SMART HOME 2017 THE YEAR OF THE VOICE

AMA­ZON ECHO AND GOOGLE HOME ARE AT THE FORE­FRONT OF THE SMART HOME REV­O­LU­TION. HERE'S WHAT THEY ARE, WHAT THEY DO AND HOW TO USE THEM TO CON­TROL YOUR CON­NECTED PAD

Australian T3 - - CON­TENTS - WORDS ROB CAR­NEY, JON PORTER & NICK PINO PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JOBY SES­SIONS

A com­plete guide to the con­nected home with the lat­est in fu­ture tech. Here’s how to trans­form your home into a haven of ‘smart’ with a trio of con­nected de­vices, and clever up­grades on a bud­get.

We can’t wait to have ro­bot but­lers. Sure, this might lead to a very small chance of a ro­bot rev­o­lu­tion and the de­struc­tion of hu­man­ity as we know it, but it’s a small price to pay for the pos­si­bil­ity of one day hav­ing a per­fect cup of cof­fee brought to you while you lie in bed on a Sun­day morn­ing. We might not quite be at the point where ro­bots hand-de­liver food items, but thanks to Ama­zon and Google’s work on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence we’re mov­ing ever closer to that de­light­fully lazy fu­ture.

First up there’s Ama­zon Echo (US$179.99, $235.69), a small, cylin­dri­cal speaker with a built-in mi­cro­phone and an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence named Alexa, who re­sponds to your voice com­mands, giv­ing you the mu­sic you love, news bul­letins, access to your cal­en­dar, and who’ll even or­der your din­ner. Just say ‘Alexa…’ fol­lowed by your com­mand. Then there’s Google Home (US$129.99, $168.35) which is trig­gered by ‘OK, Google’. This small speaker en­ables you to con­trol a num­ber of in­te­grated apps and ser­vices, as well as ac­cess­ing Google’s own search re­sults and formidable suite of ser­vices. While we’ve had ex­ten­sive hands-on time with both of these in the US and UK, nei­ther are of­fi­cially avail­able in Aus­tralia – yet. You can im­port them, but right now you’re on your own when it comes to get­ting them in­stalled. Google’s Home is the eas­ier of the two to

get up and run­ning and en­joy at this mo­ment in time, though sup­port an in­ter­est is grow­ing here in Aus. et’s look at both of them – what they do and, ul­ti­mately, how they can im­prove your life.

Ama­zon chose to go with a very prac­ti­cal de­sign for its line of Echo speak­ers, opt­ing for a sim­ple black or white cylin­der over any­thing more out­landish. Its shiny black (or white) shell with blue LEDs might be ba­sic, but it’s un­likely to of­fend any­one ei­ther. The Echo also has a re­mote you can buy sep­a­rately, which is in­ter­est­ing when you con­sider that all of that ba­sic func­tion­al­ity can be ac­cessed by ut­ter­ing a few words. Still, should you find your­self out of Alexa’s earshot, hav­ing a re­mote with a built-in mi­cro­phone will prove handy.

And then there’s the Echo Dot. This is a smaller ver­sion of the Echo with­out its large speaker (it still has a speaker, but the sound it pro­duces is more like a smart­phone). The idea is that you ei­ther pair the Dot with your Blue­tooth speaker or plug it in us­ing the Aux port. It means, for US$49.99 ($65.20), you can have Alexa in more than one room should you wish.

In con­trast to the func­tional sim­plic­ity of the Ama­zon Echo, Google’s Home looks much more el­e­gant. It has a rounded base that makes it look more like a vase than a speaker, and you can cus­tomise the base (it comes in seven colours) to match the decor of your home. The Echo al­most wants to look more at home next to your home the­atre while the Home wants to fit in with the rest of your shelf. THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT When it comes to fea­tures, Google has the po­ten­tial to blow Ama­zon out of the wa­ter thanks to the mas­sive li­brary of ex­ist­ing ser­vices it has at its

In con­trast to the func­tional sim­plic­ity of the Ama­zon Echo, Google’s Home looks more el­e­gant

dis­posal. Ama­zon might have Prime Mu­sic, Tunein and Spo­tify, but Google not only has its own ri­val ser­vice, Google Play Mu­sic, but also of­fers in­te­gra­tion with the Google Cast ecosys­tem, which al­ready in­cludes Spo­tify, Pan­dora, iHeart Radio and thou­sands of other apps. Sure, some aren’t avail­able when us­ing Home in Aus­tralia right now, but Spo­tify sure is (see box­out, p26). But, and it’s a pretty big but, the speaker on Home isn’t that great at all. Whilst it has some bass and mids it’s not go­ing to re­place your Blue­tooth speaker. The Echo is much more im­pres­sive for the price.

