Smart Speaker Deals

Smart Speakers

The Amazon Echo, Sonos One, and Google Home home assistant systems have taken the world by storm with more and more people across the UK adding these devices to their households. A home assistant, or a smart speaker, is essentially virtual personal assistants that allow you to control your music, turn on the lights, check the weather, and do a number of other functions simply by making a simple statement outloud.

You've probably heard of people talking about Alexa like she were a family member, but in reality, she's just another Siri. In addition to the three we've mentioned above, Apple came out with their version, the Apple HomePod in December 2017, so that's now up for grabs too with some cool features discussed below. For more information on the current brands and what they offer, have a read of our home assistant buyer's guide below. We do expect to see a few of these reduced in the 2018 Black Friday sales given their popularity.

See Also: Sonos | Apple

Smart Speaker Buying Guide

It’s sometimes tempting to wonder what previous generations would make of the lives we live now. The original televisions were huge, bulky things that produced an image about the size of a postage stamp that was magnified to around twice that size by the screen. What would John Logie Baird, who made one of the original televisions back in 1926, make of the prevalence of flat screen TVs nowadays? What would the Skladanowsky brothers, who showed the first ever short film in a cinema, make of the fact that anyone can have a big screen in their home thanks to the popularity of High-Definition projectors?

Mobile phones now contain more computing power than the machines that sent man to the moon in the 1960s, whilst home computers are so advanced that they can do things most people wouldn’t even have been able to dream of one hundred years ago. Technology is moving at such an incredible pace we can do the seemingly impossible, such as turn lights on with our mobile devices or set the temperature in our home to make sure it’s nice and warm before jumping on a flight back to England from Russia or the United States. Of all the advancements we’ve witnessed, however, perhaps none are as interesting and life-changing as the introduction of the home assistant.

What is a Smart Speaker?

Smart Speaker

If you have ever owned a mobile device or tablet made by the likes of Apple or Android, then you’ve already had some experience of the sort of things that you can expect from a smart speaker. Whether you’re talking about Apple’s Siri system or the Android equivalents like Google Now, these artificially intelligent personal assistants can do things like play music, make a note in your diary or even order you a taxi. Home Assistants are, essentially, AI personal assistants for your home.

The major difference, though, is that they have a music-based focus that allows you play songs throughout your home simply by asking nicely. Actually, you don’t even have to ask nicely if you don’t want to. Still, provably worth practicing if it doesn’t come naturally; there’s no need to be rude after all. Summed up simply, a home assistant is a wireless communication device that can carry out certain instructions, provided it is connected to the Internet and whatever it is that you’re trying to get it to operate.

One of the best examples, and the one you’re most likely to want to show off to your friends, is the combination of a home assistant and a system such as Philips Hue. Philips Hue, if you don’t already know, is a smart lighting system that allows you to turn on your lights wirelessly. If you put it together with, say, an Amazon Alexa, home assistant you simply need to be within earshot of the home assistant for announcing, ‘Alexa, turn my living room lights to fifty percent’. Low and behold, your Philips Hue lights will come on at half brightness.

Why Are They Useful?

Smart Speaker Uses in the Home

You might ask ‘what’s the point’ and you’d be asking a fair question. One of the obvious answers is ‘laziness’. Can you imagine sitting in your favourite chair reading a book and it’s gone so dark outside that you can’t see what you’re reading? Now you don’t need to get off your chair and instead can simply make your home assistant do the hard work for you. They also have practical uses, such as being able to put the kettle on whilst you’re still in bed simply by talking to your smart speaker and have them turn on a smart plug in the kitchen. What about when it’s Christmas and the plug for the lights is hidden right behind the tree? Do you want to get a head full of needles every time you want your Christmas tree lights on? No chance. Get your home assistant to turn them on for you instead.

Of course, there are also huge advantages given to those with mobility issues when they can start using a home assistant. An action as simple as turning on the radio may be immensely difficult for someone in a wheelchair if the radio is in an inconvenient position. Now, they can simply ask their home assistant to play Radio Two and be playing along with Ken Bruce and Popmaster in no time. Things are that sophisticated now that grandma doesn’t need to understand how the remote works, she can simply ask her home assistant to turn the TV onto BBC One for her.

