The key features and tips to look out for – and common problems to avoid – when buying a smart speaker for your home.
6 Tips for Buying a Smart Speaker
1. DOES IT MATTER IF I CHOOSE ALEXA OR GOOGLE?
Right now there are two established smart speaker platforms – the Amazon Echo, with its virtual assistant Alexa, and the Google Home, which uses the Google Assistant. There’s also a third option in the recently released Apple HomePod, which uses Siri.
All of these platforms work in the same way. You address them by saying “Alexa”, “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri”, then state what you want them to do. For example, “play me music by Imagine Dragons”, or “turn off the living room lights”. To an extent, therefore, it doesn’t matter which you choose.
If you’re buying your first smart speaker, though, there are issues to consider. The first is compatibility: you need a smartphone to set up your smart speaker, and while Amazon Echo and Google Home devices will work with Android or iOS, Apple’s HomePod is more restrictive and will only work with an iPhone or iPad.
There are also some differences between the capabilities of the various platforms. Amazon Echo devices work with the widest range of third-party services and devices. Google Home is a bit more limited, but you can use it to make phone calls, and to play media on Chromecast-compatible devices.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about the different hardware designs on offer. The Echo family is quite broad, stretching from the small, simple Echo Dot to the advanced Echo Show with its 7inch touchscreen, so there’s likely to be something to suit every room. Google only has two devices – the Google Home and the compact Google Home Mini – while Apple offers only the HomePod. If you think you might want to expand your system with extra speakers in the future, it’s a sensible idea to check that you’re buying into a family that will meet your needs.
2. IS THERE A CATCH WITH THIRD-PARTY SPEAKERS?
Half of the speakers in this month’s Labs are made by third parties who have licensed the Alexa or Google Assistant technology – and these models don’t support quite as many features as the official hardware. For example, the JBL Link 20 works with the Google Assistant, but it lacks the voice calling and software EQ features of the official Google hardware.
On the Amazon side, voice-calling features are typically missing from third-party speakers, and you may not have access to the full range of music streaming services. Non¬Amazon hardware also doesn’t work with “Echo Spatial Perception” (ESP) – the system that ensures that, if you have more than one Echo device, only the one nearest to you will respond to your voice. If you have two speakers within earshot, you can end up with them both responding at once, which can be confusing to deal with.
As long as you’re aware of the limitations, though, there’s no need to steer clear of third-party smart speakers. They support all the key features – playing music, answering questions and controlling smart home devices.
What’s more, many of them offer features that aren’t currently available on first-party hardware.
For example, several of this month’s speakers feature internal batteries, so you can take them with you on a day out. Some are waterproof too, and one comes with a remote control, enabling you to play and pause tracks with the touch of a button
rather than having to holler at your speaker. Weigh up the features and make your choice.
3. CAN I USE MULTIPLE SPEAKERS TO FILL MY HOME WITH MUSIC?
In most cases, yes. Both Alexa and Google Home allow you to combine speakers into groups so, for example, you can say “Alexa, play The Fratellis upstairs”. But, on the Amazon side, each Echo device can currently only be in a single group. This is quite annoying, as it means you can’t have an “everywhere” group – or, at least, if you do, you can’t also have a “downstairs” group.
Note that third-party speakers might not work with the Echo’s group feature, so if you’ve invested in, say, a Zolo Halo for your kitchen, you’ll have to control it separately. This is more irritating than it sounds because Amazon Music and Spotify won’t let you run two separate streams at once – so you can send the same thing to a group of speakers, but you can’t simultaneously use the same service to play music from speakers outside of that group.
Some speakers also come with the ability to link to another identical speaker for stereo output. Right now this isn’t natively supported within either the Amazon Echo or Google Home product families, but several other manufacturers – namely KitSound, Sonos and Zolo from this month’s lineup – have implemented it on their devices. Once it’s set up, the pair works as a single speaker, giving you a fuller, more expansive sound – although you might choose to spread your speakers throughout your home, rather than tying them together.
4. SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT PRIVACY?
The always-listening nature of smart speakers has understandably prompted privacy concerns. Both Amazon and Google have promised that, when their devices are sitting idle, all they’re doing is listening for the “wake word” and that nothing is recorded until they hear it.
Once that happens, your command is captured and sent back to HQ over the internet, where it’s analysed and interpreted. If you’re concerned about what’s being stored, you can check your usage history – on Amazon, it’s inside the Alexa app, while Google makes it available online at history.google.com – and wipe it if you wish. You can also ensure that the device doesn’t get triggered by accident by using the “microphone mute” button, which tells the device to stop listening altogether – but you will have to manually disengage it again when you want to issue an instruction.
That’s the official story. Most of us just have to take it on trust that these devices really are doing what they say. So far no-one’s found any evidence of data being secretly shared with the manufacturers, outside of what’s needed to process your instructions. However, these always-connected devices can update themselves automatically with new firmware and features, so in theory something could change in future. We’d suggest you don’t worry too much about privacy issues but still keep half an eye on the news and update notes, just in case.
5. IS THERE A FEE FOR USING VOICE SERVICES?
A smart speaker is a one-off purchase: once you’ve bought it, you can use it forever without paying a penny.
However, to get the best from your speaker, you’ll need a subscription to a supported music streaming service, as this enables you to play tracks and albums on demand. If you’ve chosen an Amazon device, you may already have an Amazon Prime membership, which includes music streaming from Amazon Music, plus voice purchasing and video services for the Echo Show and Echo Spot. Google Home devices don’t work with Amazon Prime, but a Google Play Music subscription will let you stream to your heart’s content – or, both platforms will work with a Spotify Premium account. If you’ve picked an Apple HomePod, you’ll need to sign up with Apple Music to unlock its full streaming potential.
There’s no guarantee that the manufacturers won’t start charging for the back-end voice services in the future – but, at present, these devices are doing a great job of enmeshing consumers into their manufacturer’s respective ecosystems, so we suspect that they’ll remain free for the foreseeable future.
6. WHAT ARE “SKILLS”?
One of the reasons why the Amazon Echo has been such a success is its support for “skills”. Simply put, a skill is a bit of software that enables Alexa to interact with a third- party service or device. Anyone can write and publish a skill so if, for example, you come up with a new messaging service, you can create an Alexa skill for it, publish it for free on Amazon’s Skill Store and let users around the world use their Echo devices to check and send messages.
There are skills for all sorts of things, from quiz games to advanced smart home devices – but, truth be told, the open nature of the platform means that not all of them are very useful or of high quality. And Google Home and the Apple HomePod aren’t shut out from such abilities by any means: anything that interfaces with the Google Assistant can be controlled from a Google Home device, and the HomePod can talk directly to Internet of Things (IoT) devices via Apple’s HomeKit API.
Finally, all three platforms also work with the popular web-based automation service IFTTT – so even if there’s no official connection between your voice assistant and a particular online service or smart gadget, you can often create one by simply enabling one of the thousands of pre-rolled applets. In short, while Alexa has the biggest library of skills, all three smart speaker platforms can do a lot more than just play music and relay information from the web.