Smart speakers are the best first step if you want to try out smart home technology. Many are affordable, they are fun to play with and even if you decide you don't want to talk to a disembodied voice, they still work as music speakers.
There are three smart speaker tribes you need to choose between, though: Amazon, Google and Apple.
Google has the most natural-feeling virtual assistant and you have three sizes of speaker to choose from. Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo range is the most popular, helped by being forever splashed across the internet's biggest retailer.
Apple makes just one smart speaker, the HomePod. It’s not cheap and is not as smart as the others. However, it sounds divine and is the one to pick if you’re worried about privacy or your personal data being thrown around like casino chips.
Let’s start with the basics.
Smart speakers are a home for voice assistants. Just like Siri on your iPhone or Google Assistant on your Android, you can almost treat these assistants like a person. Ask it to play a specific song, about a bit of pop culture triva or to set an alarm, and it will.
Although it's often embarrassing to start talking to your phone in public, the same social pressures don't exist in the home where you can be as weird as you like with your new robot pal.
So which one should you buy? Here's the low down on the various digital assistant speakers on offer. Let's find out which is right for you.
How big a speaker do you want? Google and Amazon offer plenty of choices. Small, affordable, puck-shaped speakers like the Home Mini and Echo Dot let you try out digital assistants without spending too much. But you wouldn’t use them as a hifi.
Amazon Echo Dot
$49.99 / £39.99
It’s small, it’s affordable and kinda cute. The squared-off shape and outlet in the top mean this isn’t a fashion icon, but this is a great place to start if you’re on a budget. An LED ring around the top looks neat in action too.
Amazon Echo (2nd gen)
$99.99 / £89.99
As ever, Amazon has nailed the mass-market angle with the Echo. It’s significantly cheaper than the Home or HomePod. Sound quality doesn’t match the best, but it does make podcasts and music radically more enjoyable than the Dot.
Fire TV Cube
$119 (UK TBC)
The Fire TV Cube is Amazon's latest branching-out of smart speaker tech. This is a smart speaker, but also a set-top box. And as it has an IR blaster it'll turn your TV on and off too. If you care about movies more than music, this could be the right digital assistant speaker for you.
Amazon Echo Plus
$149.99 / £139.99
Taller than the standard Echo, this more expensive model also sounds better. It also has a Zigbee interface built-in, letting it work better with some smart home gear including Philips Hue lights.
Amazon Echo Spot
$129.99 / £99.99
This is what we imagined a smart home interface might look like years ago. It’s a digital porthole with a 2.5in screen. The Spot is a good fit for a bedside table.
Amazon Echo Show
$229 / £199.99
There’s a much bigger screen-equipped assistant too, the Show. It’s not cute like the Spot, but has a much larger 7-inch screen. You can video chat with people using the front camera. It suits the kitchen, or perhaps a house's entry hallway.
Google Home Mini
$49 / £39
Probably the best-looking small smart speaker, the Home Mini is the budget option from Google’s range. It comes in Chalk (grey), charcoal and Coral (a reddish pink), and sounds better than the Eco Dot.
$129 / £129
The original Google smart speaker. Home has an unusual but stylish look and a touch surface on top to let you control volume and music playback.
Google Home Max
The big daddy of smart speakers, the Home Max looks like a wireless hifi rather than the kind of speaker that blends into the background. That said, the look is still neutral. It’s only the size you need to consider.
$349 / £319
A 360-degree grille suggests how the HomePod works. There are tweeters firing out from all sides, letting you put the speaker in the middle of a room. An LED array on top displays Siri animations, which looks neat.
This is a roughly accurate look at the relative stature of all these smart speakers.
The part that might surprise here is the Google Home’s size. It’s relatively small. Only two of these products really demand some planning of your rooms, the Echo Show and Google Home Max.
As the others have an “upright” design, their footprints aren't all that large. The Echo Dot is the smallest of the lot, although the Home Mini is only slightly bigger.
Which sounds the best? There’s predictably a rise in quality as the size increases.
However, there are some interesting points to note in each class. Let’s put them in bullet point form to keep this clear.
- The Google Home Mini sounds a lot better than the Echo Dot, which is thin and reedy. Music sounds bad through a Dot, passable through a Home Mini.
- Amazon’s Echo Spot also sounds better than the Dot, despite being fairly small.
- Google’s Home is bass-heavy. It has worse clarity than the Echo (2nd Gen) and Echo Plus. So if you’re limited to around $100/£100, the Amazon Echo may be the best choice.
