Growing up, I was intensely jealous of the crew of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise.
Not only did those plucky explorers in their snappy uniforms get to spend their lives cruising around the galaxy battling alien foes and discovering exciting new worlds, but their technology was miles ahead of anything I could hope to get my teenage hands on.
Struggling at the time with dial-up internet and a mobile phone the size of a house brick, the show opened my eyes to the possibilities of what technology could be in the future – touch-screen computers, sentient AI, lasers, and holograms.
And how incredible it would be, I thought, to have a computer that you could talk to – one that could answer questions just like the ship’s computer did.
Well, it seems a few other people had the same idea.
Branching out from the early (and, frankly, not very successful) attempts at voice recognition used in mobile phones, there is now a range of devices available for you to buy that finally make talking to your computer a reality.
Aside from ‘intelligent personal assistants’ like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana built into our phones and computers already, you can now purchase stand-alone ‘smart speakers’ for your home. Without needing to push a single button, these devices spring to life, once they hear their name said out loud, are capable of searching the internet for you, running apps, reading you the news headlines, and even controlling other smart aspects of your home.
Here, we’ll take a look at the current smart speaker options on the market and find out what’s to come in the years ahead.
Best Smart Speakers
1. Amazon Echo – £149.99 / $179.99 on Amazon
Originally launched on an invite-only program for Prime members, the Amazon Echo has grown in popularity since late-2014 to become the leading name in smart speakers and in-home virtual assistance.
Physically, the Echo is a short, black, reasonably stylish cylinder featuring just two buttons (mute and listen), an LED ring to show you which mode it’s in, and a not-unimpressive speaker system that supplies 360-degree sound. But the real magic is on the inside, where Amazon’s Alexa technology lives.
Making use of seven noise-cancelling microphones, the Echo listens out for the word ‘Alexa’ – the name of its AI persona. After hearing its wake word, Alexa is capable of using any of its 3,000-strong roster of skills to perform tasks, search the internet, and control apps.Once you’ve got over the unusual feeling of talking to a piece of furniture, Alexa can be used to play music from your Spotify account, read you the morning news, download recipes, set alarms, and even tell you jokes. Where the Echo shines though is as part of a smart home, where connections with devices like the Nest and Hive systems allow control of lights and appliances with just your voice.
Available for around a third of the price, the Amazon Echo Dot features the same technology as the Echo but in a much smaller form factor. While speaker quality has taken a hit in such a small shell, it’s a great starting point for anyone looking to dip their toe in the smart speaker waters.
2. Google Home – $129.99 from Google
Currently only available in the US, the Home is Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo, and an effort to expand on the Google Now functionality built into most modern Android phones.
A little shorter and wider than the Echo, but no less stylish, the Home has a touch panel on the top for controlling volume and music playback, and, just like Android phones, answers to ‘OK Google’.
Capable of many of the same features as the Echo, the Home comes with a huge range of apps and connectivity out of the box, working with Spotify, Google Music, and YouTube to provide a nearly unlimited jukebox selection, and can make use of all the same smart home appliances as the Echo. Where it falls down, though, according to some reviewers, is in speaker quality and microphone quality, where it is outmatched by both the Echo and other non-smart WiFi speakers.
Peculiarly, the Home also lacks compatibility with some of Google’s own services and can’t connect to your Gmail account or Google Calendar. It’s worth remembering though that Google has been in the smart speaker game for not nearly as long as Amazon, and will doubtless be throwing its full weight behind improvements and innovation in the coming years.
And it’s precisely that history of innovation and invention that Google will need to make use of if it is to keep up with its competitors in the coming years. Seeing the success of the Echo, and with much of the mobile and smart home industry leaning towards AI and interactive assistants, many other big-name brands are now looking at launching their own Echo and Home alternatives.
1. Apple’s ‘Siri Speaker’
From Apple, we’re likely to see a Siri-based speaker in the next few years, bringing the Apple ecosystem into the home in the same way as Google and Amazon have done recently with Chrome and Fire devices.
The as-yet unnamed speaker is still in R&D, so there are no specifics available yet, but if reports from The Verge are to be believed it could focus on improved speaker and microphone quality, as well as facial recognition software – perhaps taking on its rivals on ground more familiar to Apple, namely high quality at a high price.
