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A beginner’s guide to home assistants

Google Home, Amazon Alexa – what’s the difference and what do you need to get started integrating a smart speaker into your smart home?

So you want to get one of those smart speakers that everyone is talking about but don’t know where to start? That’s okay, as there are lots of things to consider when getting into the world of intelligent personal assistants. We’re here to help you navigate which one to choose and how to use it to control your home.

Smart speakers 101

Following in the footsteps of keyboards, mice and touchscreens, smart speakers have created a new easy-to-use interface for technology with little-to-no learning curve to get started. All you need is an internet connection and your voice.

And if you’re skeptical about security – like these devices listening in – no tinfoil hats are required. Smart speakers simply listen on-device for its hot phrase or “wake word” to activate, then only after that is any audio sent to the cloud. There’s no Big Brother here.

The assistants

Currently in Canada there are two heavyweights: Google Home (powered by Google Assistant) and Amazon Echo (powered by Amazon’s Alexa). Both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Google Home was the first to come to Canada in June 2017, and offers support for English and Canadian French. Its big advantages lie in the power of Google algorithms for natural voice learning (you can speak plainly to it) and the integration of its many Google services, and a plethora of third-party services as well. Support for integration with more third-party devices like robots and appliances is coming fast and furious now and is only getting better.

Amazon’s Echo, on the other hand, arrived to Canada slightly later, in December of last year, and currently only accepts “Canadian English” (what exactly that means, we’re not sure). And while Amazon’s focus has previously been on ecommerce features for easy product ordering online, Amazon has a longer history in the U.S. of allowing other companies to use the digital assistant in their own products such as fridges, lamps, robots and more. As a result, there are already millions of “skills” for it to connect with other services and products.

The hardware

Right now you essentially have two options for each product line in Canada: a larger flagship speaker (Google Home, Amazon Echo) or a smaller, cheaper option (Google Home Mini, Amazon Echo Dot). While the smaller speakers are tempting based on price, music playback isn’t the primary function of these, so audio quality can be hard to get past. The Echo Dot has an audio-out port but the Home Mini doesn’t.

Home control

Finally, once you decide on your smart speaker/home assistant, there are plenty of home control devices to get you feeling connected right away.

Philips Hue smart lights are excellent to use for brightening the house, changing colours to fit the mood and setting scenes by voice commands. They’re easy to set up and a ton of fun.

Smart thermostats such as the Ecobee3 or Nest can change the temperature by voice while intelligently learning likes, dislikes and patterns for managing the perfect setting. They can also help save money on the energy bill.

There are also smart plugs from brands such as iHome and WeMo that can be used with any power outlet to control non-smart products with your voice, such as your coffee pot in the morning, lamps, fans and more.

And lastly, if you’re a Rogers Smart Home Monitoring customer, Google Home is now supported, meaning you can control many of its functions with your voice as well, such as lights, temperature, smart switches and more, just by saying “OK, Google.”

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