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One person’s assistant is another’s irritant
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.
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.
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.