voice
requests. Amazon and Google let you delete individual ones; with Microsoft,
you can only delete your entire history.
Another consideration: If you're living in close quarters, a nosy neighbour
could hear the assistant recite your doctor's appointment or upcoming travel