It’s a big question. Fortunately, it’s hard to go wrong, particularly if you’ve read the earlier pages of his electronic document. Two mainstream options are out there right now. Amazon Echo has been around the longest. It was released into the consumer wilds in the middle of 2015, although this release was limited to the U.S. Interestingly, Alexa’s faithful carriage is also across the world. Her language changes to reflect these expanded offerings, so her voice now sports either a UK English accent or a German voice. The second smart speaker model that must be placed on nearly the same level of voice-activated excellence as the Amazon Echo is Google Home, a wireless speaker that’s dominated by the Google Assistant smart platform.
It’s tempting to break away from the big two and see which other smart speakers are hurling themselves into this fast-selling device sector, but let’s put that task off for a bit while you properly meet and greet this popular duo.
Table of Contents
- 1 Amazon Range of Smart Speakers
- 2 Google Home Smart Speaker
- 3 Final Thoughts from Gerard
Amazon Range of Smart Speakers
Before going any further, you should know that there are different flavors of Amazon’s virtual assistant to choose from, and that figure will only grow. Here’s a cursory inspection that will show off the three form factors.
Amazon’s family affair:
The Amazon Echo – A 9.25- inch tall cylinder with a 3.27-inch wide base that hosts a slender smart speaker. Call out “Alexa,” the default wake word, to begin the voice-activated magic. Amazon’s flagship smart speaker works hands-free, streams music, and connects to your smart products.
Amazon Tap – The second member of Amazon’s virtual assistant family is 6.3-inches tall. Designed as a portable smart speaker, the Tap also listens to your voice thanks to a firmware update. Originally, though, the Amazon Tap was intended to respond to a touch of the microphone button.
Amazon Dot – Basically, the Dot is an Amazon Echo that’s had its smart speaker amputated. The far-field microphone array is still there, as is Alexa. Otherwise, the product adds an audio output port and an extra Bluetooth connection. The device is obviously intended as a compact, affordable Alexa, a virtual assistant who still has access to music streaming power when her audio port is plugged into a speaker or AV receiver.
Amazon Show – This is the Echo with a really cool screen, love it and it’s used inside my 8 Week Smart Home Challenge course. Available in two iterations at the time of writing namely 8 and 10-inch versions.
Chronicling The Life and Times of The Amazon Echo
There’s no point flipping between the three dominant Amazon smart speaker form factors, not when they’re loaded with many of the same features. With that said, we’ll use the Amazon Echo as your potential home companion. It’s a smart companion that works according to the voice-activated rules we’ve detailed throughout this narrative. Just say “Alexa,” even from across the room, and your Amazon Echo comes to life. That’s the activation string that she ships with, the word she’ll respond to when first powered on, but you can change this trigger. Get started by opening your Alexa App on your mobile device. Navigate to the Settings panel, and choose your new Wake Word from the list. You can choose from “Alexa,” or “Echo,” or “Amazon,” and there’s even a new voice-activation term, “Computer.” Science-fiction fans will definitely get a kick out of that last option.
It’s not possible to pick your own Wake Word, so don’t try making your Echo respond to R2-D2 or Optimus Prime. But you can assign one of the preinstalled Wake Words to each of your Echo modules, which is a handy feature if you own several Amazon Echos. Further setup routines are designed to be easy to breeze through. Plug the power cable into a wall outlet. That’s always a good place to start with a new piece of technology after the unboxing ceremony, right? The volume ring crowning the device lights up with a pleasing blue hue before switching to orange as Alexa takes this opportunity to greet you. But this smart speaker isn’t like any other piece of tech in your home. There are few buttons to mess with, and she’s sitting there, locked in configuration mode. You need the App to continue. Download the Alexa App and install it on your smartphone. Alternatively, if you don’t own a smartphone or a tablet, you can reach the Alexa setup routine through the Web App. Regardless of your App choice, the Setup Mode will walk you through the configuration process in a few short steps. Select “Setup New Device,” on the App settings menu, hit Update Wi-Fi, and call up the Wi-Fi connections on your phone. The echo should register as “Amazon-XXX,” or something like that. Connect her and hop over to your Alexa App configuration screen to finish the process. Do remember you’re dealing with an Amazon product, so you’ll be prompted to enter your Amazon account login information at some point during the configuration process.
