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How to Choose the Right Smart Home

What Can Smart Speakers Do?

Speakers that talk to us have been around for decades. Speakers that we can talk to, on the other hand, are still pretty new. Thanks to voice assistants, you can get a smart speaker that won’t just play music, but will do whatever you tell it to. Smart speakers aren’t amazing conversationalists, but they can tell you the weather, remind you of appointments, control your smart home devices, and even order pizza for you. It all arguably started with the Amazon Echo, but there are now dozens of different smart speakers to choose from, and we’ve gathered the best ones here. Before choosing a speaker, however, you need to choose a voice assistant.

Say Hello to Your New Assistant

As our homes get smarter, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have become our reliable digital helpers, living inside our devices and jumping at our spoken commands to set timers, play music, and teach kids how to spell those difficult homework words.

If you’re considering a voice assistance platform, you’ll have to pick a camp. The top choices don’t work very well together, and if you want to equip multiple rooms, you should stick to a single platform. This guide will explain the various options and help you choose the one that best meets your needs, along with the right devices for your home.

At the moment, we recommend Alexa for people who are into smart home setups, as it’s the best voice assistant when working with a wide range of smart home devices, including TV boxes. Google Assistant is our pick for more basic, music-and-questions focused smart speaker use. You’ll end up using Siri if your whole life is Apple.

Voice assistants have emerged from two distinct places, but now they’ve largely converged. Alexa on the Amazon Echo introduced the idea of a voice-controlled speaker, and has since been added to Amazon Fire TV devices and some third-party speakers. Since it started on a speaker, most people initially thought of it as a way to play streaming music. After Amazon opened up Alexa to third parties, smart home providers hooked into it to let you do things like control your lights and thermostat by voice.

Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri started out as the voice dialing features on Android phones and iPhones. Both systems let you take calls, make calls, play music, and answer texts on your phone, whether at home, in the office, or in your car. Google has done a better job reaching out into the home with TVs and smart speakers than Apple has.

Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are more limited than Google and Alexa. Siri works with fewer phones, home entertainment products, and smart speakers than Alexa or Google Assistant do, but can be a good solution if you live an all-Apple lifestyle, and it offers extensive home automation support through Apple HomeKit. Cortana appears to be largely forgotten, both on phones and for smart speakers.

There are also some minor voice assistants like Samsung Bixby, found on certain Galaxy phones. These don’t generally have the device support to be a whole-home solution, but they can at least work with Samsung smart devices (of which there are many, ever since Samsung bought SmartThings).

Amazon Echo Show

Device Diversity

Different rooms may demand different smart assistant devices. For this roundup we’re sticking with standalone smart speakers that can be used hands-free to access voice assistants, like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and third-party models that use Alexa and Google Assistant like the Sonos and speakers.

Besides smart speakers, you can use your hands-free voice assistant of choice via smart displays. They’re basically smart speakers with built-in touch screens that can show you information in addition to telling it to you. They include the Amazon Echo Show, the Facebook Portal, and Google’s Nest Hub.

Several TV devices also feature voice assistants, though they generally aren’t hands-free. Any Fire TV device or Apple TV device can respectively access Alexa and Siri by speaking into their remotes, which are equipped with microphones. The Fire TV Cube enables voice control without touching the remote, thanks to far-field microphones similar to Echo devices. Several Android TV devices like the Nvidia Shield TV and Sony’s TVs feature Google Assistant, which functions the same way, both with microphone-equipped remotes and, in some models or with some accessories, hands-free use.

If you have a smart speaker and a compatible media hub, you can link them to enable limited hands-free control. Pairing a Google Home with a Chromecast lets you simply tell your Chromecast what you want to watch. You can do the same thing with Alexa by pairing an Echo Dot with a Fire TV Stick.

Google Assistant comes built into all Android phones, and Siri is on all iPhones. That’s a big plus for those two assistants. Alexa and Cortana are add-on phone apps, but they generally don’t work as smoothly on phones as the integrated assistants do.

Google Nest Mini

Décor and Style

Your smart speaker should fit into your home décor. Both Amazon and Google offer several smart speaker options in different colors, and the choices get even better when you include the growing number of third-party speakers. Amazon’s latest Echo has both fabric and wood cover options, which can fit into a range of styles, and its newest Echo Dot and Echo Plus speakers feature fabric covers in black and white to match your furniture.

Smart speakers with screens become even more powerful home hubs. The Amazon Echo Show lineup and Google smart displays can show the time, photos, videos, and query results right on their built-in screens. The Echo Dot and Google’s Nest Hub both make great little alarm clocks. Amazon’s Fire tablets can also be used as Alexa-powered screens with their Show Mode. The Fire TV Cube isn’t a great speaker, but it’s an excellent media streamer.

