'Tis the season to be buying smart speakers, with both Amazon and Google revamping their line-ups before the holidays, and Apple promising to join the market with its own entry in 2018. But with an increasing number of models available, how do you choose between them? We've got all you need to know.
The Amazon Echo range
Amazon Echo smart speakers have a couple of things in common. The speaker part, and the smart part, with the latter provided by Amazon Alexa. Amazon's digital assistant now has a broad range of talents, plus tens of thousands of third-party skills added by companies ranging from Uber to Domino's Pizza.
We can't give you an exhaustive list of all Alexa's capabilities here, but we can tell you that the list is growing all the time. You can ask about the weather, make free phone calls in the US, Canada, and Mexico, check your iCloud, Google, or Outlook Calendar, get traffic information and sports scores, set timers and alarms, stream your tunes from Amazon Music or Spotify, and much more besides.
Alexa can also control a bunch of smart home devices too, including kit from the Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo ranges, as well as order stuff from Amazon, as you would expect. Alexa is available on all these Echo devices so it's then just a question of which hardware features you want and how much you have to spend.
The second-generation Amazon Echo hits the sweet spot between speaker power and price: capable of decent-sounding audio without being too bulky or too expensive. In short, it's the best Echo for most people, and it comes with a choice of six different finishes at the time of writing. It also doubles as a Bluetooth speaker and has a 3.5 mm audio jack.
Amazon Echo Plus
So what's extra on the Plus? Buy the bigger model if you want slightly better-sounding audio and easier smart home integration. It has a ZigBee smart home hub built in, so you can connect a range of gear (like Philips Hue lights or Yale smart locks) without a separate hub (something that's needed for other Echos in the range).
Amazon Echo Dot
The mini Echo is the one to buy if you don't need decent audio from it (think podcasts and alarms rather than high-fidelity music) – or if you have a separate speaker you can attach via Bluetooth or the 3.5 mm audio jack. It supports all the same Alexa commands as the big Echos, so it's a good choice for a second room if you're kitting out the whole house.
Amazon Echo Spot
The mini Echo with a screen, a cuter Echo Dot. The display means you can use it as a clock, or make video calls with it, or see the weather forecast as well as having it read out. Like the Dot, the integrated audio capabilities are basic, but again you can connect another speaker via Bluetooth or audio cable. That screen also bumps up the price, of course.
Amazon Echo Show
The big Echo with a screen, so all the capabilities of Alexa plus a much bigger display than the one you get with the Spot. Think videos, photos, and more that just wouldn't work on a tiny screen. Another advantage it has over the Dot and the Spot is proper, room-filling audio, so you can think of this as the Echo that has everything, except that ZigBee hub.
Amazon Echo Look
An Echo with a camera, supposedly for assessing your wardrobe and recommending clothes. This device is a bit of an odd one out, because you can't buy it outright yet, only request an invitation to buy it. As well as giving you all the power of Amazon Alexa, the Echo Look is focused on helping you look your best, with an accompanying phone app.
Oddly enough the Amazon Tap doesn't have the Echo branding, or appear in Amazon's designated Echo pages on the web, but as it's made by Amazon and comes with Alexa on board we feel compelled to mention it. The key selling point here is battery-powered portability – it's the only Echo you can pick up and take with you to the beach or a picnic.
The Google Home range
Google openly admits that Google Home is its version of the Amazon Echo, again aiming to blend a digital smart assistant with a useful home speaker. On a broad level, the two ranges are the same, answering your questions and helping you with your day, as well as streaming music and other audio around the house.
The Google Assistant on board all the Home speakers doesn't have as many third-party actons as Amazon Alexa does, but it has all Google's smart search and AI capabilities behind it. As you would expect, it plugs more readily into Google's other services, and can travel with you across Android and iOS devices as well. It doesn't have as many party tricks as Alexa, but what Google Assistant can do, it does with more polish and depth.
Like the Echo devices, Google Home speakers can control a variety of smart home devices, including August smart locks and LIFX smart lights, and the speakers play nicely with gear made by Nest, which shares a parent company with Google. There's also tight Chromecast integration, so you can ask your Google Home to play something from Netflix or YouTube on your Chromecast.
The standard Google Home speaker, not too big, and not too small, and comparable with the standard Amazon Echo as being the best option for most people. You can choose from four different colored finishes for the bottom grill, and there's enough audio oomph to make music enjoyable (music can also be beamed over via Bluetooth or Google Cast).
Google Home Mini
Don't need that extra audio power? Try the Google Home Mini, which has all the smarts of the Google Assistant but only a basic speaker that'll do for voice feedback, alarms and the like (it'll play music at a push but don't expect fantastic quality). Perfect if you just want the Google Assistant functions or you want a Google Home for extra rooms in the house.
Google Home Max
Designed for audiophiles and to take on the likes of the Apple HomePod and the Sonos speaker range, the Home Max can adjust its acoustics to match the contours of your room and is the only Google smart speaker with an aux in port for extra devices. Dual 4.5-inch woofers head the powerful sound capabilities, and you can pair two for true stereo sound.
The Apple HomePod and other speakers
If a choice of 10 smart speakers just isn't enough for you, then more are appearing all the time. Other companies including Lenovo are adding Alexa to their own smart speakers, and a handful of models come with Cortana as well, if you prefer Microsoft's digital assistant app to the others.
The big upcoming contender to Amazon Echo and Google Home is the $349 Apple HomePod, originally due for the upcoming holidays but now delayed until some point in 2018. It comes with Siri integration and Apple is promising it's going to excel in terms of audio quality, as well as intelligently adjusting its output to match the shape of the room it's in. Apple being Apple, it's only going to work with iOS devices and Apple Music, at least to begin with.
Sonos, already well established as one of the leading players in wireless audio speakers, has also jumped into the smart speaker market this year with the $199 Sonos One, which has Alexa on board and is adding Google Assistant in 2018. Oh, and Siri control via iOS is coming soon too, making it a good choice for those who like their music sounding crystal clear, and want access to as many smart assistants as possible as well.
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