During the run up to Christmas, you can’t have helped seeing all the ads for Alexa, Google Home Assistant, Smart Speakers and all other things ‘smart’. It’s almost as if there’s a technological revolution taking place and nobody’s told us what it’s all about!
When we thought about automated homes a few years ago it was the domain of sci-fi and horror. Movies such as the seminal Demon Seed and 2001 A Space Odyssey depicted the way an all seeing, omnipresent robot in our home would try to take over and make us mere mortals it’s slave. Or we’d perish trying to resist. It turns out Big Brother didn’t have to force us to put Telescreens into our homes, we bought them willingly from Google and Amazon!
Scaremongering aside, what does living in a Smart Home actually involve?
Google Home, Alexa etc work primarily via a ‘Smart Speaker,’ a wifi speaker which is enabled to interpret voice instructions when you activate it by saying specific ‘wake word’ or name. It then communicates your instructions to other connected Smart devices, obeying your commands as if by magic.
As well as simply playing music, it’s a speaker after all, you can ask it to control the sounds that are played throughout your home. You can use it to control Smart TV, and other media, your heating and air conditioning, and your CCTV. And because it’s Google, you can also ask it direct questions and receive Google’s answers.
Teach Your Home Assistant To Get To Know Your Likes And Wants
Not only can you talk to it, you can teach it new ‘skills’ or ‘actions’ and train it to recognise your voice, and the voices of other members of the household. Once you’ve got it looking out for you, you can tell it to ‘Google, play my favourite songs’ and songs from your playlist will begin. If your partner or kids said the same thing though, an entirely different roster of tunes will start playing. The same goes for TV shows, heating control, podcasts, you name it. Literally! (Interestingly, one skill you can teach it is to alert the police if it detects the sound of breaking glass or the crash of a door being broken down. Brilliant if you don’t want a burglar alarm on the façade of your home, but you do want to protect your property from intruders.)
Straight out of the box you can say ‘Hey Google’ or simply ‘Alexa..’ and carry on your question. You can get it to tell you things, but until you synch apps and Smart devices to it, that’s just about all. All the Smart devices, such as lightbulbs, TV, CCTV, heating, will come with instructions on how to get them named and tethered to your home hub and how to secure them with a complex password. Synching your internet services is simple too, just input your Skype, Netflix, Spotify, BBC, Google Play, App Store username and password and they’re yours to control. Take five minutes to ask and answer those baseline questions and you can train your home hub to recognise each family member’s individual voice.
If you’re actually called Alexa you can change the name of your device so that it doesn’t start answering back every time someone says your name. You can change the ‘wake name’ which you say to make your device start listening, but the options are limited in order to ensure it’s clear when you’re speaking to the device.
Talk Or Touch, Which Is Best For You?
As well as the Smart Speaker you have the option to use touch controls on a wall mounted Smart home screen or handheld device. If you live in a noisy home your voice controlled device might not hear when you’re speaking to it, or keep activating because someone said something that sounded like its wake word. It also takes the guesswork out of proceedings if you have a lot of different connected devices. Anyone can use it without having to be recognised or know what you’ve named your hub, and if you’re worried about security, you can rest assured that there’s no way it’s listening to your conversations. (that’s not paranoia, it’s not unreasonable to take basic security precautions such as turning off any listening devices when on the phone to your bank, doctor, or anybody else who handles financial or other sensitive information.)
Google’s Assistant is particularly intelligent, as it uses contextualisation which allows you to have ongoing conversations without having to re-awaken it every time it’s completed and action. This means you can ask it a question, followed by a another. For example ask it “when did William invade England?” and once you’ve had your answer you can go on to ask “and when did he die”. You don’t need to say ‘hey Google’ again or remind it who you’re talking about. This intelligence is brought into the way its Home Hub helps too. If you just ask it to ‘turn off the lights’ Google’s contextualisation will assume you mean the lights in the room where the command was given. What’s even handier is the fact you can ask it to carry out complex tasks such as ‘Turn the lights off, put the bedroom lights on and put the heating on too’.
Offers, Usefulness, Special Features, How Do You Decide?
Google and Amazon are keen to get customers to sign up to their own services, going so far as to offer free units along with other purchases to ensure that you opt in to their offering. While they do the same job, they are different, offering different usability and supported services (for example Alexa can’t currently carry on a contextualised conversation, you need to be specific about the things you ask it to do, although that’s likely to change as the technology develops).
There’s some discussion about which is best. Google’s Home is better at answering questions, as you might expect, while Alexa is better for overall control of devices. Google is easier to set up while Alexa has a wider variety of apps, above and beyond the apps you use to control specific devices. Since realistically nobody is going to buy both as they solve the same problem in slightly different ways it’s worth taking a test drive. Get recommendations from people who’ve lived with them for a while, or ask for a Smart home demo so you can decide for yourself.