Now You’re Talking: Your Guide to Smart Speakers

Digital assistants are taking over US, British, Canadian and Australian homes.

Chances are you or someone you know has had a recent conversation with Siri, Apple’s virtual helper, or Alexa, Amazon’s version.

In fact, there are now four AI voice assistants available – Microsoft’s Cortana is less well-known, but Google Assistant is also a big player.

So for those of you thinking about buying a smart speaker (or just curious about its capabilities), here’s a helpful guide.

ALEXA AMAZON ECHO

What is it?

There are two types of Alexa device – speakers with Alexa built-in, and devices that simply work with Alexa, which generally means they can be controlled using your voice.

Amazon’s range of Echo speakers is the former, and as at mid-2020 there are five of them – the Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Show, Echo Spot and Echo Dot.

Each of these has markedly different features, which are reviewed in greater depth below, but they are all voice-activated, internet-connected smart speakers with a built-in digital assistant named Alexa.

She can follow instructions, answer questions and control compatible smart home devices such as lights, thermostats, ovens or security cameras to name a few.

How does it work?

Each wireless Echo speaker boasts an array of microphones that can pick up your voice from across the room (even with music playing), and connect to the internet via your home Wi-Fi network.

The device is always on and listening for its wake word 'Alexa' (which can change to 'Amazon', 'Echo' or 'Computer' if you prefer).

When it hears this word, the light ring at the top turns blue and the Echo begins recording your question or command.

It sends this audio file to Amazon's cloud based server, which interprets the information and provides an answer.

This is sent back to the Echo and Alexa gives you a verbal response.

Is it safe? 

You may have heard stories of Amazon speakers snooping on user conversation, and undoubtedly there have been technical glitches which have allowed Alexa to listen in continuously.

The most alarming was a recent case in the US, when an Echo speaker recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact.

Amazon says since then it has closed any security loopholes and is working on making this sort of occurrence even more rare than it already was.

If you're concerned, you can always press a button and mute the microphones on an Echo device to stop it listening, turning its light ring red.

You can also see and delete anything you say from the Echo's history.

What can it do?

If you were hoping for an Artificial Intelligence Virtual Assistant that you could talk to as if it were a human, a bit like a sci-fi film, prepare yourself for disappointment.

You need to phrase requests and commands in a specific order to enable Alexa to understand you, which can become frustrating.

That said, there are a whole host of ways to put Echo speakers to use, the main ones being:

Play music 

If you have Amazon Music, then asking for music works seamlessly.

If you have Spotify, you need to say ‘on Spotify’ after every request, or simply change the default music service on Amazon's website or through the Alexa app on your phone.

You can ask for music by artist, playlist, album or song title, play audiobooks and podcasts, skip tracks and change the volume.

Alexa will also play radio stations via TuneIn, and you can even request music similar to a favorite band just by saying ‘Alexa, play music similar to David Bowie.’

Although there are limits to the breath and quality of the recommendations.

Alexa has a harder time deciphering demands for specific albums and tracks than she does band names or genres, especially if they have the same name, in which case you need to remember to say ' Alexa, play album...'

If you have several Echo speakers dotted around, you can use them to set up a multi-room system, not unlike Sonos.

Just create a group on the website or app and add the speakers you want to play music – this could include only those downstairs, stairs, or all at the same time – then say ‘Alexa, play [name of band] on [group name].’

Best of all, you can ask Alexa for a musical wake up. Music alarm works with Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and SiriusXM, and are as simple as: ‘Alexa, wake me up to I Got You Babe at 8 am.’

Set timers and make lists

Alexa is a brilliant kitchen timer.

Hands covered in butter? No worries, ask Alexa to set a timer.

Wondering how long is left? All you have to do is ask her.

Need to set another one for the veg? She’ll add as many as you like, with the option of including names: ‘Alexa, set a timer for potatoes for 15 minutes.’

The subsequent alarm can be silenced with a simple, ‘Alexa, stop.’

She's also a whizz at shopping and to-do lists. Start with: ‘Alexa, create a new to-do.’

She will ask you what the to-do is, and whatever you say after that will be added to the list.

You also have the option of being more direct: ‘Alexa, I need to make an appointment with the hairdresser’ or ‘Alexa, add “get my hair cut” to my to-do list.’

Shopping lists work in a similar way: ‘Alexa, I need to buy bread.’

You can also ask her for reminders. ‘Alexa, remind me to pick up the kids at 3pm’, that sort of thing.

