The $79 game changer costs less than your groceries
DO YOU ever cook, clean the house, listen to music, turn on lights, watch TV, order food, check the weather, make phone calls, enjoy audiobooks or create shopping lists? Yes?
Good, you're not a 34-year-old man-child living at home and being babied by his parents. And you could make your life a whole lot more efficient for less than you spend on your weekly shop.
Chances are that by now you've heard of Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod, the speaker-powered, voice-activated smart assistants, which is good, because they hold the key to the wildly improved life I'm spruiking after becoming a convert.
WHAT EXACTLY IS SMART ASSISTANT?
Most of us have used Google Assistant or Siri on our smartphones, so you already basically know what a smart assistant does.
Unlike your phone, Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple Homepod all integrate virtual assistants with speaker hardware, which allows you to turn your home into an automated, voice-activated and app-controlled hub.
You will obviously need a power source and internet connection to use the products, but once connected, they can act as voice-controlled music players, news readers, personal search engines, while also linking up to a range of other Wi-Fi enabled devices in your home.
HOW DOES IT ALL WORK?
All of the smart speakers systems are operated using voice-activated commands, which wake up your virtual assistant.
The Amazon Echo is activated by the wake word "Alexa", Google Home uses "Hey Google" or "OK Google" and Apple uses "Hey Siri".
Third-party devices such as Sony's hugely impressive LF-S50G Smart Speaker use Google's software, so the assistant is summoned the same way it is for Home.
After waking up the speaker, you can automate a range of activities. And don't worry about not being understood - all three assistants have been programmed to understand Australia's unique dialect and slang terms, which means nothing is lost in translation. Bloody ripper, cobber.
SMART ASSISTANTS CAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS
One of the really useful features is getting answers to specific Google requests, while also doubling as a calculator, dictionary, nutritionist or translator.
Q. Alexa, what is the capital of New South Wales
A. The capital of New South Wales is Sydney.
But on a more practical level, if you're someone who struggles to stay on top of things, these products can brief you on your day based on what you have in apps relevant to your accounts.
Think weather, calendar entries, commute information and reminders all from one simple command.
Q. OK Google: What's my day looking like?
A. Good morning, Matthew. The weather in Annandale is currently 10 degrees. You have to be at your appointment in Newtown at 9.30am. Based on traffic, your commute will take 15 minutes.
Alexa also offers the ability to order a pizza or call an Uber from your Echo device.
HAVE A LITTLE BIT OF FUN
But it's not all about efficiency.
One of the fun things to do with the products is search for Easter eggs - an undocumented feature in a piece of computer software.
Q. OK Google: What are some of your favourite things?
A. Gumdrops and wattles and whiskers on wombats, and choctops at the movies.
Q. OK Google: What does a kookaburra sound like?
A. Goo-goor-gara. (Obviously this is the real sound of a kookaburra and not my weak attempt to spell it.)
While Alexa can help you spell words, don't ask her how "jalapeño" is spelled because she will just repeat the word.
CONTROL YOUR SMART HOME
Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod all have partnerships with manufacturers of products for smart homes, so you can connect to your home network and control Wi-Fi-operated lights.
You know that frustration when you get home loaded up with groceries, kids, phones and keys and need to turn the lights on - or when you finally score that date and want to set the mood. You can dim and change the colour of your lights. Smart lights like the LIFE A19 LED will cost you around $80, while a product like Philips Hue will be a little more expensive at around $150 for a starter kit.
There is also the ability to control your television using the Chromecast or Apple TV plugged into the HDMI port of your TV.
You can also control thermostats, locks, robot vacuum cleaners, security cameras, sprinklers and even garage doors. Each product will be able to offer you a full list of compatible devices, so it's best to check if your pre-existing products are compatible and then decide on your smart speaker based on what will work best.
BUY MORE THAN ONE
If you buy a second or third device, you can set up multi-room audio systems so whatever you're listening to will be broadcast across all of the speakers in your home.
It also allows you to broadcast messages across devices in the home - great for any parent trying to get everyone's attention.
Just say: "OK Google, broadcast dinner is ready" and this will send your voice across all the connected smart speakers in your home - meaning the mother of a teenage boy doesn't need to risk knocking on his door when he is finishing his "homework".
THINGS TO BE MINDFUL OF
While you can use Google Home and Amazon Echo with your iOS-enabled device, Apple's HomePod will only work with its own product.
If you are someone who is looking to play music from your streaming service on the speaker, it's worth noting only Apple Music will work on HomePod, with Spotify and Pandora exclusive to Amazon Echo and Google Home. .
WHAT ABOUT SECURITY?
I often hear concerns about these devices always listening, in case you say the wake command. After the command, everything is recorded and uploaded to the servers of Google or Amazon, but can be easily deleted in the smartphone apps at any time.
By recording your commands, the products aim to improve their understanding of your voice and accent to help make it more proficient. Worst case scenario for those worried is the ability to use a physical mute switch to stop the microphone from picking up any sounds, although this kind of negates the reason you would own a smart speaker to begin with. The best advice is to ensure your home network is secure and your devices are up-to-date with the latest software to mitigate against your data being stolen, your privacy compromised or your smart home hacked.
SHOULD I BUY ONE?
I will admit I had my doubts about voice-activated smart speakers and thought they were nothing more than a gimmick, but having used Google Home and Amazon Echo for the past few months, I think it has definitely been worth the investment.
For me personally, I have been using my Google Home for months now and haven't looked back. I use it to set timers when cooking, to play music while I clean the house and to show off at how I can make my lights change colours. Even my parents, who are slightly hesitant to embrace emerging tech, have loved the product, with Mum and Dad talking using the broadcast system more than they likely should.
When looking at what's right for you, it's worth reading the extensive reviews to find out the pros and cons of each product. For example, the third-party Sony device is water resistant and has a digital clock, while Siri has been criticised for not matching the smarts of Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
Below you will find the recommended retail price for all of the products, but with some shopping around, you will be able to find them cheaper.
GOOGLE HOME MINI - $79
GOOGLE HOME - $199
AMAZON ECHO DOT - $79
AMAZON ECHO - $149
AMAZON ECHO - $229
SONY LF-650G - $249
APPLE HOMEPOD - $499