From Voice-controlled Speakers to Home Automation – Your Options Outlined

If you’re the type who’s resisting the digital age and still not allowing your fridge to order your milk, you might find the idea of your house becoming autonomous a little challenging! However, the future is now and with driverless cars just around the corner, this fancy home automation era will feel old hat before the year is out.

Speaking to a source from inside one of the biggest technology businesses in the world recently, his advice was simple… “unless you have lived in a cave for the last 20 years you need to give in to this technology because we already know everything about you anyway”. Well. that’s unnerving!

But is it? Not really. As long as you’re not on the run (Google timeline will catch you) and you haven’t got anything to hide, you will find a world of exciting time and money saving applications emerging and until the robots take over, we’re going to embrace them.

Is voice-controlled home automation really helpful?

The real question we should be asking is does it work? As with most ‘game-changing tech’ it’s been in development for a while and the names that are now familiar to you are manufacturing products that are largely robust and effective. Are they helpful? Yes! The voice recognition is there after a sketchy start and the technology is powerful enough to run the International Space Station so once you’ve built a relationship with your assistant (i.e. you know what you want to use it for) it will transform your home.

Voice-controlled speakers are an essential part of smart home automation. When working with smart devices such lights, sensors, thermostats, smart plugs, entertainment and security systems from different manufacturers, a voice-controlled system is the central hub to make sure that all your devices work together.

Creating a habit

This is the tricky bit but if you’ve been using your voice controlled assistant on your smart phone, the transition will be a doddle. You, and only you can create the habit of using your home technology and that takes some discipline. If you have kids in the house you may find this comes a little quicker as voice and gesture control tech is second nature to them and you’ll acquire the skills by osmosis. Many of the products we’re looking at here have prompts and tutorials to encourage you to use them but if you find it difficult adjusting to speaking to a speaker on your coffee table, you’ll have trust issues when it comes to letting the internet drive your car! It’s time to get on board!

Voice Controlled Speakers

Here we’ve looked at three of the main players in voice-controlled speakers and home automation. For the latest online prices click on the links below.

1. Amazon Alexa

Alexa was the first cyber-voice to enter our homes and continues to dominate the home automation market. Occupying a savvy niche, Amazon entered the market in the most useful way possible – giving us the solution to searching for the stuff we need to buy, hands free. Once we were used to that, we asked more from Alexa, slowly letting her into our world and making her part of the family. She now connects with lots of gadgets around the home but will forever be famous for allowing a two year old to order £3,000 of shopping without parental consent!

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If you have Amazon Prime Membership there are extra benefits that come with your Alexa – streaming music, reading audio books…the list is endless and increasing.

For your peace of mind, the system requires you to verbally confirm your orders if voice purchasing is enable. We prefer to order from Amazon via the phone or laptop so have disabled voice purchasing via Echo’s Alexa app.

TIPS: To disable voice purchasing, install Alexa app on your tablet or smartphone, go to Settings then look for Voice Purchasing. There you can select to enable or disable Purchase by voice or add an extra level of protection in the form of a confirmation code. Just don’t share your four digit confirmation code with the kids.

Echo Dot
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Already streets ahead of the competition, Alexa supports numerous smart home devices from smart plugs, lights, connected sound systems, smart locks, TV to security video surveillance systems. To find Alexa compatible devices, one simply have to search on Amazon. The e-commerce giant is running an Amazon certification programme to promote devices that works with Alexa and there lies Alexa’s advantage (or Amazon’s sneaky plan for world domination).

Echo Plus
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Keeping ahead of the game will be Amazon’s challenge now that Google and Apple are on the scene but Alexa is the current market leader and you don’t kick your room-mate out because a younger shinier model came along now do you?

Alexa Pros and Cons:

Pros: Robust pioneer in the market means that Alexa is tried and tested and improvements, skills and add-ons come thick and fast. Plenty of “Works with Alexa”, Amazon certified smart home gadgets out there in the market right here and now.

Cons: Not as aesthetically pleasing as its competitors, sound quality is not great but there now third party speakers with Alexa built-in. See Amazon Echo Alternatives: 5 speakers with Alexa voice-controlled assistant.

Check Price on AmazonAmazon Alexa

2. Google Assistant

Google Assistant showed up in May 2016 hell bent on spoiling Apple’s party. And it did. Like a well behaved toddler, users were treated to an advanced voice recognition system that didn’t need asking twice. It did exactly what it was told and didn’t make a fuss.