Google Home does have a pretty cool trick up its sleeve. Us­ing it you can pull up movies and TV shows from YouTube and Net­flix on your main screen us­ing the power of your voice. You can even use the speaker to play and pause your con­tent with­out hav­ing to go hunt­ing for your smart­phone. Want to watch that episode of West­world or the lat­est trend­ing YouTube video on your TV? Just tell Google Home and you’ll get it on your screen (as long as you have a Chrome­cast, that is). Google Home also in­te­grates with a num­ber of Google’s other ser­vices, from plan­ning routes us­ing Google Maps to trans­lat­ing us­ing Google Trans­late.

Of course, both Home and Echo en­able you to ask ba­sic ques­tions such as what the weather’s like or how many ounces there are in a cer­tain num­ber of grams. Or even ask them for a joke. The re­sults are hi­lar­i­ous, trust us (is that sar­casm? – Ed). Mean­while, Ama­zon has an ever-grow­ing list of com­pat­i­ble apps, in­clud­ing Just Eat and Uber. SMART HOME SUP­PORT Where the Echo gets in­ter­est­ing though is in its com­pre­hen­sive smart home sup­port. You can pretty much con­trol ev­ery smart home ecosys­tem

with Alexa. WeMo, Tado, Hue, SmartThings – you name it. Well, in fact, just in­stall the skill (see box­out, p25) and you can be turn your heat­ing or lights on and off sim­ply by ask­ing Alexa. Google Home also in­te­grates with smart home kit – al­though you’re lim­ited to Sam­sung’s SmartThings and Philip’s Hue at the mo­ment. This may change when Home is launched in Aus­tralia as Google looks to part­ner with other com­pa­nies.

One thing that dis­ap­points with Google Home is the in­abil­ity to in­te­grate with many of Google’s own ser­vices, some of which have been its bread and but­ter for years. Take Gmail. You’d think Google Home might be able to rat­tle off the sub­jects of your top ten emails – but, sur­prise, it can’t. The same goes for Google Cal­en­dar, where it’s un­able to cre­ate new events, make phone calls with Google Voice or jot down notes in a Google Doc. Google has a dozen ser­vices that the Home should be able to link into and yet, in its cur­rent state, can’t. That may all change soon, how­ever, and when it does it could be a real ham­mer blow to the Echo. There’s also the fact that you have to say ‘OK, Google’ or ‘Hey, Google’ ev­ery time you want to use it – you’ll feel very self con­scious and un­nat­u­ral at first.

It’s in­tel­li­gence that really splits Google Home and Ama­zon Echo. Google is of course deeply rooted in search – and it shows. Whereas the Echo gen­er­ally needs you to first en­able a skill in the Alexa app to ask it gen­eral ques­tions, Google Home plugs straight into, er, Google. This means you can, with­out fid­dling, ask it vir­tu­ally any­thing you like.

As a test, we asked Alexa ‘How many breeds of rab­bit are there in the world?’. It replied, telling us it didn’t know the an­swer. Ask­ing Google Home the same ques­tion, how­ever, we got an an­swer – 60, it turns out. So you can ask Google Home any­thing – it’s a short­cut to search, and al­though you’ll gen­er­ally get the top Google an­swer it’s one we really like. It’s ex­actly like search­ing the web.

WHICH IS FOR YOU?

Right now, Google Home is your best op­tion, as it’s eas­ier to set up and acts much bet­ter as a search tool – like we’ve said, you can pretty much ask it any­thing you like. From the price of a plane ticket to what’s the best restau­rant in an area. But it’s not of­fi­cially avail­able in Aus­tralia yet, so get­ting info such as Aus­tralian-spe­cific news and radio sta­tions is a bit of a prob­lem.

How­ever, if you have a smart home set-up such as WeMo, Echo con­trols all of it. Echo also in­te­grates per­fectly with Spo­tify, TuneIn and, of course, Ama­zon Mu­sic, and has an ex­cel­lent speaker (much bet­ter than the Google Home’s). Be­ing able to add Alexa to dif­fer­ent rooms cheaply us­ing the Dot is great, but you can’t link them all for multi-room, which you can do with Google Home ei­ther by us­ing a num­ber of Google Homes, Chrome­cast Au­dio de­vices, or speak­ers that have Chrome­cast built-in.

We’re dy­ing to see both of these voice con­trollers re­leased in Aus­tralia – they’re in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing and in our eyes serve slightly dif­fer­ent pur­poses. Their net­work and sup­port will only ex­pand. Which should you buy? Prob­a­bly both.

Could the Ama­zon Echo turn out to be the real heart of your home? You’ll won­der how you lived with­out it!

Looks-wise, there’s not much to split the two de­vices – they’re both stylish enough for the mod­ern home

If it’s search abil­ity you’re after, Google Home is un­beat­able

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