- The Echo Plus sound is more dynamic than the standard Echo, as you’d expect.
- Surprisingly, the Echo Show sounds better than the Echo Plus and Echo.
- Amazon’s Echo Plus does not stack up well next to the Home Max or HomePod. They are several leagues ahead, justifying their higher prices.
- The Home Max is the loudest speaker, with much greater volume on tap than the HomePod.
- Apple’s HomePod provides 360-degree sound. The Home Max has conventional front-loaded drivers so you need to be more careful about placement.
- The Home Max has better bass depth.
- The Apple HomePod has great clarity, and the sound quality of the Max and HomePod are generally comparable.
Which speaker is more intelligent?
When it first launched, Alexa's functionality was fairly basic, limited to mundane conversations like asking about the weather or the time. As Amazon continued to develop the software, however, Alexa gained the ability to talk about calendars, sports and what we should have for dinner.
We're not quite living in a Star Trek-esque future, where the device will understand your every command, but Alexa is advanced enough to understand multiple phrasings of the same question, for example.
Amazon has a strong track record for the past two years, sure, but it's going up against Google, a company that's had a strong track record in information parsing for the last two decades
Google's impressive search abilities means the speaker has a lot of information at its disposal. Google Home can, for example, correctly guess a song that's described in the vaguest of terms.
Interacting with Google Assistant has the most natural feel. It understands your commands better than Alexa. You don’t have to be so careful about how you word your sentences.
HomePod’s Siri is the least intelligent of the three. While the voice recognition works, the commands it’ll react to successfully are quite limited.
Think of HomePod as a great-sounding wireless speaker that also has some smarts and you'll be happier.
Music and Video playback
Each of these speakers is linked to its maker’s music service. The HomePod has Apple Music. Echo devices have Amazon Music. Google Home speakers have Google Play Music.
However, only Apple is truly restrictive. Echo and Home speakers let you ask for tracks from Spotify, for example, but HomePod’s Siri only takes requests from Apple Music. You can use Spotify with a HomePod but you’ll have to do this the “old school” way, selecting the HomePod as the source from in the Spotify app rather using voice commands.
You’re then using AirPlay, not the voice control you paid $350 for. Subscribing to Apple Music is almost a must for HomePod owners, and it costs $9.99/£9.99 a month.
While there's some parity between which software the other smart speakers can access, video content differs much more.
Only Amazon has devices equipped with screens. Google has blocked YouTube, though, so you’re largely restricted to Amazon Video, the Netflix-a-like service.
Both Google and Amazon's devices allow you to play content on an external TV. Google achieves this through integration with its Chromecast lineup, while Amazon has added this functionality through its Fire TV.
If you have a Chromecast Audio then you can simply ask Google Home to play music through the speakers it's connected to. Meanwhile the Echo is limited to playing music on its own speaker, and the Echo Dot can only be connected to a single speaker at a time through either Bluetooth or a wired 3.5mm connection.
In theory this should give the Google Home the edge, but in practice its Google Cast functionality could be better. Once you’ve got it casting to a speaker it won’t remember that this is the case and it will default to playing music out of its own speaker unless you specifically tell it to continue to cast the next song.
Google Home does however have the advantage of integrating with Chromecast for video. You can easily play shows from Netflix, YouTube and other supported apps using just your voice, however again in practice this could be better since you’re unable to specify particular episodes and it will default to picking up where you left off. Not bad when you’re marathoning a series, but less than ideal if you’re just dipping in.
Google Home integrates with a number of Google's other services, from planning routes using Google Maps to translating using Google Translate. It will also draw from your Google Calendar, which is a handy feature.
However again, while there’s potential here, Google Home doesn’t make nearly enough use of this functionality. You can get basic directions by car on Google maps, but it can’t handle public transport and definitely doesn't do email.
Meanwhile, Amazon has an ever-growing list of compatible "Skills" apps including Domino's Pizza, Just Eat in the UK and Uber, allowing you to either have your pizza delivered or request a ride over to the store to pick it up yourself. Support is good, but these apps feel like they add fun side-functionality rather than core productivity services.
HomePod doesn’t have any third-party skills, so it’s limited to interactions based on your Apple calendar, local traffic and other piecemeal bits.
