digita l he lper

One per­son’s as­sis­tant is an­other’s ir­ri­tant

Mac Format - - CONTENTS -

These days, we’re not short of as­sis­tance thanks to ad­vances in voice recog­ni­tion, pow­er­ful servers able to churn through com­plex re­quests, and an ever-grow­ing

net­work of cloud-con­nected ev­ery­thing. It all adds up to a com­put­ing ecosys­tem that ben­e­fits both from cen­tral con­trol and from an easy way to make that con­trol hap­pen. We’re pri­mar­ily go­ing to look at Siri, Alexa and Google As­sis­tant be­cause, frankly, the oth­ers (Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana and Sam­sung’s Bixby, pri­mar­ily) are small fry – but feel free to try them out if you wish.

Re­al­is­ti­cally, we’re also not go­ing to be able to choose a de­fin­i­tive ‘best’ here. Were you to pick a nanny, say, you’d pick the per­son that fits your life­style, and gets on best with your kids. But there is no one prac­ti­cally per­fect Mary Pop­pins of home as­sis­tants. The best is the one that works with you. While we al­most cer­tainly share some of the same in­ter­ests and hard­ware, we are not you, and we can’t make that de­ci­sion.

That said, you likely al­ready have ac­cess to Siri with­out the need to pur­chase ad­di­tional hard­ware or in­stall any new soft­ware. Both Alexa and Google As­sis­tant can also be ac­cessed di­rectly from within their own iOS apps. Only Siri works with Ap­ple Watch, un­less you’re will­ing to make some sac­ri­fices – there’s an Alexa workaround, but since it’s a third-party app it’s lim­ited in terms of what it can do.

Su­per Siri

Siri is great at con­trol­ling any­thing that fits into Ap­ple’s HomeKit ecosys­tem, par­tic­u­larly if you are also run­ning a home hub like the HomePod, so that you can tweak your hard­ware when not at home. Ad­mit­tedly, that’s a lit­tle re­stric­tive; gen­eral hard­ware in­te­gra­tion with HomeKit is still not on the same level as it is with Ama­zon’s sys­tem, and even Google’s net­work­ing pro­to­cols seem to be mak­ing slightly more of an im­pact. But it would be fair to say that HomeKit in­te­gra­tion is of­ten a lot bet­ter than the other two, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to re­li­a­bil­ity and the ease of cre­at­ing cus­tom au­toma­tions through Ap­ple’s Home app.

Each of the as­sis­tants can make notes, lists and such. That’s not a dif­fi­cult task. But none is quite as tightly in­te­grated with your Ap­ple de­vice or your soft­ware. Ask Siri, and you can add some­thing di­rectly to your Notes or Cal­en­dar app, or lower your de­vice’s vol­ume or screen bright­ness.

We are Mac users. Lean­ing to­ward Siri, with its in­te­gra­tions, is only nat­u­ral. But it would be churl­ish to sidestep some of the ad­van­tages the oth­ers of­fer. In par­tic­u­lar, Alexa is ab­so­lutely ev­ery­where. It’s in smart speak­ers – be­yond first-party de­vices, it’s landed in speak­ers from Sonos, Ul­ti­mate Ears and more. It’s part of a wide range of Ama­zon own-brand as­sis­tant de­vices. Alexa has even re­cently been in­cor­po­rated into mi­crowaves and clocks, cour­tesy of Ama­zon go­ing just a lit­tle over­board. And getting started with Alexa, with an Echo Dot, is af­ford­able. Ap­ple’s range of Siri-in­fused de­vices, be­yond iPhones, iPads and Macs, to­tals two – Ap­ple TV and HomePod, and nei­ther is a cheap in­vest­ment.

Alexa’s brain is, by virtue of its ‘Skills’, in­her­ently ex­tend­able. If you get a new Alex­a­com­pat­i­ble de­vice (and there are a great many out there) you can get started with it straight away; you may need to learn a whole new set of com­mands to ad­min­is­ter it, but the op­tion’s there. You can also use Skills, where avail­able, to hook into web ser­vices, giv­ing you im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the things you care about.

Go­ing Google

Google As­sis­tant isn’t quite as ca­pa­ble as Alexa, and it hasn’t spread quite as wide, al­though it’s quickly mak­ing its way into many more de­vices – some of which al­ready sup­port Alexa, like the Sonos One. It’s not given the same fo­cus by man­u­fac­tur­ers as the big­gest name in smart as­sis­tance. Whether that’s a commentary on Google’s ten­den­cies to change things around on a whim, or a dif­fi­culty in hook­ing into the as­sis­tant’s back end, we’re un­cer­tain. The afore­men­tioned Sonos One has been promis­ing As­sis­tant sup­port for some time, and though it seems im­mi­nent, we’re still wait­ing.

If you’re a fre­quent user of Google’s on­line apps, though, there’s no bet­ter way to do it than through As­sis­tant. It’s per­fect to man­age your cal­en­dar, mail, Hang­outs con­ver­sa­tions and Chrome­cast. And there’s a long list of other in­te­gra­tions that makes it worth a look if you have de­vices or apps that sup­port it.

So let’s be straight: there’s no one best choice of smart as­sis­tant. Re­al­is­ti­cally, you don’t ac­tu­ally need to make a choice. Ev­ery­thing’s avail­able to you. Pick up your phone and try all of them. If Siri does ev­ery­thing you need, use it. If you want to stretch fur­ther, do so. Be­fore you even start think­ing about hard­ware, pick the as­sis­tant that works for you.

We don’t know why we’ve still got cook­ery books ly­ing around, when we can just ask Alexa for a recipe.

At just un­der £50, Google Home Mini is a re­ally af­ford­able way to break into the world of smart as­sis­tance.

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