“If I only had a brain” sang the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. But now he could just buy one, an intelligent assistant, a smart speaker, a virtual assistant – they go by many descriptions – but all promise more or less the same: to do some of the work for you, by listening to voice commands, so you needn’t bother to touch a control or screen, get up from your seat to push or turn a button, or even type something into a search engine. Their electronic brains – with artificial intelligence – can do it for you.
There are assistants built into computers and phones – such as Siri and Cortana & lately Google’s Assistant, plus Bixby from Samsung, among others.
But should you go out and purchase a so-called smart speaker, one of those devices with a built-in intelligent assistant, to help you do, well, what it can do? Let’s look at the best-known ones.
At the top of the list would be Amazon’s Echo line – also known as Alexa for the “wake” name you say to precede a command. (It now also answers to “Computer” for you Star Trek fans.) The Echo became widely available three years ago as a 9.25-inch cylinder with a microphone and speakers and at first seemed limited to playing music – which it did quite well. But over the years Amazon has added “skills” to the Echo, and partnered with many manufacturers to have Alexa-enabled devices from security cams, to light switches & light bulbs, to door locks, thermostats, ride-hailing, banking, garage door openers…the list seems endless & every day another device announces it too is enabled for the Alexa intelligent assistant.
Amazon has also upgraded (and shortened) the original Echo and made several new Echo devices, including the small & inexpensive Echo Dot and the more costly Echo Show which has a 7-inch touchscreen that will show you the weather forecast, your photos, who is outside your door, and videos from Amazon Prime, among other things. You can make video calls to another Echo Show, and of course it can use all the aforementioned Alexa skills.
Not surprisingly for being both first & most ubiquitous, the Amazon devices have just under 45% of the worldwide smart speaker market by some accounts – but are clearly being challenged by Google, whose intelligent assistant devices were first available later in 2016 and whose world share has doubled since last year to about 26%
That first device was Google Home, a 5-and-a-half-inch high cylinder with a microphone and speakers (sound familiar?) but a more stylish shape than the first Echo. Home responds to voice commands – no cute name, you just say “OK Google” – and at first was also mostly a music player, but of course Google is a powerful brand – if not the retailer Amazon is – and has steadily been picking up 3rd party stuff that will work with its devices – many of which also work with Amazon’s.
Google also has a winner with it’s Google Home Mini – a direct competitor to the Echo Dot – and something called the Google Home Max which is a larger box clearly intended to be mostly a high-end speaker system, which can do things such as adjust itself to the acoustics of the room it’s placed in, other noises, and even the time of day. So far, no Google Home device with a screen, but it’s still early in the intelligent assistant game, and there are already televisions with Google Assistant built-in and you can tell it what to do rather than pushing buttons on your remote, exercising your jaw instead of your thumbs.
Among intelligent assistants, the also ran at the moment is Apple’s HomePod, which is almost 7 inches tall, but frankly it’s only been out for a short time. The HomePod’s market share is in the single digits so far, although it has earned respect for the sound it can produce. Fewer 3rd party devices link to the HomePod, but you’ll see that Apple is marketing the HomePod first as a high quality speaker system linked to Apple Music – it was after all the Apple iPod and its ability to carry around your music that first got Apple into personal devices, before the iPhone. Another HomePod model is said to be on the way.
There are other smart speakers out there, including the Sony LF-S50G – not the most memorable name – which has Google Assistant built into a high quality speaker system – so anything Google Home can do, so can the Sony. It also has gesture control and is splash-proof, although it’s not meant to be left out in the rain or taken into the shower.
So here’s the bottom line – as I see it. All these intelligent assistants or smart speakers – whatever you call them – are cute and can be useful, although by themselves most of them are like a very good voice-activated clock radio that can do a few extra tricks, such as make a phone call by just saying so. To take full advantage of any of them – besides asking them to play music or respond to a question – you need at least one, and probably more, of the devices that work with them: the thermostat, the video doorbell, the light fixture, etc.
Only the Echo Show does something extra, but it’s just another screen, and you have your phone, your tablet, your computer & your TV already (or most of those…) and many will answer to Google or Siri. In fact, when I was trying out the Sony speakers & said: “OK Google,” both the Sony and my phone responded!
Except for a video cam outside, to keep watch, I don’t have a home full of smart devices that would answer to a virtual assistant, and while many such devices are not that expensive, putting them all over your house will take some cash.
I liked the Amazon Echo Dot the best. Small, under $50, would work with just about any smart home device I might buy, and I could have a few Dots, in the living room, bedroom and office, for instance, if I had devices that responded to them. The Dot’s not the greatest sounding for music, but I have a nice “stereo” (yeah, that’s how old I am) and pretty good headphones.
There’s value in voice-activated assistants for people with health problems who can’t get around so easily, but for the rest of us, spending more time on our tuches instead of getting up & walking over to change the thermostat, isn’t going to keep us any healthier.