While previous years were marked by technological trends like the smartwatch, GoPro, or VR, this year will be all about the smart speaker. But why? What are they? Why are they useful? How to pick the best model? We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about this latest trend in the world of audio.
When in 2014 Amazon revealed their Echo speaker that had Alexa voice control, every sci-fi lover realized that their dreams are about to come true. The fact that Google and Sonos revealed their own smart speakers in 2017, and that many others followed speaks volumes. It means that this trend is not one that will die out quickly!
We will finally be able to control the tech we use with voice commands. No more screens or buttons, just your elegant device, your virtual assistant, and you. All you have to do is speak up, and these amazing devices will do the rest.
What is the smart speaker actually?
Everything that a speaker does beyond emitting sound can be marked as smart. So, for starters, any speaker that offers Bluetooth, NFC, or app control is already a smart device. That’s how it should be.
But, ever since Amazon Echo shown up when people say, smart speakers, they have in mind wireless speakers with built-in voice control. So, if you can tell your speaker what to do, and it does it, it’s a smart speaker.
Smart speakers are usually single-unit wireless devices that are connected to the internet, and they have an AI built in. They can play a playlist, or control your AV system. You can ask your smart speaker to set a timer while you’re cooking, or to turn up the heating. Also, it can turn down the lights, book you an Uber, or give you a weather report. If you get the smart speaker, there’ll always be someone to make your shopping list, and tell you a joke.
Ever since we saw what JARVIS does in Iron Man, we wanted something similar. And now, you don’t have to be a playboy genius billionaire to have it – and we are loving it! You just need to start by saying “Alexa” or “Ok Google” and your little digital butler will be ready to help.
So, how do they work?
These devices have built-in microphones that always listen for the wake-up phrase. So, as soon as you start talking to them, they’ll start listening. When they listen, they are sending everything you tell them to a server that will interpret what you’re saying.
Based on that interpretation, your smart speakers will respond or perform an action that you asked for. Now, don’t imagine this will last forever! Both Alexa and Google Assistant are lightning-fast, so all of this takes only a fraction of a second.
Things your smart speakers will be able to do depend a lot on the AI they have inside. Google Assistant, Alexa, Cortana, and Siri have different manners of operation; they can use different apps and different smart home features.
Google Assistant and Alexa are the most popular at the moment, and they both work with Spotify Connect, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, Kayak, Domino’s Pizza, and IFTTT (If This Then That). But that is where the similarities end.
Alexa is integrated with a lot more third-party apps than Google Assistant. With her, you’ll be able to access the Guardian, National Rail, Uber or Ocado. Google Assistant, on the other hand, understands spoken language better, so you won’t have to speak slowly and clearly every time you want to use it.
Most popular smart speaker models, and what they’re all about
When Echo first showed up, it didn’t offer much, but, in the past three years, these smart speakers have really developed beyond our expectations. There are six different models, each adding something different into the mix.
You can get a basic Echo or one of its descendants. Echo Dot does everything Echo Does, but it’s smaller and has a smaller sound reach. On the one hand, Echo Tap is portable, while Echo Show throws in a visual element, and lets you make video calls, watch videos, and check security feeds.
Echo Spot is a Dot and Show combo that offers the best of both worlds. Each of these devices can be used to order things on Amazon, play music from your phone, Spotify or Amazon Prime, make calls or send messages.
If you want to add apps, you actually add skills to your Echo via the Alexa app. Echo supports a broad variety of third-party apps like Lyft, Expedia, Fitbit, Just Eat, and even Google Calendar. We love that Echo can read out your Kindle books – exactly from where you left off. What we don’t really like is the fact that Alexa’s searches are powered by Bing search engine.
- Decent price
- Compatible with a lot of third-party apps
- Shopping on Amazon
- Can connect to your Kindle
- Sound might be better
- Skills have to be downloaded from the Alexa app
Google Home comes in three varieties – Google Home (stylish, decently priced, very versatile), Google Home Mini (smaller, cheaper, weaker sound), and Google Home Max (Hi-Fi sound with a high price).
This smart speaker is a bit smarter than the Amazon Echo since it’s integrated into Google’s search engine. It sounds a bit better than its main competitor while offering fewer apps. We like that it recognizes voices of different users, and it’s able to call anyone, wherever they are.
Whichever app you want to add (that’s supported, of course) can be added simply – just enter your Google Home smartphone app, open the Explore tab and pick what you like. You can listen to music from Spotify, Google Music, YouTube or stream it via Bluetooth from your other devices.
When you ask a question, you don’t only get a prompt answer, and Google Assistant also tells you where it came from, so you can choose whether you’ll trust the source or not.
- Better voice recognition software
- You don’t have to download additional apps to get access to them, just check them on a list in your Google Home smartphone app.
- Free music from YouTube
- Answer to any question that might pop into your mind thanks to Google search engine
- Not the best sound, unless you buy the priciest version
- Missing some of Google’s services
Other smart speakers
If you don’t want to limit yourself to these two, there are numerous third-party smart speakers that use the same tech. You can choose between Sonos One (Alexa AI), Lenovo’s Smart Assistant (Alexa AI), Sony LF-S50G (Google Assistant AI), Harman Kardon Invoke (Cortana AI), JBL Link 10,20, and 300 (Google Assistant AI), Harman Kardon Allure (Alexa AI), as well as Libratone Zipp (Alexa AI).
Each of these models has its own advantages, but they mostly boil down to speaker quality, price tag, and AI that they use.
You might have noticed that Apple’s HomePod is not on this list.
Apple is still developing its own smart speaker, HomePod, that will have Siri as its AI. Since they are jumping into the game rather late, we hope Apple will make HomePod compatible with more third-party apps to make it more popular.
Since Apple usually builds closed ecosystems, we’re guessing Siri will work best with iOS apps – HomeKit, iMessage, Reminders, Maps, Podcast – anything that Siri can control on iPhones at the moment. According to Apple, this device will be available in 2018. We still don’t have a precise date, but we hope it’ll be sooner rather than later.
How to choose a smart speaker that’s best for you?
Well, you need to know what you’re looking for. Google and Amazon offer different models of their speakers, and some are cheaper, some are pricier. Your choice shouldn’t depend on the price though, but on the use, you had in mind. Here are some things you need to pay attention to when you’re buying smart speakers.
1. Sound quality
If you plan to play a lot of music, you need to know just how powerful the speaker is, and what kind of sound options it offers – equalizer, volume, lists, etc.
2. Voice recognition
If you want to use your smart speakers to control your home appliances, or just to fact check, you need to get a model that has a decent voice recognition software.
3. App compatibility
You know which apps you use every day, right? Well, you should definitely factor it in when you’re picking your smart speakers. Don’t take a prettier model, or a model with a better sound quality if all you want is to use a bunch of third-party apps that will make your life easier.
If you want your digital butler, you should pick a model that offers the most options. Take a model that can connect to every smart home appliance and a piece of tech, one that has above average sound quality, and that offers access to those apps you use the most.