As the first voice assistant platform to hit the consumer marketplace, Apple Siri introduced millions of smartphone users to the joys of accessing information through voice commands. It’s still a viable way to dispatch verbal queries and demands to smart home devices, but with the competition heating up in the voice control space, Siri was starting to lack the elegance of other options. With Siri, you still speak through your phone or Apple Watch; newer voice assistant platforms captured your voice via smart speakers embedded with far-field microphones. But alas … Apple released its Homepod smart speaker, breathing new life into the Siri voice control platform.
One thing to note about Apple Siri: No matter which device you use to launch voice commands, only products that are Apple HomeKit compatible can hear and respond to them. You won’t have difficulty finding HomeKit products, though. A huge selection of lights, surveillance cameras, thermostats, fans, garage door openers and more are available to control via Siri, be it through a phone, watch or HomePod.
One of the next to enter the voice-control playing field was Amazon and its Alexa voice assistant. Alexa was initially integrated into Amazon’s flagship Echo smart speaker, but it didn’t take Amazon long to introduce a host of other voice-enabled devices: FireTV, Tap, Dot, Echo Look, Echo Show, Echo Plus (designed to function as a home control hub), and Echo Spot. Boasting various form factors and features (the Echo Show and Echo Spot, for instance, incorporate built in screen for video calls and displaying other information), the selection of Amazon listening devices gives consumers the ability to integrate a variety of products into the home—FireTV in the media room, Echo Show in the kitchen, and Dots in the bedrooms, for example.
Amazon designed Alexa to be a very “open” solution, meaning anyone can use Alexa Skills to integrate the technology into a product. This has opened the floodgates for the development of numerous Alexa-compatible products, including those from some of the biggest names in the smart home business: Nest, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, and others.
Also, Amazon Alexa supports If This Then That (IFTTT), which enables homeowners to create their own home automation “recipes.” Basically, these recipes are rules for Alexa devices to follow; for example, as If a motion sensor detects movement on the front porch, then turn on an Alexa light and send a notification to my smartphone.
This voice assistant platform followed on the footsteps of Amazon Alexa. Its selection of smart speaker is continually growing, putting Google in close competition with Amazon. Recently, Google announced a donut-shape voice-enabled speaker called the Mini, and a larger, more musically inclined voice-enabled speaker called the Max. It’s also built into Sony Android TVs.
The Google Home Mini wins the beauty prize, with its smooth, curved exterior encased in fabric of three different colors: Chalk, Charcoal and Coral. But if high-fidelity is important, that’s the forte of the Google Home Max. Packed inside this stereo speaker are two 4.5-inch woofers and a couple of tweeters. Google says it plays loud—20 times more powerful than the original Google Home.
A nifty feature of the Max is its ability to tunes itself to your listening environment, though a technology Google dubs “Smart Sound.” For example, if you move Max from one location to another it automatically adjusts how it plays music. It supports Bluetooth, and can be placed horizontally or vertically. And, of course, Google Assistant listens for your voice commands. It comes in either Chalk or Charcoal.
According to Google, you can control more than 1,000 smart products by using Google Home devices, and its products are but it’s noted as being highly reliable and accurate at interpreting voice commands.
Google Home supports multiple users; each person can train Google Home to his or her specific voice, so when asking it specific questions like how long your commute will be, Google Home will answer based on your particular route.
Google Home currently lacks the Bluetooth music streaming capabilities of Amazon Echo products; it requires that your music app or service support Chromecast. This isn’t totally a bad thing, however, as you’ll be able to stream music to any and all Chromecast-enabled devices in your home.
Like Alexa does with its Skills, Google Assistant is open for anyone to create new features and to incorporate into products by using its Google Assistant Conversation Actions. There are fewer Actions currently than Skills, but it’s bound to keep growing. Google Assistant also supports IFTTT and products from big names like Nest and Hue.
Everyone loves Sonos for its ability to stream music throughout the house. Now there’s another reason to swoon over this super-easy, super versatile, whole-house wireless music system: its ability to function as a voice-enabled smart speaker. The company recently announced Sonos One, the company’s first wireless speaker with voice control built-in. Specifically, the Sonos One supports Amazon Alexa, but it will likely expand to include other voice assistants like Google Assistant. You’ll be able to ask the Sonos One to play music from one of dozens of different music services, direct it to specific areas of your house, and command other Alexa-enabled devices.
Microsoft Cortana: Just when you thought Amazon and Google had saturated the smart speaker market with their ever-expanding portfolios of voice assistant gadgets, along comes Harman Kardon with yet another solution. As a relative late bloomer in the smart speaker market, Harman Kardon has chosen the Microsoft Cortana voice assistant as its platform, embedding it in its Invoke speaker.
The timing, however, seems perfect, as Microsoft only recently announced its “Connected Home” section available on through the Cortana Notebook menu on some Windows 10 PCs. Connected Home lets you use your Windows 10 PC to relay voice commands to smart home devices from Wink, Insteon, Nest, SmartThings and Philips (Hue).
The upcoming addition of a smart speaker with Cortana built in offers another, more natural method of launching voice commands to smart home products. Unlike the Cortana Notebook which requires that you sign into each service individually before issuing voice commands, the smart speaker—like other brands of smart speakers—will listen for your edicts and carry them out completely hands-free.
Notable features: The Invoke includes Skype, which means you can place calls to cellphones, landlines and other Skype-enabled devices. With a solid background in audio reproduction, it’s a good bet that music played by the Invoke will sound great. It comes packed with three woofers, three tweeters, two passive radiators, and seven embedded microphones (for hearing voice commands).
Samsung: Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant is built into the company’s Galaxy Note8 and S8 smartphones. Like Siri, it lets you access information on the go; it also works with Google Play Music, your Gallery, YouTube and Samsung Internet so you can call up your favorite apps with the sound of your voice. Bixby is limited to the phone now, but who knows … maybe it will wind up in home device.