Users of Microsoft's voice-enabled services such as Cortana will now be able to decide whether or not the audio recordings of their interactions can be used by the company to improve its speech recognition algorithms. By default, customers' voice clips will not be contributed for review, said Microsoft in a new blog post; instead, users will be required to actively opt in to allow the company to store and access their audio recordings. Customers who have chosen to remain opted out will still be able to use all of Microsoft's voice-enabled products and services, confirmed the company. Their audio recordings won't be stored, but Microsoft will still have access to some information associated with voice activity, such as the transcriptions automatically generated during user interactions with speech recognition AI. If and once they have opted in, however, users' voice data might be listened to by Microsoft employees and contractors as part of a process to refine the AI systems used to power speech recognition technology.
I have to admit it: I backed the wrong horse when it came to driving home automation from a digital assistant and went with Microsoft's Cortana and its Harmon Kardon Invoke smart speakers. I had good enough reason: I trusted Microsoft's privacy commitments a lot more than either Amazon's or Google's, and Apple's Home relied on the too-expensive HomePod smart speakers. Sure, I had a couple of Amazon Echoes and a Google Nest Mini to try out those ecosystems, but their over-reliance on in-cloud voice recognition was that bit too much on the creepy side. Still, I could happily control my Hue lights from Cortana, though support for my Netatmo thermostats and Ikea Tradfri lights had to be through maker tools like IFTTT and workflow automation with webhook APIs like Power Automate or Zapier. But then Microsoft refocused Cortana on its commercial customers and announced that its Invoke Cortana integrations were due to be turned off early in 2021.
Google has introduced Guest Mode to Google Assistant to give users the chance to ensure their interactions with their Google smart speakers or displays, including Nest Audio and Nest Hub Max, are not saved to their account when this new mode is switched on. When Guest Mode is switched on, users will be able to continue to ask questions, control smart home devices, set timers, and play music, but will not be able to access personal results, such as calendar entries or contacts, until Guest Mode is switched off. Google added the device will also automatically delete audio recordings and Google Assistant activity from the device owner's account when in Guest Mode. However, if users are interacting with other apps and services, such as Google Maps, YouTube, or other media and smart home services while in Guest Mode, those apps may still save that activity, Google said. To switch on Guest Mode, it is a matter of users saying, "Hey Google, turn on Guest Mode", before the device plays a special chime and a guest icon is displayed.
Amazon's Echo Studio high-fidelity smart speaker is on sale for only $169.99 as of Jan. 12 -- that's a 15% savings. Up until a few years ago, audio quality always took a backseat to the "smart" part of smart speakers. You didn't buy such a device because you wanted to feel like you were lounging amongst the quaint woodsiness of Long Pond Studio while listening to folklore; you bought it because you wanted a friendly AI to check the weather and order more toilet paper for you. For Amazon's popular Echo lineup, that all changed with 2019's introduction of the Echo Studio, an Alexa-enabled smart speaker geared toward audiophiles. Not only does it support Dolby Atmos for clear, immersive audio, but much like other high-end speakers made by brands like Sonos and Apple, it comes with a "3D sound" feature that automatically adjusts its output based on the acoustics of a room.
We can't control the outside world, but we can at least improve the air quality in our immediate space with air purifiers. This top-of-the-line smart air purifier claims to be able to eliminate 99.97 percent of unpleasant odors and harmful particles, including pollen, allergens, bacteria, pet dander, dust mites, gases, cigarette smoke, and so much more. The air purifier is equipped with a high-quality HEPA filter and a UVC light. It will even alert you to the quality of the air -- good, moderate, or poor -- using LED light sensors, so you know which areas to focus on. To make things even easier, the smart purifier is compatible with smart home assistants like Google Home and Amazon Alexa, so you'll be able to control the system with the sound of your voice. Each purchase comes with a one-year manufacturer's warranty.
The Google Home Mini, like the Amazon Echo Dot, really started the smart speaker revolution -- and while the Google Home Mini launched in 2016, it's still humming along with more smarts than ever before. Right now at StackSocial the Google Home Mini is just $19.99 -- nearly 60% off its original $49.95 price tag. The big appeal of the Home Mini is adding the Google Assistant to your room. You can ask for your favorite music, a trivia game show to entertain the children and even questions. The assistant knows how far Earth is from the sun and the weather in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, alike.
TP-Link has today announced an updated version of its Deco mesh networking gear that now has voice control, through Amazon Alexa. The Deco Voice X20 packs in a smart speaker in every satellite point that enables users to control the smart parts of their home without buying more Echo Dots. The two pack you can buy at retail is said to cover 4,000 square feet in WiFi 6, with truly "seamless roaming." The hardware is pretty interesting to look at, too, with a white cylinder floating on a hot-rod red base. Mesh networks rely upon gadgets being strewn around your home in prominent places, not hidden behind cupboards. In order to encourage this, device makers have both made their gear look better, but also do more to ensure that they find a place in your heart.
About a year ago, I decided I was tired of all the different smart home devices and hubs in my house. Managing all the apps and platforms had become somewhat of a nightmare, especially if I wanted to give control of a device to my wife. I planned to take a few weeks and then pick a platform and stick with it. Then 2020 happened, and figuring out how to automate my lights or streamline viewing camera feeds just wasn't a priority. Toward the end of the year, however, I decided it was time to begin my smart home conversion.
Amazon is making it easier to remember an event you don't want to miss. The Verge reports that Amazon has quietly introduced a hinted-at "tell me when" Alexa command that not only answers your question about an event, but sets a reminder when that event happens. If you ask Alexa to "tell me when the Super Bowl is," your Echo or a similar device will both answer the question (February 7th, 2021, for the record) and alert you that day. You can also use "tell me when" for things like TV show air dates, holidays, or emails from contacts. The feature is only available for Alexa users in the US at present.
It's been a busy few weeks here at Engadget. In addition to celebrating the holidays, ringing in the New Year and prepping for next week's virtual CES, we've kept reviewing all the new gadgets and components that we can get our hands on. We start off with the long-awaited Apple AirPods Max headphones and, more recently, the Amazon Echo Frames which are now finally available. We also checked out Sony's portable A7C camera, HP's Reverb G2 mixed reality headset, NVIDIA's RTX 3060 Ti and the flexible Hologram Electronics Microcosm effects pedal. Long-rumored and quietly revealed last month, the AirPods Max are high-end, over-ear headphones constructed from aluminum and metal and available in five colors.