Control smart home devices

Alexa can work with any compatible device you plug in, including smart lights, thermostats, and appliances, while the Echo Show and Spot, with their displays, can link to security cameras and even let you see who’s at the door.

Voice-controlled light bulbs are probably one of the best places to start.

Just upgrade your usual bulbs for smart ones.

There are various available from around $20 up.

Philips’ Hue Bulbs can connect directly to the Echo Plus, but you’ll need to purchase a Hue Hub to make them work with other Echo devices.

The next step after voice control over lights and specific devices is to set up customized commands, or ‘Routines’ (Find out more about how Routines work here).

In the morning, it’s possible to ask Alexa, ‘What’s happening?’ and have her respond with the day’s weather forecast, tell you how long it will take you to get to work and show you the BBC News headlines.

Want to turn all the lights off in the evening when you tell her goodnight? No problem.

Make calls

Alexa can make calls and send messages to friends’ and family members’ Echo devices, Fire tablets or anyone with the Alexa app on their phone.

Invest in an Echo Connect and you can use her as a speakerphone, call a contact from your phone’s address book, another landline and place emergency and international calls.

Use as an intercom

If you have several Echo devices you can use them as an intercom system.

Just finished making dinner and want to let someone upstairs know? Simply say: ‘Alexa, drop in on [name of other Alexa device]’; then speak with whoever is at the other end.

Skills

There’s also a growing arsenal of third-party apps or ‘Skills’ that allow you to do everything from order an Uber to be taken through a seven-minute workout.

Among the 15,000-plus available there’s a lot of duds, but there are also some real gems – check out this article for some of the best.

WHICH ONE SHOULD I BUY?

AMAZON ECHO (3rd GEN) SMART SPEAKERS

Now in its third generation, with a smaller size (5.8” x 3.9” x 3.9” (148 x 99 x 99 mm)) charcoal fabric finish (there are also heather grey, sandstone and twilight blue options).

The speaker itself is decent, but music aficionados may want to invest in an Echo Sub, Amazon’s subwoofer that will add an extra 100X of bass to any of the Echo speakers.

Best for: First-time buyers

ECHO PLUS (2nd GEN)

The Echo Plus differentiates itself from the Echo with a built-in Zigbee smart home hub.

This makes adding smart home controls like Philips Hue light bulbs that much more straightforward, and the Echo Plus will automatically search for compatible devices.

A recent update means the speaker also now offers 360-degree sound.

Best for: Smart home enthusiasts

ECHO SHOW

The most expensive option, the Echo Show is an Echo with a 5.5in screen, so you can use visual apps as well as audio ones.

News updates, weather apps, video doorbells and recipe apps are all supported.

Plus Firefox and Skype support means you can now browse the internet, watch YouTube videos and make video calls even if the recipient doesn’t have an Echo device

Best for: Keeping up with the Joneses

ECHO DOT (3rd GEN)

The smallest of the Echo range and the cheapest, the Dot won’t deliver great audio, but it’s the ideal buy for those with an Echo who want to start adding multi-room functionality.

It’s also great for anyone who wants to dip their toe in the Echo water without breaking the bank, or music buffs who already have great speakers but want to try out Alexa.

Best for: Anyone who already has a decent speaker

ECHO DOT KIDS EDITION

Amazon’s child-friendly version of the Dot brings with it protections against adult content and voice purchases and parental controls.

As at early-2020 only available in the US and Australia

Best for: Parents

ECHO SPOT

The newest Echo is essentially a smart bedroom alarm with a built-in screen.

Like the Echo Show it allows you to make video calls and display information.

Best for: A bedside companion

GOOGLE ASSISTANT GOOGLE HOME

What is it?

Google Assistant is the unimaginative name for Google’s version of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Just like Alex, there are devices that the Assistant works with, and those with the Assistant built in.

As you might expect, the Google Home range of smart speakers is the latter.

Each of these smart speakers (as at mid-2020 there are four – Google Home, Google Home Mini, Google Home Max and Google Home Hub) has pros and cons over the others, which we delve into in a bit more depth below.

How does it work?

Google Assistant responds to the wake words ‘Okay Google’ on many of the more recent Android phones (you can even download it as an app for your iPhone), and to both ‘Okay Google’ and ‘Hey Google’ on Google Home smart speakers.

As with Alexa, once you’ve uttered the wake phrase it will begin recording and you can direct it to search the web, play music, control your smart home devices and more.

How is it different to Alexa?