2. Cortana and the Microsoft HomeHub
Not wanting to be left behind by the other tech giants, Microsoft has announced plans to enter the AI personal assistant arena too. Originally rumoured to be building their own Echo rival, it’s now expected that Microsoft will focus on releasing a series of “HomeHub” updates for Windows 10 in 2017 and 2018. Rather than releasing new hardware, the update will provide some of the same smart functionality to household PCs, allowing voice control of smart home tech and, presumably Microsoft’s own XBox-Windows system.
Microsoft is also allowing several third-party companies to produce smart tech that uses the Cortana personal assistant, so, with a reported 133 million users worldwide already, it’s reasonable to assume that she will make an appearance in HomeHub in the future.
3. New Alexa Devices and the Echo V2In the face of such competition, Amazon has already been hard at work updating the Echo. Rumored to release in Q1 2017, the new Echo-like speaker will run on the same Alexa technology but will also feature a touchscreen display for quick and easy access to information – bringing it closer to Amazon’s range of Fire devices.
Amazon has also been working with several third parties to get the Alexa system more widely adopted by other manufacturers. Both Sonos and Lenovo are working with Amazon to improve their current offering, with Sonos looking to use the tech to provide seamless wireless control of their speaker range. By integrating the Sonos platform with Alexa, Sonos users will be able to control their wireless sound systems with their voice using either the Dot or Echo. Currently, the Dot is often used simply as a way to introduce Alexa into the home, as its small size brings with it some sound quality issues – but in the future, a Echot Dot may be all you need to control an entire suite of Sonos products.
4. Lenovo’s Smart AssistantLenovo’s Smart Assistant is expected to be almost a carbon copy of the Echo, minus the Amazon branding, providing an alternative for people looking to get Alexa into their home without using the Echo. Lenovo will also release a ‘premium’ version that features Harmon Kardon speakers for improved sound quality, and both versions will be available in a range of finishes and colors for the more design-minded consumer.
On the face of it, smart speakers have enjoyed surprising popularity since their launch. Despite the slightly unsettling feeling the first few times you start talking to a speaker, devices like the Echo and Home have found a place in the houses and routines of many early adopters, and tech strategy firm Activate has recently estimated that there will be more than 21.4 million smart speakers sold in the US before 2020.
But what about consumers? Is the wider public ready and willing to adopt smart speakers into their homes?
According to Amazon, the Echo Dot was their best-selling product throughout Christmas 2016, outselling all of its other devices. In fact, the top four selling items on Amazon, all Fire devices, come packaged with the Alexa software – and those sales figures could be read as a shining endorsement of in-home AI. It is worth noting that Amazon doesn’t stock the Google Home, though, and doesn’t release sales figures either, so the real picture is a little unclear.
While Amazon claimed to have sold more than five million Echos in the US alone during its first two years, Google has yet to release any data – so again it’s tricky to get a good idea of their relative popularity at this stage. Research conducted in the US did show however, that awareness of Echo products among Amazon customers rose from 20% to 69% in just two years, suggesting that Alexa, and perhaps other AI devices, are now much more of a mainstream market than they once were.
Sales figures aside, we can start to build up a picture of how popular smart speakers are with their owners by looking at usage statistics – a good measure of whether people actually enjoy owning one after they’ve bought it.
A survey of Echo owners in 2016 found that while people tended to try out the flagship features at least once, like playing music or setting alarms, very few people found themselves making frequent use of the device’s skills. Just 17% of those asked had Alexa regularly read them the news headlines, even though 66% had tried it at least once, and just 10% were making regular use of the voice-controlled shopping services.
That same ‘lack of engagement’ with the Echo device is shown in a report by VoiceLabs that looked at how many of Alexa’s ‘skills’ were actually being used by Echo owners. Of the more than 7,000 skills available at the start of 2017, a massive 69% had either zero or just one customer review – suggesting that the majority of skills simply aren’t being used by customers. Worse still for app developers, the stats show that, on average, just 3% of Echo owners continue to use an app two weeks after first installing it, showing that many are finding the apps either not that useful or just a fun gadget that gets old fast.
That’s not to say that all skills or apps are unpopular, and the same survey found that some had a two-week retention rate of more than 20%. What the studies reveal, though, is that app developers could have their work cut out to find a niche for smart speakers that isn’t already filled by existing smartphones. Securing the long-term attention of Echo and Google users may take time to figure out, and could take something more compelling than the ability to set an alarm or turn the lights on.
