Sometimes the best gift is one that’s willing to listen…and then offer help. This holiday season, personal “voice assistants” are a hot item. And here’s why: These personal devices keep you company, and can help manage the tasks and technology in your life.
Some scoff at the necessity of what seems like a toy. But think of the benefits for someone with limited mobility. Suddenly they can do much more without significant effort. As one of our oldest clients recently told us:
“This Echo is a lifesaver! I was feeling bad about my health and worrying too much, but now I look forward to trying new things with Alexa every day!”
What Is a Virtual Voice Assistant?
Amazon started the current Voice Assistant craze with its Alexa program, released originally on the Amazon Echo last year. A personal voice assistant is software that is built into a speaker with a microphone that can recognize voice commands. After saying the program’s “wakeword” (for example, “Alexa”), the virtual assistant will activate the microphone in the speaker and recognize whatever question or command is uttered next. Using “artificial intelligence,” it then carries out multi-step processes to complete a vast array of commands. The speaker can play music, set reminders, search the internet, control smart home devices, and more – just by saying a few words.
WhatIs.com’s definition of a Voice Assistant.
C|NET’s brief explanation of Alexa and how it works.
Voice Assistants are Popular – But are they Safe?
According to news reports, about 20 million homes already have voice-activated assistants. Amazon controls almost ¾ of the market, with Google taking most of the rest. There are concerns about privacy since voice assistants, while not always “awake,” are always “listening” – unless you turn them off. There are security precautions you can take, so make sure to configure the voice assistant properly to minimize risk. The following digital voice assistants allow you to play music, find answers to questions, manage your schedule, and more from anywhere in your house – all with the power of your voice.
A year after the Amazon Echo was released as the first virtual assistant speaker, Amazon decided to replace it with an updated version. The Echo can hear its “wakeword” from across the room, and is generally able to hear and understand a voice command on first try, even with music playing. With a smaller and more attractive design than most other “smart speakers,” the Echo can fit well in nearly any room. Music played through the Echo will sound flat and tinny. But it has Bluetooth included, and auxiliary cable options for connecting to better speakers. Price: $99.
If you want to combine Alexa with better sound quality, a strong virtual voice assistant alternative is the Sonos One smart home device. The One has richer sound quality than any other smart device on the market. And it offers integration with Sonos speakers for an even better listening experience. Price: $180.
Google’s response to the Echo, the Google Home, uses its search engine background to provide better follow-up question and search responses than Alexa. With the ability to personalize responses based on who is talking (for up to 6 different accounts), the Home virtual voice assistant is also able to integrate with other Google products, such as YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar. Though it doesn’t have as many skills as the Echo, it is quickly expanding its abilities and is an even better deal if you already use Google products. The Home’s sound quality is not much different from the Echo’s, but it can also integrate with Google Play Music and YouTube, in addition to Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, and (soon) Soundcloud. If you have a Chromecast, the added bonuses include integration with Netflix (soon HBO and Hulu, as well) and the ability to turn your TV on by command. Price: $129 (currently $79).
Harmon Kardon Invoke
Not to be left out, Microsoft has partnered with Harmon Kardon to give their digital assistant Cortana a speaker of its own: the Harmon Kardon Invoke. Though it mostly does the same things the Echo or Google Home can, it excels in two categories. First, it has a higher-level speaker. The Invoke can fill a room much better than either competitor, and the sound quality (and bass response) is nearly to that of the Sonos One. It’s also a strong contender is if you already use other Microsoft products. The Invoke can sync up with Office 365, Outlook, and your Microsoft computer’s calendar. Its only drawbacks are an inability to pair in stereo, or as part of a multi-room audio system. and its ability to only support one account at a time. Price: $200 (currently $100).
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