It’s become too difficult to carry our phones around to have everything at our fingertips. We want to be able to call out a question or command in our living room, and have it answered immediately.
Lucky for us, nearly every tech company out there now sells a smart speaker to help grant your every wish. These speakers can do more than you can imagine and come with virtual assistants that can tell you the weather, read a recipe aloud, or give you score updates on the big game.
But which one to buy? It depends. I’ll break down some of the good and the bad, but then it’s up to you and Santa to decide which one will fill stockings next week.
Things to consider
In which tech world do you already live and invest? Do you buy something from Amazon Prime every day? Are you hooked on using Google’s Chromecast? You need to think about how well your new smart speaker will integrate with your current devices.
Then you can be sure when you’re in the middle of giving instructions to Siri on your phone in the car, it will seamlessly carry on to your Apple HomePod when you head in the house. On the other hand, you can tell Alexa (Amazon’s virtual assistant) to launch Hulu on your Chromecast until the cows come home and it will never happen. Only Google’s smart speakers will work with Chromecast.
Confusing? A little. Especially since sometimes, these smart speakers will allow third-party services. You just have to check. Every single time. So if a specific application is a deal breaker for you, make sure to find out if it will work on the smart speaker you’re considering.
I’m going to focus on Amazon’s Echo products and Google’s offerings simply because they are the furthest along in innovation. All of their smart speakers will give you the weather, podcasts, and let you know what’s on your calendar. They all perform simple tasks like setting timers and alarms, and making shopping lists.
All of these options will play music from Spotify, TuneIn, and Pandora, and make phone calls. Amazon and Google speakers will control smart home devices like Nest thermostats and iRobot Roomba Smart Vacuums. You can even order a Domino’s Pizza or an Uber to the airport.
Nearly all the the oodles of reviews I read agreed that the Amazon Echo for $99.99 (on sale now for $79.99) is the best overall speaker on the market. They also said that the Google Home Mini for $49 (discounted right now to $29) is the best bargain for any smart speaker right now.
So what sets them apart?
The Amazon Echo comes in a range of stylish exteriors, works via BlueTooth, and has a line-out audio jack to connect with your home stereo system. Amazon claims the virtual assistant, Alexa, can hear you from across the room, even if music is playing.
You can scatter these around your house to use as an intercom system (no more screaming downstairs). You can even order stuff from Amazon. There are five Echo options ranging from the Echo Dot at $49 (discounted to $29 right now) with a smaller speaker, to the Echo Show $229 (currently on sale for $149) with a 7” screen to play (limited) video.
One drawback is that Alexa can’t distinguish between voices. So if you want to check your calendar and then your wife wants to hear her party playlist, she’ll need to ask Alexa to switch accounts first (oh, the humanity).
The Google Home Mini only works over BlueTooth or wi-fi, but it (and all Google products) has the ability to recognize different voices. There is no doubt Google is the king of search, and it’s no different when it comes to smart speakers.
PC Mag says Google Assistant is the best for answering general questions, as well as those about local businesses. When they asked Amazon’s Alexa to order Mexican food, she tried to sell them a book.
But, this is not the smart speaker for you if you are wanting a standalone device to play music. It’s very small and the sound is a little tinny. If you want the ultimate in sound quality, you could go with the most expensive smart speaker, the Google Home Max at $399. It’s a hi-fi speaker that even adjusts itself to the acoustics of the room.Comment on this story
For diehard Apple fans, you’ll have to hold your horses a little longer. Apple’s version of the smart speaker, the Apple HomePod ($349…ouch) won’t be available until early next year.
The Amazon Echo is the way to go if you’re considering full smart home integration at this point. I’m holding out to see what Apple’s offering will bring to the table before I make a choice for my household.
But for now, my 11-year old has a Google Home Mini wrapped under the tree. He’ll be able to ask questions for days and play music while he cleans his room. I’m hopeful this will tide him over until he’s allowed to get his very own smartphone next year.