Of course, music and services are just two parts of the smart speaker equation. If you're buying a Home, Echo or HomePod, you're also looking for a smart assistant to help control the burgeoning field of smart appliances making their way into homes.
In this area, Amazon's Echo Plus has a distinct advantage. It has a Zigbee hub built in, which means that for many smart home products you no longer have to have a separate piece of hardware plugged into your router.
However, this functionality comes with the caveat that functionality will be limited when using the built-in hub. Philips Hue lightbulbs, for example, can be turned on and off, but their more advanced color-changing abilities will still require a dedicated Hue hub.
That said, it's not like Google, owner of Nest, is hurting in the home automation department. Google Nest, for obvious reasons, is also integrated into Home's functionality. As for Apple, it started its HomeKit program ages ago which means many devices are ready to go.
However, there are thousands of third-party devices that will work with all three smart speakers. Amazon Alexa supports the highest number of smart home devices, but the best idea is to check whether the smart home gear you own, or are considering, supports these systems.
A newer feature for both the Amazon Echo and Google Home is the ability to shop from the comfort of your couch via voice commands.
Let's start first with the more established e-tailer. Amazon offers daily and weekly specials via the "Alexa, what are today's deals?" command. When used, the speaker will rattle off a list of products available to purchase and the price of each. At any point, you can stop the speaker and say, "Alexa, purchase <insert product name>" and Alexa will confirm your order. If you want to see all the deals in one spot, however, you can also check out the Alexa Deals page on Amazon's website.
Because Google doesn't own a massive online retail store like Amazon does, Google Home has partnered up in the US with Walmart and other retailers to offer a voice shopping catalogue of its own. It's all part of Google's Express platform, that allows you to quickly order products from a number of other retailers like Kohl's, Target, CostCo, Whole Foods and Ulta. Walmart will be the biggest retailer to join Google Express's ranks.
HomePod doesn’t let you buy items with a voice command. Some may find this reassuring rather than an issue. However, you can ask Siri to add items to a shopping list. You can then check it on your phone when at the supermarket.
Both Google Home and Amazon Echo support multiple users, which is important if you don't want to be subjected to your other half's calendar when you ask your speaker what you're up to today. However, the way the two speakers handle multiple accounts is slightly different.
With the Amazon Echo you'll have to manually switch between user accounts by saying "Alexa, switch accounts", or "Alexa, switch to Jon's profile."
Google Home is slightly more clever, and will recognise different users by the sound of their voice alone. You'll need to train the speaker to recognise each person's voice by saying "OK Google" and "Hey Google" a few times, but after that point you shouldn't have to worry about accidentally getting traffic information for someone else in your household.
HomePod doesn’t support multiple users yet. It’s linked to one iCloud account, so becomes that person’s speaker. And Siri will react to whoever talks to it. Again, HomePod is the most restrictive choice.
Part of Siri’s limited smarts is down to its approach to privacy. Google and Amazon use data collection to learn about you. Apple uses a purer form of artificial intelligence, making it harder to create the illusion Siri knows what you want every time you open your mouth.
Google and Amazon also log the data from any requests made and link them to your online accounts. This data can then be used to tailor the ads you see on websites, which also happens when you search for something on Google.com or amazon.com.
HomePod doesn’t do this. Your Siri data is encrypted and randomised, and isn’t actually even linked to your Apple account. If privacy is a worry, the HomePod is a great choice.
You can use an Echo or Google Home speaker with any recent phone. iOS or Android? It doesn’t matter, either will work fine.
This isn’t the case with a HomePod. You have to have an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to get it working. Apple’s official line is you’ll need an “iPhone 5s or later, iPad Pro, iPad (5th generation), iPad Air or later, iPad mini 2 or later, or iPod touch (6th generation) running iOS 11.2.5 or later.”
If you want to try out a smart speaker without spending much, the Echo Dot and Google Home Mini are your two choices. And Google’s is the better-sounding of the two.
Those who want a smart speaker to act as their main hifi should consider either the Apple HomePod or Google Home Max. They sound far better than the other smart speakers.
How about in-between? The Amazon Echo (2nd Gen) offers a great compromise between price and sound quality, and Amazon Alexa offers lots of smart home features to play around with thanks to its Skills system.
Amazon’s smart speakers with screens are great for, say, the kitchen. However, they are also hugely held back by the politics involved, as you can’t use YouTube or Netflix on them. Make sure you adjust your expectations before buying.
- Do you prefer your music analog? Check out our list of the best turntables.