Apple only offers one smart speaker model, the HomePod. It’s handsome, available in gray and white, but its silicone base is known to create marks on wood surfaces.


Amazon and Google both understand multiple user profiles, and they can recognize different people’s voices and respond based on their own accounts and history. (The HomePod does not.) Siri and Cortana can’t handle multiple users, yet.

With your account set up, you can ask the assistants what’s on your calendar. Alexa supports iCloud, Gmail, G Suite, Office 365, and Outlook. Google Assistant takes calendar and location information from Gmail, but not G Suite accounts. Cortana supports Outlook and Office 365. Siri on the HomePod can read events supported by the Calendar app on your iPhone.

All of the assistants will also give you local weather and other information based on the address in your account. And all four assistants will give you a range of news sources and podcasts.

Alexa is the only assistant with which you can change the wake word. You can refer to it as “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer,” which is helpful if you have a family member named Alexa (or Echo, for that matter). Siri and Google Assistant, on the other hand, can have either male or female voices, while Alexa is only female.

Apple HomePod

Timers and Lists

All of the voice assistants can set timers and alarms, and make named lists (like shopping, for example). With Alexa and Google Assistant, you can share shopping lists between accounts. Alexa, Google, and Siri can also set multiple named timers, which is great when you’re tracking different parts of a complex cooking project.

Alexa’s lists will sync with Any.do, AnyList, Cozi, and Todoist. Google’s system syncs with OurGroceries and Todoist. Cortana’s lists sync with Wunderlist. Siri uses Apple’s Reminders app.

We’ll put Alexa ahead here because it has the most third-party list support. But really, any of the voice assistants will work for timers and lists.

Google Home Max

Home Entertainment

Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri can all be used to control a TV or home entertainment center, with the appropriate hardware add-on (an Amazon Fire TV device for Alexa, a Chromecast or Android TV for Google Assistant, and an Apple TV for Siri). The Amazon Fire TV Cube even serves as its own Alexa-controlled universal remote, covered in infrared transmitters to work with surrounding devices. Searching for streaming content and controlling playback is easy, and some TV controls like volume adjustments are also available.

If you want more control over your home entertainment system, Alexa and Google Assistant work directly with the Logitech Harmony Hub to control nearly any TV, media streamer, Blu-ray player, A/V receiver, or any other device with an infrared remote. For Siri integration, you need to wrestle with If This Then That (IFTTT) and SMS commands to get anything to work outside of the Apple TV itself. Cortana, oddly, can’t even control the Xbox One remotely, even when each system has its own Cortana implementation.

The Alexa/Fire TV integration is really smooth, and you can get a Fire TV stick for less than $40. Unless you’re an Apple TV aficionado, it’s likely the best approach for most people.

Apple HomeKit

Smart Home Management

Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri can control pretty much any smart home device nowadays. In the Alexa and Google apps, and with the new Siri Shortcuts feature, you can set up rooms of multiple devices to control, and set up multi-step routines, like “I’m leaving the house.”

The Amazon Echo Plus and Echo Studio add a Zigbee radio for controlling compatible products, but they aren’t as capable as a dedicated smart home hub. The Alexa app falls short of the capabilities of dedicated manufacturer apps, and if you want to use those apps, you need the manufacturer’s hub. For instance, you can control the brightness but not the color of Philips Hue bulbs in the Alexa app, and you can create groups of bulbs, turn them on and off, but not alter their brightness as a group (you can do those things by voice, just not in the app).

In addition, the Echo Plus and Studio don’t work with Z-Wave products, such as Schlage smart locks. If you use primarily Wi-Fi-based, hubless smart home devices, however, pretty much any Echo will be able to work for you just fine.

If you’re going to use Siri to control your smart home, you want to make sure the smart home devices you buy are HomeKit-compatible, and you have a HomePod, iPad, or Apple TV to use as a hub. You’ll then be able to create rooms, groups, and multi-step routines, and control your devices remotely, but only from iOS. Apple’s Home app is gorgeous, but you have to be all-in with Apple for it to work well.

Phone Calls

All of the voice assistants will let you make phone calls from your smart speaker. Alexa, Google, and Cortana will all make free phone calls. Google Assistant will call numbers in the US and Canada. Alexa and Cortana will call anyone in the US, Canada, and Mexico, but not toll-free numbers. The HomePod can be used as a speakerphone for your phone, but you have to start the call on your phone.

