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Everything you need to know about smart speakers

Amazon’s Echo Dot is able to do everything Echo can but costs $30. Photo courtesy of Amazon / Special to The Forum1 / 3
Amazon’s latest smart speaker, Echo Show, adds a visual element to the mix. Photo courtesy of Amazon / Special to The Forum2 / 3
Amazon Echo was the first smart speaker to be released in 2014. Photo courtesy of Amazon / Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO — Some of life's most chaotic moments require all hands on deck. Whether that's multitasking in the kitchen, entertaining one child while holding the other or frantically cleaning before guests show up, sometimes it's all you can do to get by, desperately wishing for an extra hand.

Technology to the rescue.

Thanks to smart speakers, homeowners can breathe a sigh of relief. With Alexa, Cortona, Siri or Google assistant present, life can get a little bit easier. Though first introduced in 2014, smart speakers are deemed the hot gift for 2017. In fact, according to a study by Jacobs Media Strategies, jācapps, and Sonic Ai, 1 in 5 respondents 13 years and older planned to purchase a smart speaker this year.

What are smart speakers?

Defined as wireless speakers with an integrated virtual assistant (a.k.a. artificial intelligence), smart speakers are just that: smart. Users can activate the speaker hands-free with a word or phrase. (This is where Alexa, Cortona, Siri or Google come in.)

Some devices can connect to and control smart home devices such as Philips Hue to control lights, Nest Learning Thermostat to manage indoor temperature, iRobot Roomba Smart Vacuums to clean and more.

What can they do?

While commonly used to stream music; manage shopping lists; and set timers, alarms and reminders, smart speakers have many other functions depending on the brand and model.

Users can make commands or ask a range of questions, including — but not limited to:

  • "Hey Siri, what's the weather like tomorrow?"
  • "Cortona, set a timer for 10 minutes."
  • "Alexa, turn on Today's Top Hits" or, better yet, "Alexa, I hate that song. Next song."
  • "Google add bacon to my shopping list."
  • "Alexa, how many ounces are in a pint?"

And that's not it. Alexa-powered smart speakers have a growing list of more than 10,000 "skills" they can perform. (Think: reading a recipe, ordering pizza, calling an Uber and more.) Google assistant works with "actions" and has a strong search engine function. (Surprising? I think not.) Cortona connects with Microsoft-made apps like Skype to make calls. Siri's functions are pending the release of Apple Home in early 2018.

Here's the scoop on some smart speaker options:

Amazon’s Echo Dot is able to do everything Echo can but costs $30. Photo courtesy of Amazon / Special to The Forum

Amazon Echo

As the first smart speaker to hit the market in 2014, Amazon Echo has added several options to the mix in just three years.

  • Echo ($80)
  • Echo Plus ($150)
  • Echo Dot ($30) — Does everything Echo can but smaller in size and less sound reach; reviewers recommend connecting to bigger speakers
  • Echo Tap ($130) — Portable for on-the-go assistance
  • Echo Show ($230) — Introduces a visual element, allowing users to make video calls, view security feeds and even watch Amazon Prime Video
  • Echo Spot ($130) — Considered a hybrid of Echo Dot's size with Echo Show's features

On any device, users can call on Alexa to order items on Amazon Prime; play music from their phone, Prime or Spotify; or — recently added — make phone calls or send messages to other Alexa devices, mobile phone or landlines.

Watch a video of Amazon Echo in action here.

Google Home uses Google assistant to search questions, play music, turn on shows and more. Photo courtesy of Google

Google Home

Google joined the smart speaker bandwagon in 2016, introducing Google Home which now goes for $80 if you can catch a sale. Adding Google Home Mini ($30) and Google Home Max ($400) means the Google family now offers users a more affordable option as well as focus on high quality sound, respectively.

Users can ask Google all of life's important questions or to play Netflix and other apps on the TV through Chromecast streaming among other things.

Click here to view a video of Google Home and its features.

Apple HomePod, set to release in early 2017, will use Siri as an assistant to perform various tasks. Photo courtesy of Apple

Apple HomePod

While it missed the holiday hype, Apple HomePod is set to release in early 2018. The smart speaker powered by Siri is rumored to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $350.

The device is said to focus on sound quality first and artificial intelligence second. However, Apple's website claims the product will be able to answer questions, set alarms and timers, perform translations, look up news, weather, sports and more.

Check out Apple's HomePod promo video here.

Third-party devices

For those looking for other options, many third-party smart speakers exist and use the same technology. Here are some to note:

  • Lenovo's Smart Assistant ($130): Powered by Amazon's Alexa
  • Sonos One ($200): Powered by Amazon's Alexa and praised for great sound
  • Harman Kardon Allure ($250): Powered by Amazon's Alexa and unique for its 360-degree ambient lighting and sound
  • Harman Kardon Invoke ($100 on sale): Powered by Microsoft's Cortana
  • Sony LF-S50G ($100): Powered by Google's assistant and acclaimed for its 360-degree sound
  • JBL Link 10, 20 and 300 ($120-200): Powered by Google's assistant with Chromecast built-in

If you haven't quite decided whether or not to purchase a smart speaker, there's no harm in waiting. Many more options are set to launch in late-2017 or early-2018.

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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