The Different Types of Home Assistants

Such is the advancement in the industry that by the time you read this another company may well have broken into the market and you’ll be wondering why we haven’t mentioned them. Here, though, are the most obvious examples of home assistants that are available at the time of writing:

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

This is the home assistant that started the smart speaker craze, so it’s only fair that we talk about it first. It has been revolutionised since it was first introduced, with different variations on the same theme available for purchase. The Amazon Echo itself is a tubular speaker that sits nice and tall, the 2nd generation version of the device featuring a 2.5” downward-firing woofer and a 0.6” tweeter powered by Dolby. That is more than enough power to fill most rooms in a typical house with sound. You can link numerous accounts to them from services such as Spotify and the company’s own Amazon Music, whilst TuneIn lets you listen to countless radio stations from around the world.

As you’d expect, Amazon has introduced different types of Echo since the first one was introduced. The Echo Plus combines everything from the Echo with a built-in ZigBee smart home hub. That means that you can get the Echo to control your Philips Hue lights or your Hive Active Heating system without needing to buy the hubs for those two devices that you’ll need to purchase if you opt for the standard Echo.

Amazon realised that not everyone would like a large, high-powered speaker in their home. As a consequence, they introduced the Echo Dot, a much smaller device that’s about a fifth the size of a normal Echo but can carry out all of the same tasks. This is the device for those of you that have already got a cool speaker system that you simply want to ‘make smart’. You can connect it to speakers via a 3.5mm stereo cable.

Amazon’s latest venture is the Echo Show, a combination of the services offered by an Echo and a small screen. With the standard Echo you can get what are called Flash Briefings, basically the news, sport, business or other type of information read out to you. The same thing happens with the Echo Show, except for the fact that you’ll be able to watch the news on a small screen. You can also watch movies or TV shows from Amazon Video if you’ve got a subscription. Not technically a ‘smart speaker’, the Echo Show is still part of the same family and the sound quality is provably more equitable to the Dot than the Echo proper.

What Can Amazon Echos Actually Do?

Aside from the aforementioned ability to interact with smart home appliances like the Philips Hue and Hive Active Heating system, Echos can do all sorts of nifty things. You can, for example, make calls to other people who have the device. You can set timers, which are perfect when you’re making something in the kitchen, or set alarms to wake you up in the morning with a song or the news headlines. You can order a pizza, hail an Uber or even find out how your commute to work is looking. One of the most obvious things the Echo can do is place an order for goods from your Amazon account.

Amazon are updating the device’s capabilities all of the time, switching on what they call ‘skills’, which involves the likes of being able to ask Alexa to find your phone or listen to a TED Talks episode. In 2017, Amazon made an arrangement with Sonos to allow the Echo to control any Sonos speakers you’ve got in your home. Rather than having to dig your phone out of your pocket to fill your house with music, you can simply say ‘Alexa, play Oasis in my living room’. Which brings us neatly onto our second home assistant…

Sonos One

Sonos One

Sonos is, arguably, the company that leads the way in terms of mesh network speakers. They are top-quality speakers and you can connect them altogether to play music throughout your home or in individual rooms, depending on what you fancy. We’re not going to tell you about the entire Sonos range here as you can find that information out elsewhere on the site, but it’s only fair to give the Sonos one its own heading.

The Sonos One is the perfect symbiosis of Sonos speakers and the Amazon Echo system, given that it’s essentially a Sonos with Alexa built into it. It can do all of the things that the Echo can do, only the speaker that it’s a part of is from the Sonos stable. That means the quality is close to unrivalled, as anyone who already owns a Sonos speaker will tell you. If you’re in the market for a home assistant but are also something of an audiophile, then this is definitely the one you’ll want to spend your money on.

Google Home

Google Home

The Google Home is Google’s answer to Amazon’s Echo, offering lots of the same sort of services but in a Google-based device instead of being linked to Amazon. That might seem like a case of being a touch pedantic, but in practice, there are huge differences to the ways the two devices work. You can ask Google to add events to your Google calendar, for example, or for it to play a film or TV show on your Chromecast. You can ask questions and get answers from the Internet, such as ‘Where is a good Chinese restaurant?’ or ‘When does the local supermarket close?’