The Assistant is still relatively new compared to Alexa, but with such mind-boggling technology resources to draw from, Google has taken on the AI challenge and is already a serious alternative.

At the moment Alexa has the upper hand when it comes to controlling your smart home gear, thanks to the sheer number of devices it’s either integrated into or compatible with.

Google Assistant works with less, but there are still plenty and it’s growing all the time.

Where the Assistant comes up trumps is on pulling relevant information from the web to answer a greater variety of questions (as you can imagine, Google has a head start on Amazon when it comes to searching for information) and also voice recognition.

Google Assistant is arguably the more human-like digital helper.

Google also owns a popular suite of tools including Gmail; not just an email system but one which might well play host to your calendar, contacts list and more besides.

Since a digital assistant should be able to help you plan your day, it’ll need to know your schedule, which puts Google Assistant at something of an advantage, assuming you do use Google’s platforms.

What can it do?

Google Home, like Amazon Echo, lets you play music, radio and podcasts, hear the news from sources such as BBC, Guardian, Sky etc., set timers and alarms and control your smart home devices.

It isn’t great at making to-do lists, but there are several other advantages to buying a Google Home smart speaker, including:

Voice recognition

You can train the Assistant to recognize up to six different voices, which then allows it to customize responses to whoever is doing the talking.

Google announced this year that soon you’ll be able to use this feature to enforce manners on members of your household (i.e. your children).

Called ‘Pretty Please’, it will see Google Home responding positively to words such as ‘please and ‘thank you’, and will even prompt your child for the ‘magic word’ if they forget.

Turn on your TV

Google Home can turn on any CEC-enabled television (newer TVs, in other words) that has a Chromecast – a small, inexpensive media streaming device that you plug into a USB socket on the back of your television to enable it to stream Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Google Music and many more to your TV from your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

It will also allow you to use your voice (via Google Home) instead of a remote.

Just say: ‘Okay Google, play Game of Thrones on [Chromecast name].’

And thanks to a recent update, it’s now possible to turn your telly on simply by saying: ‘Okay Google, turn on the TV.’

Google Assistant actions

One of the biggest advantages of the Echo smart speakers is its 30,000-odd Skills.

Google Home has always had its own third-party services, called ‘Actions’, but up until now they haven’t been easily accessible.

Thanks to another update, these are now available through the Google Home app and also via the internet at assistant.google.com.

Want to know what Google Home is capable of doing?

Just search for it.

Type in ‘smart lights’, for example, and you’ll be given a list of smart lights that work with Google Home.

WHICH SHOULD I BUY?

GOOGLE HOME, ~$149

Google Home Smart Speakers

The original Google smart speaker has been likened to an air freshener in looks – a bulbous bottom tapers towards a touch-sensitive angled top.

Sound quality is fine, but not good enough to act as your main party speaker.

Best for: First-timers

GOOGLE HOME MINI, ~$49

Google Home Mini Smart Speaker

The smallest of the Google Home range is a direct competitor to the Echo Dot.

Puck-like and available in three colors (chalk, charcoal and coral) it’s everything the Google Home is, just without the larger speaker

Best for: Multi-room set up

GOOGLE HOME MAX, ~$299

Google Home Max Smart Speaker

The most expensive model, but you do get a high quality speaker that delivers a premium sound.

Whether you’re better off going with the cheaper JBL Link 300, which is almost as good sound-wise, is questionable, or indeed the Sonos, which is due to be Google-Assistant enabled later this year.

Best for: Music lovers

GOOGLE HOME HUB, ~$99

Google Home Hub

The Home Hub is Google’s version of the Echo Show.

Google wants you to feel comfortable keeping it in places like the bedroom, so unlike the Echo Show there’s no camera.

Swipe down from the top of the screen or ask the Assistant to show you ‘Home View’ and you can access an overview of all your connected smart devices.

Best for: Bringing devices together

SIRI APPLE HOMEPOD

Smart Speakers - Apple HomePod

Apple’s digital assistant has come a long way in the last year – possibly spurred on by the need to live up to the very high price of its own smart speaker.

The introduction of that device, the HomePod, came after even Google’s, let alone Amazon’s, lead was established and Apple clearly decided not to compete on price either.

Instead Apple’s play into the smart speaker market relies on the already well-established artificial intelligence of Siri.

The system has a well-programmed personality and given Apple also operates a music subscription service, it is excellent at playing a tune when you ask it to (assuming you are a subscriber to Apple’s service).

In terms of other commands, Apple uses another of its established technologies.