Internet Queries

Want to just find out stuff? Google Assistant is the best option for free-form internet queries and questions about local businesses, followed closely by Cortana and Siri. This is a major weakness of Alexa’s, although Alexa is getting better.

Google Assistant is the best at recipes. Alexa has several recipe skills you can enable, but their syntax is very precise. Google Assistant will pluck you something from AllRecipes and pause for you to complete each step. Cortana and Siri won’t read recipes out loud—Cortana has a recipe skill, but it requires a Windows device with a screen.

Or how about fun stuff? If you ask your assistant to play games, Alexa and Cortana suggest trivia quizzes. Siri gives you games on the Apple App Store. Google gives you kids’ party games, like freeze dance and Mad Libs. They’ll all tell you jokes, too.

When it comes to random internet queries, Google Assistant is in the lead.

Amazon Echo Skills

Third-Party Skills

Amazon’s voice assistant ecosystem has been supercharged by tens of thousands of third-party “skills,” and Amazon has a great directory of them on its site. These skills do everything from giving you your local transit status, to checking your credit card balance, to trivia about your favorite college football team, to playing games and singing songs. However, you have to seek out the skills you want, and use the very specific syntax they want you to use. It’s a stunningly powerful system, with a learning curve.

Google Assistant has fewer skills, but they’re steadily growing in number. It tends to accept more free-form conversation rather than demanding specific word-by-word syntax, making it easier to use with these skills. You can check out Google’s skills (which it calls “actions”) in its convenient web-based directory.

Siri and Cortana both have very few third-party skills. Alexa is the winner here, although we wish it was more flexible with syntax.

How Do Smart Speakers Sound?

You’re going to play music on this speaker, right? For the best sound quality, you can get a voice-enabled Sonos, Harman, Sony, or JBL speaker. Or, you can get an inexpensive Google Nest Mini or Amazon Echo Dot and hook it up to a better speaker. The Echo Dot has a 3.5mm audio output for this, while the Google Nest Mini can control Bluetooth or Google Cast compatible speakers.

All smart speakers can play music from your phone, but you’re really supposed to use them with cloud services. Alexa and Google Assistant both connect to Spotify Premium accounts, as well as to Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio for free. Alexa speakers will also play Amazon music. Google Assistant speakers will play Google Play and YouTube music, including tunes you’ve uploaded to your own Google account library. Cortana will play Spotify Premium, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, but not Pandora. Siri on the HomePod will play Apple Music and songs from your iCloud music library.

Google, Alexa, and Siri all support multi-room audio. Amazon’s ESP feature makes sure that only the nearest speaker responds, and lets you play music across your house. Apple’s new AirPlay 2 technology allows HomePods and a range of third-party, compatible speakers to work as multi-room audio systems. Google speakers support multi-room audio, but if you have a phone in the room attached to a different Google account, both it and the speaker will respond when you say, “Hey Google.”

The Google Nest Mini and Amazon Echo Dot have both made strong strides in sound quality, but they still can’t really fill a room, and aren’t quite good enough to be primary music speakers. As mentioned, you can use them control better speakers. The Echo sounds notably better, as do most smart speakers that jump up to the $100 to $200 price range. The Apple HomePod and Google Home Max have some of the best audio quality we’ve heard in the category, with $400 price tags. The best value on this list, however, is the $200 Echo Studio, which sounds just as good as the $400 models here.

Smart Speaker Prices

Alexa and Google Assistant speakers are available in a wide range of prices. Apple’s $350 HomePod is still the only Siri smart speaker available. You can connect an inexpensive Alexa speaker through its 3.5mm output jack to any speaker you like, and Google Assistant devices can control other speakers via Bluetooth.

The current sweet spot for voice assistant speakers is between $99 and $199. If you’re paying less than $100 for a voice assistant speaker, you’re going to get something small, with mediocre audio quality, that’s focused on voice commands. These speakers make good bedside or kitchen companions.

At $199 and up, you get either a fancy screen or really good, room-filling audio quality.

Sonos One

The Right Smart Speaker for You

Right now, we consider Amazon and Google to be tied in terms of smart speaker ecosystems. Amazon has more third-party skills and a wider range of smart home products available, but Google is built into all Android phones and has better natural-language query understanding. The Echo Dot is the best easy entryway into the Alexa ecosystem; if you want an all-purpose Alexa-powered speaker, the regular Echo is a good compromise. If you’re looking for a high-quality music speaker, the Echo Studio and Google Home Max are among your best bets.

