The voice controlled smart speaker might be the most successful connected self device so far. By that we mean that the Amazon Echo has already snuck its way into millions of homes, the Echo and similar devices have completely revamped interest in the smart home as a whole and despite a high price tag, the upcoming Apple HomePod is effectively just as big a hit.
So what is a smart speaker? What can it do and what do you need to consider when buying one? We explain what you need to know, what's available now and what's due to go on sale by the end of the year.
What is a smart speaker?
In our definition, a smart speaker is a speaker (obviously), which has microphones to pick up voice commands, connects to your home Wi-Fi and can be used to control all your smart home gadgets. So we're not including regular Bluetooth or Spotify Connect speakers, with no other smart features, in this list.
After that, the focus depends on the device. So, some - like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Cortana speakers - will run third party voice based applications, named Skills or Actions, or detect multiple voices and some offer voice or Skype calling. Read our in-depth reviews and individual stories to check all the functions out.
Most devices are always-on in the sense that they are waiting to pick up command words and store your audio recordings in the cloud until you delete them. Privacy will continue to be a big issue for these ambient computing devices and new hubs like the Essential Home are taking this into account.
What it works with
Think about not just what features you can get now but also how committed each tech company is to refreshing the software. Right now, everyone's on it as most households are still up for grabs. Also consider what smart home gadgets you already own and what you might be likely to buy in future. The big four - Siri (& HomeKit), Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana will no doubt all work with most existing devices by the end of the year.
Speaker vs hub
This idea of a smart home hub is of course changing and expanding, though as already we are seeing some really neat alternatives from names you might not have heard of in the form of smart lamps, mirrors and other hubs.
But the idea of a speaker with a virtual assistant - Alexa, Siri, Cortana etc - you can talk to has really caught hold in the past 12 to 18 months, thanks in large part to the Amazon Echo. And now everyone's at it.
Smart speakers 101
- The best Amazon Alexa powered devicesOur pick of an ever-growing range of connected tech using Alexa Voice Service API
- The Cortana smart home: Your need to knowYou could be chatting to Microsoft's AI assistant in your home by the end of the year
- The best Apple HomeKit products for your homeWe round up some of the hottest HomeKit tech
- Amazon Echo v Google HomeWhich smart home speaker is best for you?
- 50 Google Home Easter eggs to try right nowBecause Google knows how to have fun
- The 65 best Alexa Easter eggs to try right nowYou talkin' to me?
The smart speakers you can buy now
For a long time the Amazon Echo was out on it's own, then it was Echo vs Google Home. Now the list of smart speakers that are available to buy is growing. Here's what we have to pick from so far.
The original. The Amazon Echo was the first cylindrical, voice activated smart speaker to not only burst onto the scene but essentially create it. And in our Amazon Echo v Google Home head to head, it still just has the edge for its broader skill set.
This speaker uses Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, works with lots of compatible smart home devices, has over 10,000 third party Skills and improves with every update - the latest being free Wi-Fi phone calls. The speaker quality itself isn't great and it must be connected to mains power but otherwise, this is still our top pick right now. Unless of course you want to make an existing speaker smart...
In depth: Amazon Echo review
$179.99 | Amazon
Amazon Echo Dot
For that you should take a look at Amazon's Echo Dot. It's a third of the price, now in its second iteration and plugs directly into a speaker you already own via a 3.5mm cable. (There is actually a built-in speaker, but it's terrible for music).
Otherwise, it's a similar experience to the Echo - you talk to Alexa, add Skills from third parties and connect the Dot up to other connected kit in the home. Amazon is selling these in packs of six or twelve with a view to encouraging people to stick them in every room.
In depth: Amazon Echo Dot review
$49.99 | Amazon
Turning from the Amazon love-in for a second, the Google Home is a really strong contender. Not only does it look a bit more home friendly, and come with a cheaper price tag, it matches the Echo for pretty much all the main features with its own Google Assistant.
Plus there's access to YouTube Music (as well as Spotify and Google Play Music) and Home automatically learns 'Actions', its version of Skills, from developers which is nice. Be aware - there's no Bluetooth for music, though.
In depth: Google Home review
Invoxia Triby IO
Back to Alexa and the Triby IO which is a family-friendly smart speaker option. Invoxia's Alexa activated device is a kitchen memo system too with a small E Ink display for family members to leave messages for each other, Wi-Fi calling, Spotify Connect and internet radio.
You can set up IFTTT Applets, or recipes, hooking up music to smart bulbs, for instance, and even sketch out a note on your phone to display on the screen. Adding screens to smart speakers will be a trend for 2017, but not everyone will get the Triby's souped-up radio look quite as right.
If you're interested in the concept but haven't chosen a device yet, you might want to wait. These are some officially announced smart speakers which will be on sale by the end of 2017 - expect this list to grow considerably.
Apple's Mac Pro-alike is powered by Siri and hooks up to Apple Music, as you'd expect. It's much more expensive than the rest of the smart speakers but we're sure that won't put any loyal Apple fans off.
The HomePod has six microphones, claims to offer "room filling" sound and you can pair two in one room. Apple has also been teasing some sort of multi-room set up. Due by December in the US and UK - we're still waiting for international pricing.
Amazon Echo Show
A quick word on the Amazon Echo Show which, from what we've seen so far looks a bit of a step back - we've certainly seen better screens on these types of smart home hubs. It's more expensive, has a new boxy design to accommodate the 7-inch touchscreen above the speaker.
Still, it shows where Amazon is heading with a 5MP front-facing camera for video calls/use as a security cam plus eight mics and an intercom style feature. The Echo Show is up for pre-order now and goes on sale on 28 June.
$229.99 | Amazon
Harman Kardon Invoke
The Invoke by Harman Kardon is the first of what should be a whole batch of smart home hubs and devices with Cortana voice controls. Microsoft's play for the home starts here.
With the usual voice access to news, weather and internet queries, the differences play to Microsoft's strengths with full Microsoft Office and calendar support plus Skype calling featured on this smart speaker. Cortana Skills will act very similarly to Alexa Skills and Harman Kardon is hyping up the sound quality too.
Microsoft also announced a HP Cortana speaker but we don't have a name or any details for this yet, aside from one image. The Invoke hasn't been priced up yet but it's due to land in fall 2017.
Lenovo Smart Assistant
Lenovo has built what is essentially its own Echo - the Smart Assistant also uses Alexa as its voice assistant, with all the same features, and one-ups Amazon's microphones with eight that pick up commands from 5m. There's two versions, both announced at this year's CES - the standard one for $130 and a more expensive Harman Kardon version for $180.
The Lenovo smart speaker was originally supposed to go on sale in May 2017 but the site still says "coming soon" so we'll take their word for it.
$130 - $180, lenovo.com
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