The funniest story I ever heard about Siri came from a Melbourne friend who swore, hand on heart, that having dashed to her car in a rush she’d panted: “Siri, take me to Punt Road.” To which Siri responded: “I’m blushing.”
Accents – and modesty – notwithstanding, voice control is crucial to how well you get on with your digital home helper. I have an accent but it’s not Scottish, so Siri is kind to me.
But whatever traction she might have had as the first virtual assistant on the iPhone is lost with a late entry into the smart speaker market. So how do the players stack up against one another?
Smart speakers are hands-free, voice-controlled digital home assistants you can request to perform functions. You ask them to play music, check the sports scores, update weather and traffic reports, dim the lights and even shop.
The players are:
Amazon was the 2014 trailblazer whose Echo devices, powered through the Cloud-based Alexa, are supported by an ever-expanding range of features, skills and third-party service partnerships such as Spotify, Village Cinemas, TED, and hue; RRP $149
Google has three smart speakers, including GoogleHome, which house the same Google Assistant, and support third-party devices. The speakers also leverage Google’s search expertise and knowledge database; RRP $134
Apple’s only smart speaker, HomePod, has a 360-degree grille, tweeters from all sides, and Siri as the voice assistant. It integrates with Apple functionalities such as calendar and Apple Music, works with Evernote and sends messages; RRP $499
HomePod is first and foremost a state-of-the-art speaker that just happens to have a smart assistant built in. On this front, it beats the competition hands down.
HomePod’s superior audio quality has spatial awareness that automatically senses its location in a room to adjust the audio, so that music sounds great wherever you stand. That’s the kind of AI that appeals to a sometime Luddite like me.
But Apple’s music integration is stymied by restrictions. You can access Spotify through Airplay, but it really wants you to use Apple Music – and with more than 45 million songs, from more than two million artists, do you need more?
Echo and Home are a lot more flexible in the way that an Android smartphone is. They just connect to more devices and services – and their lists of partnerships keep growing. You can select a default music library of your choice, and Bluetooth to your smartphone and myriad devices.
Echo has the better sound quality than the bass-heavy Home; can intuit in a noisy space, and also responds to voice control from a farther range. It supports multiple users by switching profiles.
Home is backed up by Google’s massive search engine, so it “gets” requests that are framed more generically. With Echo, you need to be specific. And Home is better at adjusting to different voice profiles.
Nothing like testing hands-free while sick in bed: I discovered that voice recognition is great with all three devices, even with a frog in your throat, and am now equipped with useless trivia.
Getting these devices to really perform though, such as dim the lights or turn the kettle on, requires integration with third-party apps or devices.
Echo currently has the lead on features and skills – and has an extensive list of associated partnerships and supported devices. (It also purports to tell a mean joke, but I’m a tough customer and remain unimpressed.)
I found Home really easy to hook up to Google’s suite of apps. It also supports a range of third-party smart-home services, although it’s not yet as broad. Home also has the ability to “broadcast” across multiple units.
HomePod is a fully integrated hub, supported by Apple’s HomeKit devices. Its list of compatible devices is limited, but growing. Siri can now control third-party speaker brands such as Sonos, Bose and Pioneer, and each HomePod can communicate with another to move music around the home.
TIP: Choose third-party apps or services compatible with all three devices to keep your options open.
The restrictions Apple has built into HomePod is great in one respect: privacy.
The data it receives is encrypted and keeps the user’s identity anonymous.
Google and Amazon, on the other hand, both collect user data to build your profile. (Who hasn’t heard about how Echo’s Alexa system unwittingly recorded a private conversation and sent it along to a user contact?) Both will log requests and link them to your online accounts. Great for intuition, not so much for privacy.
So which device is best for you? Ultimately it comes down to your needs, your home layout, and what software ecosystem you’re already comfortable with. I found Home a more natural assistant because of the familiarity, and will consider the pricier HomePod as an Apple user. But there’s no denying Echo’s advanced skills and features are a drawcard.