Above: One of the smart speakers offered by Amazon, the Echo smart speaker with Alexa. Photo by Fabian Hurnaus from Pexels.

“Alexa, what’s the weather?” “Hey Google, play ‘Hamilton’ all over house.” “Alexa, raise the temperature 2 degrees.” “Hey Google, show ‘The Crown’ on TV.” “Alexa, turn up the lights in the den and unlock the front door.”

Who would have thought when Amazon introduced the first Echo in 2014 that 20 percent of all American Wi-Fi equipped homes would have either the Amazon Echo or Google Home devices installed by 2018? These devices are much more than music players, and a new category of devices has been created with Amazon in the lead, Google catching up and Apple way in the rear.

The devices are connected to your Wi-Fi network and are voice activated. While several of the new Amazon Echo models have screens, they do not have keyboards. They can also be managed with Apple IOS and Android apps. They listen quietly in the background, waiting for you to call out their name—”Alexa” in the case of Amazon, and “Hey Google” in the case of Google. There are some privacy concerns with these devices, but that hasn’t stopped millions of consumers buying them.

Google Home
Google Home Mini smart speaker. Photo by Bence Boros on Unsplash.

The Amazon and Google devices allow you to play music, make phone calls and connect to other devices. Amazon has integrated its technology into its TV offerings and Google integrates nicely into its Chromecast technology, which gives you access to many streaming services, including Netflix, YouTube and Hulu.

The Amazon Echo family has a feature recently implemented which may be of great interest to families with older adults living independently. It’s possible to configure multiple Echo devices as an intercom within a home and, more importantly, to connect other users outside the home who have a compatible Echo device. Once the connection is made, you simply say “Alexa, drop in on Mom.” Mom’s Alexa turns on and you can chat across town or across the world.

It works very well. In my home, it has even replaced shouting: “Dinners ready!” We have three Echo models in our home and two Google Homes as well. There is no compatibility between the different brands, by the way.

Amazon, having just withdrawn its entry of a smartphone due to poor sales, was roundly criticized for introducing a device in 2014 that wasn’t really needed or wanted. The conventional wisdom was that Apple always is the leader with device innovation, starting with the iPod and going on to the iPhone, the iPad and the Apple watch.

Not anymore! Amazon has the lead and is hard pressed to meet customer demands with about 32 million units projected for sale in 2018. Amazon Echo had the market to itself until the fall of 2017, when Google introduced Google Home. Both companies invested heavily in artificial intelligence technologies and are promoting these devices vigorously.

Amazon provides links to dozens of “skills” that enable the user to perform countless tasks. Google has been promoting its ability to connect with any device that uses Chromecast.

At this point, Amazon is in the lead with an entire family of models, but Google is coming on strong. Google plans to integrate its Home model with Google mesh Wi-Fi, which will provide seamless coverage throughout the home and may give them a competitive advantage.

Apple finally introduced its HomePod competitor in the last few months, and the reviews have been underwhelming. While it includes better speakers, it doesn’t have the support of outside vendors and is much more expensive than the competition.

The Smart Speaker & Home Assistant market is changing rapidly with new models being introduced all the time. Here’s a summary, as of April 2018.

Google Home Speakers

Google Home—the original model, it retails for $129. There’s a base which comes in six colors and must be purchased separately.

Google Home Mini—comes in either chocolate or coral and lists for $49.

Google Home MAX—includes better speaker components, comes in chalk and charcoal and lists for $399. It’s meant to provide similar speaker quality as the Apple HomePod.

Amazon Echo Speakers

Original Echo—list price of $99 is heavily discounted, currently available at $84.99. It comes in six fabrics and finishes and is available directly from Amazon, as well as retail outlets.

Echo Plus—listed at $149.99. It was just introduced and is designed to be the hub for the smart home.

Echo Dot—a smaller version of the original Echo with fewer speaker components. It lists for $49.99 but is currently available at $39.99.

Echo Show—has a small video screen that can display both text and graphics. It retails for $229.99. Video calls can be made using the screen.

Echo Spot—recently introduced, it looks like an alarm clock. It retails for $129.99, and because it has a small display, it can also be used for video calls.

Apple Speakers

Apple HomePod—a powerful speaker system that sounds amazing. It comes in space grey or white and sells for $349, directly from Apple.

For more info and further help, contact the Digital Device Doctor.

Gene Rubel is a tech consultant and writer based in Sandy Springs.