The only other major setting during this configuration phase is the language setting. US English is the default language, but Alexa’s voice service also allows you to select either UK English or German. Your App is now configured to communicate with your Alexa device. Use the same walkthrough if additional devices are added, even if the new hardware uses the Dot or Tap form factor. Next, you’re connected to your Amazon Echo via the mobile or web App. It’s your visual interface, a screen that finalises the configuration and enables you to make future system alterations. Alexa is active and ready to respond to your voice. However, she’s still trapped in her sleek cylinder. Your final step in your smart speaker setup is to hook her to your home Wi-Fi network. Do so by pulling up a list of available Wi-Fi connections on the App. Finally, select your network, enter your wireless password, and connect.
The orange light ring switches back to a calming blue. Your virtual assistant is now semi-active and connected to her cloud service. Summon her by saying “Alexa.” The blue crowning ring spins when you utter the wake word. It spins rapidly, then settles until its brightest section is oriented towards the voice-activation source: you. How’s that for feedback? Ask your Echo a question or request a new update. Get the weather forecast for the week, or play an interactive game with your new virtual buddy. Remember, however, this is the smallest slice of her capabilities. Head back into the App to turn on your favourite music services, such as Spotify or Pandora. This is a smart speaker, after all, so get that wireless speaker working. Podcasts and audiobooks might be next on the agenda, which isn’t a problem, not when your Amazon account is syncing your reading material.
Syncing and memorising tasks continues with calendars and news outlets, all of the media sources that can be personalised to suit your tastes. Then, moving away from media and productivity, it’s past time you stretched your smart home. The Amazon Echo networking platform uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Imagine the wireless technology supporting countless third-party product manufacturers. In fact, imagine an Echo that controls your lights, thermostats, locks, alarm systems, and power outlets. Specifically, there’s the already mentioned Samsung Refrigerator, the Ford automobiles, Whirlpool appliances, the Incipio CommandKit Wi-Fi Light Switch, and who knows how many other third-party nodes, all waiting to hear from Alexa. Then, extending the Smart Home, bridges or “Hubs” take on the role of electronic translators. Like a Wi-Fi router that’s built specifically for the meshing smart home, the Hubs are the software decoders that bind discrete network linkages together. If an Amazon Echo can’t yet talk wirelessly to a system accessory or appliance, a connected hub will interpret the language, thus levelling the network playing field.
Smart Echo Connections in a Nutshell
Verify compatibility before purchasing a smart device that you want your Echo to manage. Direct connection options are gaining traction, plus there are Skills and Hubs for those times a little third-party aid is required. Typically, you’ll follow the setup routine that you pulled out of the box of your new product. Oftentimes, this involves nothing more than the download of an App and a step-by-step installation routine. Then, when the hardware is physically mounted, the downloaded App will request permission to make a wireless connection to your home network. Grant this permission and enter your Wi-Fi password so that it can be authenticated. This next section of the installation procedure takes you back to your Alexa App. This time, though, you’re going to be accessing the Smart Home option. Run your finger down to the Get More Smart Skills section, search for the Skill that matches your device, and hit Enable Skill. Alternatively, a few device classes are discoverable via a voice-activated request. In this case, simply say “Discover Devices” to connect the smart hardware. If there’s trouble with the discovery routine, try depressing the Hub button, if a Hub is fitted, to trigger the pairing procedure.
Things get a little muddy and uncertain when smart products enter the equation. Simply put, there are just so many manufacturers and so many proprietary software codes humming away behind these platforms. Here’s a list of some of the products that work with Amazon’s smart speakers. Hopefully, a clutter-free list will help you shrug off the confusion caused by the dazzling variety of appliances, technology forms, and accessories that are knocking on your front door and demanding attention.
- Amazon Smart Plug
- Philips Hue Starter Kit
- Ecobee Smart Thermostat
- Ring Video Doorbell
- Fire TV Stick 4K
- Logitech Harmony Remotes
- Wemo Switches
Read carefully about the must-have components and must-not-have parts that are associated with these and other smart devices. The Insteon and Hue range are wonderful lighting ranges, but they require a Hub if they’re to reach their full potential. WeMo systems, conversely, are designed to directly interface with your Amazon Echo. In other words, there’s no Hub required. But Hubs are remarkable devices in their own right. The Wink Hub, for instance, opens your friendly AI to a world of wireless wonder. That’s because this handy wireless bridge is a universal translator, a device that translates Zigbee, Z-Wave, Lutron Clear Connect, and several other proprietary coding formats into a universal language.