It could be a few years until we really start to see whether smart speakers are here to stay, but much of their success hinges on being able to improve their devices in the next generation and correct some of the flaws present in current models.
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The range of smart speakers on the market today might be packed with features, but they’re still not perfect. So what of the drawbacks and flaws with current devices? And will the next-gen provide any solutions?
Some of the biggest flaws with both the Echo and Home are issues with speaker and microphone quality – but it’s safe to assume that these will only get better over time once the concept is more popular and the public are willing to part with more cash for a higher-end product. According to analytics company comScore, 50% of all searches will be done by voice by 2020, so the pressure is on manufacturers to ensure that the technology keeps up with demand.
Software issues can be a drawback too. Aside from the lack of Google integration mentioned earlier, both Google Now and Alexa rely on existing voice recognition software and have to work within the limitations of current search engine algorithms. Many Alexa users particularly have been left frustrated by Amazon’s decision to use Bing for the Echo’s search function, as, anecdotally, results can be somewhat less precise than users are used to from Google.
The current roster of skills is an issue for some users too. Aside from the problems highlighted in the VoiceLabs study mentioned earlier, many Echo owners have found that a large portion of the skills available simply either don’t apply to them or won’t work in their area. Skills such as booking an Uber with your voice might appeal to an urban crowd, for example, but are often unavailable outside of major cities, while many apps are locked to work only in the US or specific regions. Live out in the countryside, or in a country or area without full support, and you could find that Alexa’s skills are in short supply.
If the industry continues to trend in the direction of smart homes and AI assistants, though, the combined might of Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple should be able to overcome any software glitches after several iterations, provided the consumer demand keeps up.
Where smart speakers and other smart tech runs into some potentially insurmountable hurdles, though, is the issue of privacy. By virtue of how these devices work, waiting to hear their wake-up word, both the Home and Echo are always listening to their surroundings, recording what they hear to listen for instructions.
In an age when people are becoming more conscious of internet security, this ‘always on, always listening’ approach has some people worried. In 2015 Samsung made headlines when the company admitted that its smart voice-operated TVs were potentially constantly recording conversations and uploading them to their servers for voice analysis, sparking fears that they were inadvertently capturing sensitive and private information in the process.
Recently smart speaker manufacturers have gone to great lengths to stress that this isn’t possible with newer devices, however. The Echo features a mute button to disable any listening, and both Amazon and Google say that their devices are only listening for their wake-up cue and don’t upload any recordings until asked to perform a task. Both smart speakers also allow the user to delete any previously saved data and offer a reassuring level of control over what data is saved – though limiting this too much does have a negative impact on the AI’s learning potential and can reduce functionality overall.
Promises that smart speakers are no more intrusive than a regular Google search don’t have everyone convinced, though. In December last year, prosecutors in Arkansas took Amazon to task in an effort to gain access to a murder victim’s Echo recording log. Similar to how authorities around the world frequently make requests for phone records and internet search records, prosecutors hoped that the Echo’s microphones may have recorded something relevant to the crime, and perhaps had even overheard the murderer when they were in the home.
Though Amazon declined to provide the information until prosecutors can provide a good enough legal reason, the case highlights privacy fears about our conversations, movements, likes and dislikes being recorded and used against us at a later date. The problem is only exacerbated by the inclusion of third-party hardware and software, with some speculating that it’s only a matter of time until a compromised smart device or app could be used to commit crimes, defraud or blackmail it’s owner.
It’s hard to see how Amazon, Google and the others now joining the race will be able to overcome these security issues, as voice recording is integral to how smart speakers operate. It may be that only through constant reassurance, enhanced security and a rigid defense of their customers’ data that the public can be convinced to finally allow an always-listening set of ears into their homes.
How developers choose to tackle these privacy issues will ultimately determine whether in-home AI assistants become a must-have gadget or are a flash in the pan fad. But if security can be improved, the flaws ironed out, and even more, utility added in the next few generations, we could soon think nothing of talking to our tech.
Do you have a smart speaker, or are you waiting for the next generation’s improvements?
Have you had any problems with security and privacy with yours?
Let us know in the comments below.