Virtual assistants are right at home
It’s not often that personal technology converges around a useful new user interface which really takes off in the mainstream. We saw it about a decade ago, when smartphones and tablets leveraged recent advances in capacitive touchscreen technology. Now we’re witnessing it again, with a new generation of virtual assistants setting up camp in our homes.
For a long time, voice recognition remained a niche concern on PCs, until the emergence of virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, which made speech a useful new way of performing basic interactions with devices. Now, largely thanks to the success in the US of Amazon’s Echo speakers and their onboard assistant Alexa, there’s been an explosion in similarly envisioned products.
In lots of ways, grounding virtual assistants in a home speaker like this may be even more useful than having them on a phone. In the home, your spoken interactions remain private; devices can be tethered to wall power (not to mention wi-fi) for always-on convenience. And if you pack in decent speaker components, you’ve got the makings of a flexible new sound system. PETER DOCKRILL
What is it? Google Home Mini
How much? $79 Pros: Arguably the cheapest and most accessible entry point into the new generation of smart speakers, Google’s Home Mini is available for under $80 (and even less when on sale). You can use the Mini – which is about the size of a paperweight – to ask Google Assistant questions, and also cast content to your TV via a Google Chromecast. Cons: Given its extremely small pebble-shaped size, the Home Mini’s speaker isn’t a strong choice for audio playback. store.google.com/au
What is it? Apple HomePod
How much? TBC Pros: Over a decade ago, Apple made a splash with its iPod Hi-Fi all-in-one, and its imminent speaker sequel looks to be a revival for modern times. Designed to set itself apart on audio quality, the stylish HomePod incorporates a powerful speaker system that auto-tunes itself to the room it’s in, and is built around Siri and tight integration with Apple Music. Cons: Delayed until early 2018, but expect a fairly closed, non-extendable (and likely pricey) unit when it hits. apple.com/au
What is it? Sonos One How much? $299 Pros: Like the HomePod, the Sonos One also bills itself on audio quality, with a sturdy speaker unit that allows for boomy, room-filling sound. A benefit of the system is that in addition to voice control (see below), the One supports playback from multiple streaming (or network) services, including Spotify, Apple Music, Plex and internet radio.
Cons: While the Sonos One is available now, voice control via Amazon’s Alexa is not yet supported (but should be coming in a software update). sonos.com