Called HomeKit, this system is the same technology that identifies products and adds them to the ‘Home’ app if you use an iPhone.

Compatibility with HomeKit is not a given for smart-home devices, though, as despite Apple being quick off the mark in creating the technology, the company required developers to use more sophisticated security systems.

That often meant having to redesign the smart device rather than just updating software, so look for a HomeKit icon in a smart device if you want interoperability (other devices do have apps for Apple devices, but aren’t part of HomeKit, so Siri will ignore them).

How does it work?

Set up really is as easy as 123.

Just plug it in and hold your iPhone near to it – the speaker will automatically sync with your phone, winging across your W-Fi password and iCloud details.

Small multi-colored swirls of light flash at the top to tell you it’s active and listening once you utter the wake words ‘hey, Siri’.

It’s a fair bit bigger than the standard Echo or Google Home, but it also looks the least like a tech device, blending in seamlessly on a bookshelf or kitchen worktop.

What can it do?

Smarts-wise, Siri can set a single timer, control HomeKit compatible devices, answer limited questions, send text messages, and create notes and reminders.

But it will only play music natively from Apple Music or iTunes, which means limited radio, and it can only be controlled from an iOS device.

You can AirPlay audio to it from an Apple TV, a Mac or iTunes on a Window PC, or from apps on your iPhone or similar Apple devices, including from Spotify or similar – but that’s of little use if you have an Android phone.

That said, the HomePod’s sound is genuinely great, and if you’re an iPhone enthusiast who also loves music, wants a brilliant wireless speaker and is happy with a few voice-controlled extras, this could be your optimum choice.

What we like

  • The HomePod arguably boasts the best sound quality of any of the smart speakers.
  • If you are fully in the Apple ecosystem (Apple Music, iPhone etc.) the HomePod is a real contender.
  • The most stylish of all the smart home products.

What could be better?

  • Siri is still quite far behind both Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of digital assistant features.
  • Doesn’t support as many smart home devices as either Alexa or Google Assistant and is not compatible with other non-Apple music providers like Spotify or Deezer.
  • The HomePod and Apple’s Home app don’t work on Android phones or tablets – you’ll need an iOS device.

CORTANA HARMAN KARDON INVOKE

CORTANA HARMAN KARDON INVOKE

Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, has long been thought of as the lesser cousin of the big three, Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.

For one thing, Cortana doesn’t have its own speaker.

Instead Microsoft chose to pair up with audio company Harman Kardon (a subsidiary of Samsung), and together they launched the voice-activated Invoke.

How does it work?

The Invoke is similar in shape to the Amazon Echo, with an aluminum casing and a touchpad at the top that lights up blue and white when Cortana can hear you (once you’ve said the wake phrase ‘hey, Cortana’) or red as a warning that something’s not right.

The ring around the top can be turned to change the volume, and if you tap on the touchpad Cortana will ‘surprise’ you, often with a random fact.

What can it do?

The Invoke smart speaker boasts many of the same features as the other AI devices, including controlling your music, smart thermostat, and lights.

You can ask questions and receive answers from the web, check the news, weather and traffic, set reminders and manage your calendars.

You can also make Skype calls to landlines, mobile phones and other Skype devices.

Even better, because it's design comes courtesy of a well-established audio company, the Invoke delivers fantastic sound across 360 degrees.

But Cortana’s real strength lies in the fact that it’s already included on every Window 10 PC (in fact, Cortana has been around longer than Alexa) and integrates seamlessly with Microsoft software like Office 365 and Outlook, which can be great for work planning.

Indeed, Cortana can now sort through your emails, and read out summaries.

What makes Cortana even more interesting is its recent partnership with Alexa.

Revolutionary in the smart home world, the idea is that the two assistants will work together to fill any gaps in the other’s abilities.

So, Alexa users can now call on Cortana for things like sending an email via Outlook, while Cortana users can access Alexa’s plethora of skills.

What we like

  • Great sound quality from an established audio company.
  • When it comes to Cortana’s own skills, Microsoft is teaming up with more device partners all the time – LIFX, Ecobee, Honeywell and IFTTT are all now on board. Find out what Cortana can do at Microsoft’s dedicated website: microsoft.com/en-us/cortana/skills

What could be better?

  • The Invoke can’t network with other speakers, so multi-room music isn’t an option.
  • Microsoft is way behind Amazon and Google when it comes to Cortana devices – currently there’s only the one smart speaker, although Microsoft says more are on the way.