Inside an Amazon Echo
The sleek cylinder is manufactured from a dense plastic. This white or black casing is punctuated by tiny rows of perforations on the lower half. The top half of the nearly 10-inch tall column is crowned by a spinning blue light ring and a volume control. The very top of the smart speaker, the business end, contains seven far-field microphones and two recessed buttons. The first, a microphone mute button, turns Alexa’s listening skills off, perhaps as a means of appeasing those that think Big Brother may be listening to your personal conversations. The second control is called the Action button. It’s intended as a direct triggering mechanism, so use it if you want to manually wake Alexa, cancel a timer, or directly initiate some multipurpose response. It’s also used to directly enter the Wi-Fi setup mode. Keep the Action button pressed for five seconds to enter this mode.
The Amazon Echo and the rest of the Alexa-hosting family are more than smart speakers. Actually, The Dot isn’t a true smart speaker at all, but it’s still gifted with the IQ of the Alexa artificial intelligence. As a voice-activated speaker, she streams music and all forms of audio from hundreds of online sources. As a personal assistant, though, she can do so much more. Alexa puts all her biggest computing parts on the cloud, then uses her localised hardware, your Echo components, to control your Smart Home. She wakes as your hands-free, voice-activated companion, answers questions, reads the news, and personalises every accessed resource so that it satisfies your hunger for knowledge. Similarly, your hunger for comfort and entertainment are both catered for when you hook Echo to your home network and add smart appliances and accessories to your meshed wireless home network, with every component chattering away in the same language. Even when those components are made by third-party manufacturers, there are software Skills and hardware Hubs to facilitate Alexa’s far-reaching connections.
Third Party Alexa-Powered Smart Speakers
A two-way tie doesn’t make for much of a race. Admittedly, the two contenders are internet sensations. Google Home and The Amazon Echo family deliver the goods in every imaginable way. However, yes there’s always a “however,” what about third-party contenders? The pedigreed form factors you’ve seen so far are capable of causing seismic ripples in the consumer electronics market, so any potential game changer also needs something of a branded label to lift its speaker-enabled housing, so who are these brands?
Starting with the Lenovo Smart Assistant, a rather bland title, Amazon engineers are trying to establish Alexa as the only voice-activated assistant you’ll ever need. The Lenovo effort looks as if someone has created a composite product, for this slender cylinder looks as if elements of the two industry leaders have been smushed together to produce a virtual love child. In the looks department, at any rate, the lower half uses coloured bases, a feature that looks a lot like the Google Home bases. Inside, however, Alexa inhabits the Lenovo Smart Assistant as a third-party brain. Just as an aside, Amazon’s head honchos do seem to be going out of their way to ensure Alexa finds her way into every new voice-activated device popping onto your big ticket electronic store’s shelves. Those same hardware architects have even signed a deal with Conexant to build the audio processing chips that give these devices their voices. Anyway, back at Lenovo’s Voice Assistant, the compact cylinder is equipped with a wireless Harman Kardon speaker, so sound quality has been moved closer to the top of the feature list. As you’ll remember, Google and Amazon do manufacture two of the finest, most innovative voice-activated products in this emerging field, but sound quality isn’t a major factor in either device. The Lenovo variant gifts Alexa with some mighty fine audio features. If superior sound clarity is a deciding factor on your shopping list, do check out this offering from one of the biggest computer manufacturers in the world. There are two versions of this smart speaker available. A less expensive base model omits the higher quality audio output. The higher-end device, made as an all black cylinder, replaces the basic speaker with a Harman Kardon speaker, a sound reproduction module that provides hi-fidelity audio. Both versions incorporate multiple far-field microphones, so Alexa’s hearing on the Lenovo Smart Assistant is satisfyingly sharp.