How to Use Your Smart Speaker

Here’s some to help you get started with your new assistant:

  1. The Best Amazon Alexa Skills
  2. Amazon’s Highest-Rated Alexa Skills In Every Category
  3. How to set up a Second Alexa and Enable Multi-Room Playback
  4. Manage Your Amazon Echo Through the Alexa App
  5. How to Let Multiple People Use the Same Amazon Echo
  6. How to Set Up Your Google Home
  7. 200 Things to Ask Your Google Home
  8. How to Set Up Google Home Parental Controls
  9. How to Delete All Your Google Home Voice Recordings
  10. How to Turn On Cortana by Voice in Windows 10
  • Amazon Echo (3rd Gen)

    Amazon Echo (3rd Gen)

    Pros: Powerful, well-balanced sound for the size and price.

    Cons: Alexa can be a little awkward compared with Google Assistant.

    Bottom Line: The third-generation Amazon Echo smart speaker is basically just a more affordable Echo Plus, thanks to some minor compromises you’re unlikely to notice.

  • Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) with Clock

    Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) with Clock

    Pros: Same performance and features as the Echo Dot.
    Bright, clear LED clock face.

    Cons: Slightly weak high-frequency response.
    Alexa can be a little stilted compared with Google Assistant.

    Bottom Line: The Amazon Echo Dot with Clock is simply an Echo Dot smart speaker with an LED clock on the front—and it’s terrific.

  • Amazon Echo Studio

    Amazon Echo Studio

    Pros: Excellent value for the size and power. Loud, clear sound. Compelling directional audio.

    Cons: Requires Amazon Music HD to listen to fully 3D Ultra HD music.

    Bottom Line: With surprisingly robust Dolby Atmos-compatible directional audio, Amazon’s Echo Studio delivers just as much power as smart speakers that cost twice as much.

    Read Review

  • Amazon Echo Flex

    Amazon Echo Flex

    Pros: Inexpensive. Easy to set up and use. Fully functional Alexa voice capabilities.

    Cons: Weak audio. Works best with a high, unobscured wall outlet.

    Bottom Line: The Amazon Echo Flex is a tiny plug-in speaker that lets you add Alexa voice assistant features to any room of the house.

    Read Review

  • Bose Home Speaker 300

    Bose Home Speaker 300

    Pros: Powerful audio output with rich bass depth and sculpted, crisp highs.
    Works with Alexa and Google Assistant.

    Cons: Sometimes distorts on deep bass.
    Play/Pause can have a minor delay.

    Bottom Line: The Bose Home Speaker 300 offers Alexa and Google Assistant voice control in a small, powerful package.

  • Google Home Max

    Google Home Max

    Pros: Attractive.
    Powerful bass response.
    Works as part of a whole-home audio system.

    Cons: Expensive.
    Google’s audio prowess remains to be seen (and heard).

    Bottom Line: The Home Max speaker is designed to be the center of Google Assistant-powered home, but it will need to sound very good to justify its high price.

    Read Review

  • Marshall Uxbridge Voice

    Marshall Uxbridge Voice

    Pros: Powerful audio performance with strong bass depth
    Bass and treble controls, as well as adjustable in-app EQ
    Hands-free Alexa voice control

    Cons: Mono
    Digital signal processing can drastically reshape mix at high volumes
    Doesn’t get very loud

    Bottom Line: The Marshall Uxbridge Voice speaker delivers respectable audio performance and hands-free Alexa voice control in a stylish package.

    Read Review

  • Sonos One

    Sonos One

    Pros: Multi-room audio with flexible stereo and surround configurations.
    Powerful sound for its size.
    Works with Alexa voice control (with support for Google Assistant to come).

    Cons: Sound can distort at top volumes.
    No Bluetooth or wired audio connections.

    Bottom Line: The Sonos One is a versatile wireless speaker with excellent sound quality, support for multi-room audio, and Amazon Alexa voice control.

    Read Review

  • Apple HomePod

    Apple HomePod

    Pros: Powerful audio performance with rich, full bass.
    Measurement mic adjusts audio according to your room’s acoustics.
    Visually pleasing design.

    Cons: No Bluetooth streaming.
    No aux input.
    No way to disable DSP.
    No voice control for non-Apple music services.
    Siri is behind the competition.

    Bottom Line: The HomePod excels as a high-quality smart speaker for listening to Apple Music, but trails behind Amazon and Google when it comes to voice control.

    Read Review

  • Google Nest Mini

    Google Nest Mini

    Pros: Affordable. Small. Good high-frequency response.

    Cons: No significant changes over Google Home Mini. Weak bass and midrange.

    Bottom Line: The Google Nest Mini is the most affordable Google Assistant smart speaker you can buy, but it offers virtually no improvements over the previous model.

    Read Review

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