When Amazon first introduced Alexa and the Echo speaker six years ago, the idea of talking to a digital assistant wasn't totally novel. Both the iPhone and Android phones had semi-intelligent voice controls -- but with the Echo, Amazon took its first step toward making something like Alexa a constant presence in your home. Since then, Apple and Google have followed suit, and now there's a huge variety of smart speakers available at various price points. As the market exploded, the downsides of having a device that's always listening for a wake word have become increasingly apparent. They can get activated unintentionally, sending private recordings back to monolithic companies to analyze. And even at the best of times, giving more personal information to Amazon, Apple and Google can be a questionable decision. That said, all these companies have made it easier to manage how your data is used -- you can opt out of humans reviewing some of your voice queries, and it's also less complicated to manage and erase your history with various digital assistants, too. The good news is that there's never been a better time to get a smart speaker, particularly if you're a music fan.
Apple's new, cheaper HomePod is a tough smart speaker to nail down. On the one hand, the HomePod Mini boasts impressive audio quality for its size. The HomePod Mini also has a Thread radio that lets it act as a smart home hub, but for now, there are only a few Thread-enabled smart devices available to control. And while Apple's new Intercom feature makes for an easy way to broadcast messages to household members, it doesn't allow for two-way calling. Now, if you're a dedicated Apple user and you've been waiting for a more affordable Siri-powered smart speaker than the $300 HomePod, the $99 HomePod Mini is your best--and only--bet.
Apple's HomePod mini is finally here – the iPhone maker's attempt to break the Amazon Echo-Google Home duopoly and put itself back into the voice assistant race. The HomePod mini costs £99 and sits below the full-sized HomePod costing £279. The speaker looks like a smaller, more spherical version of the big HomePod from almost three years ago. The outside is covered in a recycled plastic fabric mesh and there is a touch-sensitive disc at the top with a coloured LED display that lights up and pulsates as you interact with its voice assistant, Siri. It is an attractive object that is smaller and less prominent than its primary competition, the equally new Amazon Echo and Google Nest Audio.
Google Assistant can do a lot of things on our phones, but it's not so great at interacting with our Android apps. Sure you can ask Spotify to play a song or send a text with Telegram, but for the most part, apps and Assistant are mutually exclusive. As part of its Google Assistant Developer Day Thursday, Google has announced that a handful of "your favorite Android apps" have begun working with Assistant voice commands, including Discord, Etsy, MyFitnessPal, Mint, Nike Adapt, Postmates, Snapchat, Spotify, Twitter, and Walmart. As long as the corresponding app is set up on your phone, all you need to do is summon Assistant and ask to do something within an app, like ordering pizza on Postmates or checking an order status on Walmart. Google is calling the new feature App Actions, and they're similar to Alexa Actions.
Apple has AirPlay so Google has Cast, so it was probably only a matter of time before Amazon made its own media-streaming technology. Amazon just debuted Alexa Cast: a new way for customers to enjoy their favorite tunes on Alexa devices. However, compatibility is very limited as it only works with Amazon Music. SEE ALSO: Lenovo's Smart Display takes smart speakers to the next level with touchscreen This ability has been missing for quite some time. The main way to stream music directly from another device to an Echo is to use Bluetooth, and that will still work.
Apple planted its HomePod smart speaker deep inside a walled garden: You must have an Apple-branded mobile device just to set it up, and you can pretty much use it only with Apple's own services if you want voice control for music. The company then adds insult to injury by leaving its older iPhones, iPads, and iPods outside that garden wall.
The company's ethos -- as explained by CEO Tim Cook time and again -- is that Apple cares more about being the best than being first. The $349 HomePod is proof that's not always true. Apple put considerable time and effort into making its first smart speaker sound better than its rivals, and I'd argue they succeeded. After a few solid days of testing, I can honestly say the HomePod is the best smart speaker I've ever heard -- it's just not very smart in the ways I was hoping.