LG’s SmartThinQ Hub also receives a mention in this article. Its Echo-like form factor is described briefly during a look at the developing reference models that enable other manufacturers to quickly realise their own Alexa clones. Unlike the classic smart speaker form factor, the LG model incorporates a display. Located on top of the thermos-sized tube, the display lights up with notifications, perhaps an incoming text message. Interestingly, the SmartThinQ Hub mimics the Amazon Tap, not the Echo, because a tap on a control or the App is required to wake Alexa. In other words, Alexa isn’t using her Wake Words in the LG variant. Amazon’s licencing agreement has produced another Alexa clone, but her duties are more focused in this device. Designed as a core component in the SmartThinQ system, this version of Alexa is built primarily to control LG’s own smart home efforts, including the elite LG SmartThingQ refrigerator series. Equipped with a requisite wireless speaker, this smart assistant (Or is it a Hub?) streams music and carries out requests, but it’s hamstrung by these proprietary connectivity settings.
If these big brands don’t include all of the features you’re looking for, your product investigations are probably going to lead you away from the familiar manufacturers. That’s not a problem, not when the Amazon virtual store is awash with millions of items of merchandise. They know their shoppers explore many vendors before they select their final choice, which is why that third-party licencing deal is such a big part of their sales strategy. Alexa will never use substandard parts, and she’ll never pause for long seconds to cogitate a simple query because of underpowered hardware. The licencing pact provides optimally configured hardware, device parts that satisfy Amazon’s own quality-assurance standards. You can corroborate this statement by taking a look at the excellent Linkplay smart speaker assistant lineup. The Omaker WoW Smart speaker lives here as a habitat that’s fit for Alexa. Powered by LinkPlay technology and given hands-free control by Amazon’s voice service, the wireless WoW speaker incorporates WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity as standard. This device is portable, armed with two four-watt speakers, and ready to be your new best friend. The Linkplay WiFi speaker ecosystem has been building multiroom audio systems for around four years now, so the addition of an Alexa-equipped product is just a natural part of the company’s evolution.
Summarising Third-Party Vendors and Their Devices
Lenovo, LG, and Linkplay won’t be the last hardware partners lined up by Amazon for a personality transplant. Think of this as one of those snowballing effects that clever tech writers talk about when they want to illustrate a point that’s just out of their grasp. It begins with mobile devices, with home networks and a new generation of gaming routers. From there, the technology ramps up to add a little intelligence to the network boxes. They become hubs. Cloud processing resources rise, server farms propagate, and natural voice-recognition technology spawns naturally voiced machine speaking. That’s the quintessential nature of this progressing smart platform. Software engineers naturally improve the format. They add the Skills and Actions, then there’s productivity features and audio streaming options to incorporate, yet the form factor still favours smart speakers. Finally, that smart speaker format is pushed to the limit by third-party licensing seals and hardware manufacturers, the company’s that either build better wireless speakers or condensed audio processing chips. This is the springboard we stand on, the place where Alexa and her companions throw off their hard speaker shells so that they can “Smartify” other devices.
Google Home Smart Speaker
Google Home is a little newer. Released in November 2016, the hardware may arguably be more mature than Alexa’s hosting trio, but this late entry does put Google behind the curve, at least in terms of software development. Your Skills library, if you own an Alexa-equipped product now exceeds 10,000 services, but Google’s Actions are gaining momentum. There’s one Google Home device, not three different types, as offered by Amazon’s smart speaker range. At 5.6-inches tall, the form factor employed on this occasion makes Google’s smart vessel resemble a small vase or one of those powered air fresheners you see in some homes. Although it’s true that there isn’t a mini Google Home, something that mimics the Amazon Dot form factor, the popular Chromecast range is small, full of streaming power, and equipped with added connectivity features. Of course, a Chromecast doesn’t have the built-in IQ of Alexa within its puck-shaped housing. There’s a lot of giving and taking going on here, so expect the tug-o-war to swing back and forth as firmware updates and new generations prop up your favorite electronics store shelves. In the meantime, let’s delve deeper into the individual smart speaker platforms.
The Life Story of The Google Home
If The Amazon Echos evolution lifts Alexa to the peak of the performance curve, then Google Home is rapidly catching up by speeding around a nearby corner on two wheels. Enough with the rhetoric, however, for your Google Assistant’s abode is ready for its moment in the limelight. That spotlight reveals an omnipresent digital assistance that’s backed up by the might of the largest corporate identity on the Internet. Its form factor is therefore cleverly designed to mirror the Google aesthetic. There’s very little to see here, just like when you open a clean Google Search webpage. The lower body is squat and pale, but its outlines look a great deal like a tabletop potpourri housing (It doesn’t smell like potpourri, obviously). The perforated smart speaker base is matte white, which suggests it will blend with the decor of most interiors. However, those curved bases can be swapped out. Should you feel the need to select one that fits your visual tastes, then there are optional painted steel, polycarbonate, and fabric bases to choose from online.