Google Home Mini
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Google Home (and mini) work through the Google Assistant and you won’t be disappointed by this virtual organisational buddy. The great benefit of Google Assistant over the alternative is the clever connectivity with the all powerful Google intelligence. As well as managing your home entertainment, the scope of this product from a home management perspective is a few steps ahead of its current rivals but that will no doubt change as this endurance race continues.

Google Home
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Google Assistant Pros and Cons

Pros: The voice recognition on Google Assistant is excellent so no frustrating repeating of instructions and the supreme Google integration means that this system will be pioneering elements that are Google specific. The speech engine sounds more natural too.

Cons: It’s not yet got all the apps and partners integration of Alexa and the sound quality isn’t quite as good as you would hope but, this isn’t a problem as there are plenty partner speaker systems to choose from. There is also the bigger Google Home Max, Google’s answer to smart multi-room sound system with promise of better sound quality and more power.

Google Home Max
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Smart home partners: Nest, Philips Hue, Wemo, TP-Link, SmartThings, IFTTT, LIFX, HIVE, LightWave, Wiz, Netatmo, Tado.

Check Price on AmazonGoogle Assistant

Third Party Speakers with Google Assistant Built-in

Apart from Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max, here are some Google Home smart speaker alternatives:

  • Sony LF-S50G
  • JBL Link 10, Link 20, Link 30
  • Panasonic GA10
  • Anker Zolo Mojo
  • Mobvoi TicHome Mini

3. Apple Siri and HomeKit

The godmother of voice activated tech, Siri is a familiar friend of anyone with Apple products and for many was their first digital engagement of this nature. “Hey siri” has evolved and in June this year announced it’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa with HomePod. Available in early 2018, this voice activated home management system (which looks like a simple speaker) is set to shake things up.

Apple HomePod
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It looks like the wait may have been worth it. With it comes the availability of Apple Homekit which links up with a mind-boggling number of everyday products from your heating and lighting systems to your fire alarms and window locks. Until now, HomeKit is only available on Apple TV or iPad serving as a HomeKit hub. HomePod also connects with your Apple products exactly as you’d expect and voice controlling your TV seems as normal as losing the remote control.

Apple TV
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HomePod is only available early 2018

Siri Pros and Cons:

Pros: Links seamlessly with all Apple products and if you’re an Apple household this makes for excellent usability. Siri has improved and this will only get better as Apple respond fast to user feedback.

Cons: You need IOS devises to make this work. If you’re not already an Apple user, this product isn’t for you. It’s also pricey in comparison to its competitors and we’re yet to see if that additional cost is justified.

Check Price on AmazonApple Siri and HomeKit

Final Thoughts

Cutting to the chase, both Amazon and Google offer affordable home automation systems and they’re fantastic. Entering the market with a premium product at 5 times the price of that available from their nearest competitor has never stopped Apple before, but the consumer is asking more questions of Apple so we’ll see what happens when it hits the stores in the New Year.

This flip flop of who’s producing the most advanced tech is something we’re just getting our heads around and the distance between them shortens in each cycle. What is clear is that there’s no stopping this evolution, and hands free, voice activated, smart living is here and now.

What’s Out There

Amazon Alexa devices

Echo – now on the second generation, the more aesthetic looking smart speaker is the main hub for you Alexa controlled system

Echo Dot – a smaller, more discrete version of the Echo without the speaker function the Dot connects to your bluetooth speakers or wired in 3.5mm.

Echo Plus – new second generation Echo with the same all-metal solid body and amazing build quality as seen in the first generation device. Now available in three different colours.

Sonos One – Sonos quality with inbuilt Alexa. This is where you will see an increase in sound quality and aesthetic with the Alexa functionality

KitSound Voice One – A very capable and powerful smart speaker with support for a variety of smart home devices that can be remotely controlled using Alexa

UE Blast –  The first portable Alexa integrated product from a third party with has all of the functionality of the in home static devices.

Google Assistant Devices

Google Home – Echo equivalent but arguably more attractive and also integrates with Chromecast

Google Mini – Echo dot equivalent with strong functionality but not quite the volume or hearing sensitivity of it’s bigger brother

JBL Link 10 – A high quality portable speaker with integrated Google Assistant

Sony LF-S50 – 360 speaker with integrated Google Assistant and gesture control

Apple Siri

Apple TV – now supports 4K and is currently the smart home hub for products that support Apple HomeKit. Use it to remotely control your smart home devices over the Internet using your iDevices but watch out for Apple HomePod.