Two of the world’s biggest tech firms have recently begun to attempt to make household gadgets designed to help people organise their lives. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are intended to take voice control capabilities, familiar to all smartphone owners, and transpose them into a format that is intended to sit on the kitchen counter or in the living room, rather than being portable. But what do these gadgets bring to the table and is it really worth splashing out on these so-called ‘smart speakers’ right now?
The Echo is designed to be aesthetically unobtrusive, and its cylindrical shape and black colour enable it to fit in with most modern rooms. Under the surface, it packs hardware that is equivalent to that of a mid to low end smartphone. It makes use of wireless connectivity to get online and has just 4GB of storage space. The Echo Dot was introduced as a more compact version of the full sized model, requiring a connection to a separate speaker, but not sacrificing any of the other functions.
Alexa, Amazon’s voice controlled personal assistant, is baked into the Echo and lets users perform a range of tasks, simply by making verbal requests. You can check on the weather forecast, update your diary and check scheduled events, play music and stream audio, search the web and control other connected smart devices around the home.
With a price point in the UK of just under £150, the Echo is arguably a fairly expensive bit of kit, given that its functions are shared by modern mobiles, which potential buyers may already own. Also, its usefulness will vary depending on how many other autonomous systems and devices are set up in a particular home. Early adopters with their fingers on the pulse of technology will get more out of it than casual consumers.
Google Home was developed as a direct competitor to the Echo and is effectively identical in terms of its core features. The main difference is that this wireless smart speaker is integrated entirely with Google’s raft of other services, from the Play music platform to the Google Assistant solution, which rivals Alexa in terms of functionality. Google has endeavoured to give its assistant more personality, by hiring high flying writers from the worlds of movies, TV and comedy, which it hopes will enable owners to develop a positive relationship with the device over time.
Integration with home automation systems from companies including Nest and Philips is possible, meaning users can manage things like the central heating by asking Google Assistant to make changes. With Chromecast also onboard, people with a multi-room speaker and media playback setup can easily spread content throughout their home.
The Amazon Echo and Google Home both seek to start a serious new trend in the tech world, bringing the futuristic concepts of voice control and automation out of science fiction and into the homes of consumers today. Amazon is even adding Alexa to the Fire TV Stick in the near future, meaning that an even wider audience will gain access to the advantages that this assistant service can offer.
Such gadgets could signal the end of the era in which people had to do everything by hand, whether that was typing in a web search or changing the temperature settings at home on a cold night. However, with so many other devices and services required to make full use of the Echo and Home, the time to invest in either one has yet to come for all customers.