Within its inner being, of course, your Google Home is also a smart speaker, a device that wirelessly streams music, podcasts, audiobooks, and a great deal more besides. The tabletop body, the densely packed computer parts, and the interchangeable bases are located at the tip of the Google processing iceberg. On one hand, this tip represents an intelligent smart assistant who can respond instantly to your voice. Then, on the other end of this massive arctic mountain of processing resources, the natural language translations and text-to-speech platforms exist as a cloud service. That’s exactly how Cortana and Siri operate, as an ever-growing and evolving remote intelligence that resides on their servers. Naturally, Siri and Alexa are already seasoned conversationalists, but Google Assistant has access to incredible amounts of text-based and vocalised data, which suggests she’s on the fast track to becoming a naturally voice-activated persona that you’ll enjoy interacting with on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, the wake word used to wake your Google Home is stubbornly set at “OK Google” or “Hey Google.” The slumbering digital assistant snaps into action as responsively as any R2-D2 droid, plus she’s every bit as snappy as Alexa, but there’s a real feeling of disconnect when you’re repeatedly prefacing your requests with “Google.” That means of contacting the AI may keep the head honchos over in the Google marketing department happy, but it just doesn’t feel as natural or as intimate as “Alexa.” Furthermore, there are several wake words for an Echo, including “Computer” so why isn’t a similar feature, a corporate-agnostic feature, available on Google Home?
That’s a minor quibble, of course, especially when you consider the connection credentials available to Google’s virtual assistant. Principally, this stylish smart speaker is designed to effortlessly control your Nest-equipped Smart Home. Weave, the search engine giant’s own IoT (Internet of Things) communications protocol, provides a direct digital conduit between Nest devices and your Google Home. That’s an important development, one reinforced by the introduction of a developer kit called Android Things. Remember, every smart speaker stands a chance of dominating the Smart Home, but only a product that offers true direct connectivity is likely to become a centralised leader. Language translating hubs and bridges are welcome in the network, but a single ruling standard is what’s required. Weave directly links your Google Home to the popular Nest thermostat and all other Nest devices, so this facility gives it a lead over every other smart speaker manufacturer, except, of course, for the Amazon Echo. Weave’s direct connections reach beyond the Nest ecosystem, as they must, to include numerous third-party devices, including Yale’s Linus Lock.
Your new Google Home is a highly capable virtual assistant, but it doesn’t quite work right out of the box. Before that can happen, you need to setup the product so that it can assume its duties. This is done by plugging it in and stopping right there. You’ve stopped to download the App, whether it’s the iOS version or the Android one. Let the App finish its install routine, then use your Google Account for the login. This step is absolutely necessary, plus it also helps to personalise your Google Assistant, for your account holds sync data, including your Google Calendar. Anyway, the four coloured dots on top of the smart speaker are now illuminated. Google Home is partially awake and looking for the App. Continue onwards by accepting the terms of service, confirming your identity, and accepting/denying the periodic emails that Google may spam you with from this day onwards. Now, hit that setup icon, follow the step-by-step instructions, and complete the personalisation process. Have your Wi-Fi password nearby, unless you have a top-notch memory for numbers and letters, then finish up by linking your favourite music services.
That’s the end of the configuration rigamarole. No doubt you’ll want to fine-tune a few settings from time to time. For fun, try changing you “Nickname,” maybe by keying in Master Vader. You’ll find that option in the “Personal Info” section of the App. Otherwise, apart from a few geolocation settings, you’re done, finished, and ready to chat with your Google Assistant, the Genie that lives inside your Google Home bottle. Curiously, she seems more informed than Alexa. Follow-up questions are naturally answered, without hesitation. Test her, if you wish, by asking about a certain music album or movie, then follow up the initial question with a request for other music albums or movies that starred that same celebrity.
