Vir­tual as­sis­tants are right at home

Money Magazine Australia - - THIS MONTH -

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.

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. ap­

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).

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