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A smart buy?

When Tracey Porter first purchased Google Home for her Central Coast residence, her technophobe husband Matt was less than impressed.

Condemning it as a “waste of money” and deriding it as an impulse purchase, Matt bet his wife that the new technology would soon be rendered obsolete and confined to the scrap heap within six months.

Two and a half years later not only is the little white box still commanding pride of place on the kitchen bench, but Matt, his wife and the couple’s two kids regularly rely on their Google Home Assistant for help on everything from geography homework to music streaming.

Willing to concede Matt still has a lot to learn about the capabilities of such technologies, Tracey says the more he understands about this artificial intelligence–powered virtual assistant, the more Matt now defers to it.

“While he has yet to set up the smart plugs that will allow him to use it to turn on the air-conditioner or dim the lights, he does rely on it at a really basic level for regular weather updates, fail-safe dinner recipes and really silly dad jokes when he’s trying to impress the neighbours,” she says.

And it seems the Porters aren’t the only ones cottoning on to the benefits of smart speakers equipped with electronic voice assistants.

According to data from Voicebot SSCAR, as of January 2019 around 5.7 million Australians own or have access to a voice assistant, or smart speaker. Of these, 68.2% had Google Home, 14.2% had Amazon Echo, 5.5% owned an Apple Homepod and 12.2% owned a competitive brand.

So, what are the things you need to consider before purchasing a smart speaker?

What is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker is an audio product that is equipped with a voice-enabled virtual assistant. The main virtual assistants are Siri (by Apple), Google Assistant (Google) and Alexa (Amazon). Some smart speakers are purely voice controlled while others come with inbuilt touchscreens.

The first smart speaker launched in the US back in 2014. Since then multiple manufacturers have come to the table with smart speakers of their own. Comparison site Finder says what makes smart speakers so compelling is the fact that their capabilities aren’t limited to those they possess when you purchase them.

Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri are constantly developing new skills, with all three providing the opportunity for app developers to build smart-speaker functionality into their own apps and services.

What should you look for?

One of the first things you should look for when first selecting a smart speaker for your home is compatibility with your existing devices.

Most smart speakers will work with both Android and iOS platforms, but generally it easier to stick with the ecosystem your household uses the most. If you often use Google’s services such as Google Maps and Gmail a product such as Google Home or Google Nest would be best.

If you are a regular Amazon shopper then maybe the Amazon Echo might suit your needs better.

The sound quality of your device is also an important consideration. As this can vary quite a bit between manufacturers, choosing the most expensive model doesn’t guarantee a better listening experience. Be realistic about your budget and what to expect.

How to talk to your selected model

Australia’s go-to for tech advice, PC Mag, says every smart speaker is summoned with a wake word.

Some of these you may be familiar with such as “Alexa” for Alexa, “Hey, Google” for Google, and “Siri” for Siri. Once they start listening to you, you can ask for whatever you want.

PC Mag says while all three voice assistants are fairly easy to talk to, they can trip up if you don’t use the proper syntax. According to the mag’s experts, Alexa in particular needs to be spoken to in certain ways to get the results you want. Often it can get confused if you use an unfamiliar term or if it’s phrased in an unfamiliar way.

What is the cost and what hidden costs are there?

Prices for smart speakers in Australia range from $70 to over $500, depending on the brand, audio quality and extra features.

It’s important to remember that while the software allows you to add many features for free, you still have to pay for memberships and subscriptions that you use, such as Apple Music or Spotify.

If you’re interested in smart home products, such as light bulbs and home security systems, these often require an extra piece of equipment to function and can prove quite costly. It’s important to factor in that cost as part of your overall budget.

A final word of advice

While most users admit that smart speakers provide incredible convenience, it’s also important to note that some features may leave you open to cyber threats and unwanted data sharing.

For this reason, it’s worthwhile canvassing the opinion of friends or family who already use these types of devices to get a feel for the advantages and disadvantages of these products. This should help allow you to make a considered and informed decision on whether they are right for your home.

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