The number of home products that accept direct inputs from Google Home is growing. Fundamentally, all of the groundwork has already been laid by the Nest product family, so that growth factor is set to gain momentum. In the meantime, Belkin’s home automation hub works amicably with the Home. The one-two punch delivered by Wemo and Nest solidifies that framework, thus imbuing the device with a robust set of connectivity-oriented features. The Wink Hub reinforces the power of this rapid fire punching action, with its universal language translation feature definitely adding jet-assisted power to that growing momentum. Still, we’ve no wish to mix metaphors during this discourse, but it does seem like the best way to emphasise the Google Home’s possible road to intelligent home management domination. If you want a good metric for tracking the closure of that gap, compare the Amazon Echos Skills to Google Home’s own skill set, a feature that’s been dubbed Actions by Google developers. Do remember, though, that the Echo has an almost two-year head start.
This to-and-fro competition is dazzling, even perplexing, and definitely hard to follow at times. Let’s throw another bulleted list of products on our smart speaker roadmap so that we can defuse the sensation somewhat. At the time of writing, Google Home works a plethora of smart devices, here are is a sample:
- Phillips’ Hue smart light bulbs
- Vizio’s Smartcast TVs
- The Chromecast Suite of Solutions
- Samsung SmartThings
- The Nest ecosystem
Primarily, there are direct connections for this stylish product and not-quite-so-direct connections. The Hue range, well, that requires the use of a Hub, a device that’s also known as a Bridge. The Nest family connects directly, as does the Chromecast range, largely because it’s also part of Google’s hardware dynasty. As said more than once, many, many electronic’s manufacturers want in on a piece of the Smart Home action, so you really need to do some consumer research before picking a third-party device that will talk to your virtual assistant. IoT hardware lineups are minefields, but they can be navigated. IFTTT is a good default scripting platform, an IF THEN THEN THAT service for hooking your smart devices together. Then there are native language connections (Nest), and hub translating blocks of wireless plastic, something like the Hue Bridge. In the end, the problem may be the presence of too many communications standards, not too few.
A Quick Google Home to Nest Thermostat Tutorial
If the four coloured lights on your Google Home are pulsing and responding to your requests, her virtual ears are attentively listening. She’s understanding context and intent, all thanks to Google’s monstrously huge natural language database. Now, let’s unbox your new Nest thermostat. Install it according to the directions. There’s a wiring plate for this purpose. Follow the wire plate and base fitting guide before going any further. Once that’s done, switch out your screwdriver for the sleekly designed thermostat. It should slot into the wall base with a click. There’s a battery onboard, so there might already be a display on the illuminated dial. If not, restore power to your HVAC control system. You’re now invited to complete the setup process, including a few basic temperature preferences. These settings form a baseline, but the device will refine the range over time as it learns your heating and cooling habits. Most of the other settings are personalisation-based, except, of course, for the option to setup the Wi-Fi network connection. By the way, all of these adjustments are done by turning the Nest thermostat dial or tapping the high-resolution display panel that occupies the inner circle on the thermostat.
Now that the Nest thermostat is autonomously learning your comfort level, you’ll want to add some voice control to the mix. Call up your Google Home App on your mobile device. Slide your favourite finger up to the three horizontal bars icon on the top left. This is the Menu button you’re selecting. From here, drop down to the Home Control tab and pick out the Devices button. In here, tap the ‘+’ button to see what devices are available. If you don’t see anything, go back to square one and check your App to make sure your device and your App are both signed into the same Google Account. The same goes for your home network; the App and all smart devices must be hooked into the same Wi-Fi network for this configuration procedure to work. Follow the rest of the step-by-step instructions to conclude the setup. Now that you’re finished, there are new options to call up. You can set up rooms for your thermostats, or you can give them nicknames. In doing this extra work, your different room controllers will respond to localised commands. An “OK Google, turn down the temperature in The Family Room,” for example, uses this nickname feature to great effect.
This Home Control and ‘+’ device routine is your gateway to a smart connected home, as designed around your Google Home and your voice-activated Google Assistant. Use her smart functions in good faith and feel the compulsion to add more smart devices. Alternatively, keep a tight rein on that compulsion by sticking to a Smart Home configuration that highlights comfort, not your penchant for electronic hoarding.