The Google Home can recognise different voices, so you can have separate accounts on it without needing to sign in and out every five-minutes. That means you can add a night out with the girls to your calendar and your husband can add his pottery class to his without getting confused. Though the Google Home works with most of the same services as the Amazon Echo, such as Philips Hue and IFTT, it won’t link up with your Sonos speakers. That could be a deal breaker for you if you’ve already invested quite heavily in the Sonos ecosystem.

Much as Amazon offer differently sized versions of the Echo depending on your own personal needs, so too does Google offer a Home Mini. The full-sized Google Home looks a bit like a strange vase, with its sloping top and round bottom. The Mini, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a large pebble. As with the Echo Dot compared to the Echo, the Home Mini will do pretty much the same stuff as the Home but in a smaller form. The quality of the speakers isn’t quite as good, but other than that you’re not missing much in the smaller version of the device.

Apple HomePod

Apple HomePod

When it comes to new technology, if Apple aren’t leading the way then they’re not far behind. They might have been a bit slow off the mark with their home assistant compared to Amazon and its Echo, but they’re not the sort of company that tends to rush things to the market simply in order to compete with rivals. Since the launch of the first Mac, Apple has worked hard to ensure that usability is the most important thing with any of its products and so it’s proven with the HomePod.

What It Does

The HomePod is Apple’s attempt to take home listening out of earphones and into the wider community. They’ve designed the HomePod to adapt to its surroundings, meaning that your music should sound amazing whether the speaker is located in the corner of a room or right in the centre of it. Obviously the idea is to link the HomePod to Apple Music and the company has developed Apple-engineered audio to do just that.

Home Assistance

The other key thing about the HomePod is the presence of Siri, Apple’s ever-evolving personal assistant. There are six microphones within the device, which is how it’s able to sense its surroundings and adjust its sound accordingly. That’s also how you're able to do things like set timers, get help with conversations and get updates about the likes of breaking news and the weather. Essentially, anything that you can do with Siri on your mobile, you can do with HomePod, with the added ability to play music simply by asking for it.

The presence of Siri also allows you to control any smart devices that you may have in your home. If you’ve linked up smart bulbs, smart thermostats or similar then you can simply say things like “Siri, set the house to seventeen degrees” or “Siri, turn on the bedroom light”. On top of that, Siri makes your general life easier thanks to the ability to read text messages out to you or receive phone calls if you hand them off to the device from your iPhone.

Getting the Most Out of the HomePod

Apple’s key marketing technique has been to link all of their devices together so that they work seamlessly in tandem with each other. Whilst anyone can buy a HomePod and enjoy it as a home speaker of a similar ilk to the Google Home and Amazon Echo, but you’ll get the most out of it if you’ve got other Apple devices already. After all, you simply need to plug it in and your iOS device will detect it and set it up.

It’s fitted with an A8 chip, meaning that it’s as quick as the latest iPhones and iPads. You’ve then got a woofer for bass, a seven‑tweeter array and those six microphones mentioned before. Available in White or Space Grey, it’s 172 mm tall, 142 mm wide and weighs 2.5 kg.

Overview of Home Assistants on the Market

The honest truth is that most home assistants do much the same stuff. You’ll be able to turn on your lights, lower the heating or ask whether you’ll need an umbrella regardless of whether you opt for the Echo, the Google Home or Apple’s HomePod. The key question you’ll want to consider is whether or not the smart speaker you’re thinking of getting will interact well with the equipment you’ve already got in your home.

At the time of writing, Sonos users will want to steer clear of both the HomePod and the Google Home. They won’t interact with your Sonos system as easily and quickly as the Echo will, though that might change in the future. If, however, you’ve already invested heavily in the Apple ecosystem by buying iPhones, iPads and MacBooks then it would make perfect sense to broaden this set-up with the HomePod.

The Google Home is the most interesting of the two main options on this list, mainly because it isn’t yet all that great but is unquestionably developing at a really fast rate. Believe it or not, the Home doesn’t have much integration with Google’s own apps, meaning you can’t get it to send an email from Gmail, for example. That will almost certainly change in the future, but if you’re a lover of the Google system or an owner of a Google phone, then you might be slightly disappointed by how those things interact with each other.