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Smart speakers: Is it Alexa, Google or Apple for you? Here’s what you need to know to decide

Smart speakers: Is it Alexa, Google or Apple for you? Here's what you need to know to decide

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Smart speakers: Is it Alexa, Google or Apple for you? Here’s what you need to know to decide

Jefferson Graham
 
| USA TODAY
You’ve thought long and hard about it, and you’re finally ready to buy a smart speaker. They’re all being heavily marketed for Black Friday sales, and you’d like to ask Siri, Alexa or the Google Assistant to play music, tell you the weather, turn off your TV or lights on command. But you’re stuck: Which brand and model to buy? Amazon has five Echo speakers currently available, Google has six and Apple has two. Which one is right for you?  And then there are the concerns about security and snooping. How do you feel about that? And which companies are better about it than others? Lastly, you’ve heard about using the speakers to listen to TV on them and replace your soundbar. How does one go about any of this?Well, we’ve got the answers!Google Pay fine print: What opting into personalized offers can really mean for your privacy and financesAmong Alexa’s lesser-known abilities: You can ask the digital assistant about COVID-19 symptomsThe Players: Amazon, Google, AppleLet’s start with which platform to use? Amazon started the smart speaker market in 2014 with the first Echo speaker. Google joined in in 2016, followed by Apple in 2018 with HomePod, which brought the Siri personal assistant to the smart speaker.Amazon doesn’t have its own smartphone like Apple and Google do, so Alexa is its best way for communicating directly to consumers.The difference among the three platforms? “Amazon sells speakers to give you access to Alexa, while Apple’s speakers are about enhancing the Siri experience at home,” says Bret Kinsella, the editor of the Voicebot.ai website. Google initially tried selling the smarts of the Google Assistant as its calling card but now is focused on sonic quality.In Market share, Amazon dominates, according to Voicebot, with 53% in the United States, to 31% for Google and 2.8% for Apple, which saw little action for the first HomePod, which initially sold for $349. The sequel, just released this month, is the $99 HomePod Mini. Apple’s HomePod Mini review: Attractive price, more useful than Google speakersJust under 100 million smart speakers have been sold globally since Amazon released the first Echo speaker. Amazon, Google, Apple: What’s new?Amazon has four new editions of Echo speakers this year, and all are redesigned from the original coffee can look to that of something resembling a bowling ball. The fourth-generation Echo, ($99, but selling this week for $69) touts improved sound, while Amazon’s best-seller is the Dot, a smaller speaker akin to the AM radio to Echo’s FM. The Dot normally sells for $49.99 but this week is $28.99. There are also a new kids’ edition of the Dot ($38 this week) and a Dot with built-in clock, selling this week also for $38.Apple has the HomePod Mini, a pint-size $99 version of the original $349 HomePod, and Google introduced the Nest Audio for $99, twice the size as the original Google Home and again focusing on audio quality. It was introduced in October to stellar reviews. Streaming partnersApple offers music from its Apple Music service and radio from Pandora, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. Missing are the most popular streaming service, Spotify, and Amazon Music. Amazon offers music from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn and iHeart Radio. Missing YouTube Music. Google has YouTube Music, Spotify and Pandora. It’s missing Amazon and Apple Music. Commands and skillsThe trick to running a smart speaker is learning the specific phrases needed to operate them. The big three companies have a selection listed on their website. The links:Amazon commands Google commandsSiri commandsVideo displaysAmazon and Google both ventured beyond smart speakers to smart video displays but didn’t release anything new this year. Amazon has the second-generation 10-inch Echo Show and two smaller versions with 5-inch and 8-inch screens. The company had announced a new 10-inch Echo Show in September aimed at video chat with a rotating chassis to follow different speakers. Amazon originally said “coming soon” tab but has yet to release it. Google in 2019 released the Nest Hub Max, a 10-inch screen sequel to 2018’s Google Home Hub. Zoom, the video meeting service, said earlier in the year that the Echo Show and Nest Hub Max would begin offering access to the Zoom app on their devices, but the feature has yet to be turned on. Facebook’s Portal, a similar device for video chat, began offering the feature in September. How to set them upAmazon and Google will send you to their Home apps, while you’ll need an iPhone to set up the HomePod. The Alexa app is more full-featured than Google Home, the place you go to both set up your speaker and add new skills. Some of the features touted by Amazon in ads, like playing Jeopardy, asking actor Samuel L. Jackson to double for the Alexa voice or setting up features to control your smart home are done within the Alexa app. The Google app is heavily weighted toward smart home skills and doing things like organizing which rooms speakers are in, to sync them so they’ll play music across the home. To set up the HomePod, you hold your iPhone over the speaker, and Apple takes it from there.PrivacyHow do you feel about your queries being recorded? All three do this, Apple less aggressively. Google and Amazon record and store every query once you use the “Hey Google” or “Alexa” wake words, which could also bleed into normal conversations if you happen to drop those words. or something the device thinks sounds similar, into a sentence. Amazon says it lets users opt in to automatically delete all recorded queries either every three or 18 months. But you can’t opt-out of the recording process.Google claims its snoop feature is “opt-in,” but as we pointed out recently here, Google puts the opt-in in small print as part of the app user agreements, which most people zip right through without reading. Apple says its query audio recording is a more conscious opt-in, by going to the iPhone Settings (Privacy/Analytics & Improvement, Improve Siri & Dictation) and setting it up. TVMy favorite feature of the speakers is ditching the soundbar and using them as TV speakers by the bed, where you get to hear actors dialogue, music and sound effects by your ear, instead of across the room. Call it the Earbuds Effect, but now that I’m used to music that way, listening from the other side just doesn’t cut it for me. The Google Home/Nest Audio speakers are the easiest to pair, without the addition of an accessory. You will want two speakers for a better experience, and it can work on the lowest priced speakers, like two Google Home Minis, which currently sell for $39 this week. Now simply go to the Google Home app and request a Left/Right pairing. For the HomePod to double as TV speakers, you’ll need the Apple TV streaming box, which sells for $179 and $199 and click the AirPlay button on the TV remote.For Amazon, beyond the Echo speakers, you’re going to need one more Amazon device to make this work. The most economical is the Fire TV Stick, which start at $29.99, and also sell for $39 and $49 or the $119 Fire TV Cube, the device that brings in voice control of the TV. You connect the speakers to the TV via the Alexa app. One more caveat: Remember that if you choose a speaker for TV, you’ll need to be aware of their streaming choices. Amazon doesn’t offer Peacock, the new channel from NBC Universal or Apple TV and was a long hold out on HBO Max, the new channel from HBO that debuted in May. Apple tends to be more open about adding new streaming channels, and has Peacock and HBO Max. Questions about smart speakers? We’re here to help. Send your questions to me @jeffersongraham on Twitter. 

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