Integrations with Third-Party Cloud Services
Single sentence requests and phrases mesh with grammatically correct conjunctions to imbue smart home assistants with enhanced listening skills. Then there are Skills and Actions, little Applets that connect your cloud-based AI to a vendor or service. They instantly equip a personal assistant with a particular set of abilities. There’s a Lyft Skill, for instance, a piece of self-contained code that allows Alexa to call you a car from this ridesharing service. The point being made here is that anyone can download a tiny program that instantly shifts the IQ of your AI up several notches. They’re vendor locked Skills, which means they’re keyed to that one company or service. Keep these automated Apps in mind the next time you wonder whether you should purchase an Amazon Echo for your favourite family technophobe, old lovable Aunt Gertrude. They really take the grunt work out of these services. As a result of these chunks of downloadable code, automated simplicity is happily maintained, and your Aunt says thank you.
Beyond self-contained Skills and Action, there are other options. Prepare yourself, because you’re about to experience the benefits of IFTTT and Stringify. What do these two obviously technical terms mean? Well, IFTTT is an abbreviation. It’s a clunky bunch of letters that expand to reveal the IF THIS, THEN WHAT applet format. It’s basically a means of stringing several actions by using a little script. Unlike Skills, these are adaptable scripts, not fixed blocks of code. Stringify offers a similar service, although it’s considered a more mature solution, one that encourages intuitive device stringing. Imagine a “One App to control them all!” setup in your smart home. Yes, that’s a Lord of The Rings reference, what of it? Anyway, both Applet forms are cloud savvy. That is, their recipes and “curated flows” are designed to seamlessly work with your chosen cloud service. An IF “BLANK” happens THEN do THAT statement creates many powerful recipes. Its context can be manipulated in numerous ways to achieve countless goals. Likewise, Stringify “flows” do the same thing, but they can access more variables and additional operators. And, since these Apps can be stored in the public domain, there are entire libraries of triggers and actions available for download. Furthermore, there are connected living Applets here, so both the IFTTT and Stringify site have the power to arm your smart home with chained automation services. Long sequences are possible when these Apps are in full flow, including a stringed command that operates multiple smart devices. Smart devices then send their signals to propagate through a number of cloud-based services. All that’s required is an initial trigger to start the actionable sequence, but then what else is your voice if it isn’t a trigger?
Meanwhile, back at the cloud, the statement strings logically propagate. They start a specific Spotify channel when you tell it you’re in the mood for the Blues. A THEN section of the sequence is next, so the recipe turns the Philips Hue lighting down a notch. Maybe the lights change colour, or they’re just dimmed. The choice is yours. It’s an expanded choice, too, so call on a range of music services to accommodates your mood. Perhaps the time of the day or a comfortable temperature level is called for, no?. For funs sake, you could even create your own IFTTT recipe, and then set the house to play a Pandora Dinner Party playlist when the clock strikes 7 pm but only if your Nest thermostat had set the dining room to a cosy 21°C. That’s some true Smart Home scripting, right there.
These are two rival Apps. Create an account and download a recipe (IFTTT) or a few flows (Stringify) if you want to take these sequence generating services for a spin. Arguably, the abbreviated variant is more established. It certainly offers more channels. Stringify, in the meantime, is a newer version of this same concept, so it’s sure to close that gap.
Final Thoughts from Gerard
It’s hard to pick the wrong virtual assistant. Both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home are equally adept. They’re stylish, attentive, and loaded with features. In point of fact, the natural language processing feature on both smart products is so adept that only the cloud can contain their two contexts translating brains. Additional languages are rolling out as these remotely located brains learn and evolve. Then there are dimensions and form factors to consider, matters that are best left to your personal tastes. The Echo is taller, yet the Home is gifted with a more curvy profile. Speaker quality on both units isn’t exactly stellar, even though they both include a reflex port, a sonically endowed component that’s designed to improve bass response. Then there’s the number of streaming channels that funnel their way through both tidy pieces of hardware. YouTube and Google Music both belong in the Google camp, but Amazon’s massive multimedia resources are practically limitless. There’s the Amazon Prime catalog to pore over, obviously. Then we come back to YouTube. Is there any other platform with more online video or music? Probably not, so Google Home does have the edge in terms of popular and obscure content. Finally, there’s the connectivity issue. The Skills embedded in the Amazon smart product user experience are hard to beat. There are literally thousands of these little services. The download to enable you to order fast food from a local restaurant. There’s a Logitech Harmony Skill, a Fitbit skill, and too many others to list in the time we have left. You can still access this feature on a Google Home, of course, but those actions won’t catch up to Alexa’s Skills for some time yet.