Everything You Need to Know About Smart Speakers

To score a ‘smart’ moniker, the base requirement of entry to this high-IQ club is some form of internet connectivity. And while smart speakers are certainly internet-capable devices, they’re also a whole lot more.

You can jump straight into our round-up of the best smart speakers, or you can spend some time here to wrap your head around the theory first.

What are smart speakers?

Smart speakers are the next evolution of portable speakers. These generally compact devices are primarily designed to make life easier inside the home—though there are models that work outside, too—by combining audio output with a digital assistant. For outdoor smart speakers, factor in battery life and weather-proofing.

Depending on your preferences, smart speakers tend to fall into one of three ecosystems: Google, Amazon, or Apple. While certain models like the second-generation Sonos One let you choose between Google Home or Amazon Alexa digital assistants, if you see “Amazon”, “Google”, or “Apple” in front of a smart speaker name, the chances are it’ll only support the digital assistant from that specific ecosystem.

In practical terms, the digital assistant is there to listen for specific instructional phrases and then to respond. Typically, an issued voice command is met with verbal acknowledgement from the speaker before the requested task is performed. You can, for instance, ask your smart speaker to play or pause music, check the weather in your area, or ask it for dinner ideas.

Because smart speakers are constantly listening for voice commands, they need to have either a power outlet connection or battery power to function properly. Certain smart speakers also support interconnectivity so, for instance, your tunes can follow you throughout the home.

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Smart speaker vs smart display
When shopping for a smart speaker at a retailer, you may find smart speakers bundled with smart displays. Much like how smart speakers are an evolution of portable speakers, so too are smart displays a step beyond smart speakers. Smart displays like the Google Nest Hub or Amazon Echo Show—you may have noticed that even the name is reflective of an evolution from the Google Nest and Amazon Echo smart speakers—add a screen to the speaker. While you still talk to a smart display, you can also interact with the touchscreen, and the smart display can also visually show the results of your voice commands.

What are the best smart speaker brands?

In Australia, there is a range of smart speaker brands, including these popular picks:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Bose
  • Google
  • JBL
  • Sonos

There’s no easy answer to which one is best. It really depends on what you’re after and the different ecosystems you use in your home. For example, if you’re exclusively in a home with Apple devices, you should absolutely opt for an Apple HomePod Mini because it will integrate seamlessly with your Apple products.

Similarly, Android-only homes or those with mostly Android smartphones and tablets should start comparisons with a Google Nest. The popularity of Google Assistant, though, means you can consider other smart speaker brands like JBL. Similarly, Amazon Echo is a bit more ecosystem agonistic in that its loyalties lie with neither Google nor Apple, but it does have Alexa.

For audio quality, consider Bose or Sonos. This is particularly relevant for homes seeking a smart speaker for music playback more than digital assistance. The compact nature of smart speakers means they won’t compete for audio quality with larger speakers that are used in home systems. Still, you can safely expect even the smallest smart speakers to pump out decent audio. Similarly, all smart speakers should be easy to set up and offer straightforward guides for the kind of voice commands they need to offer the best results.

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Bluetooth boosts compatibility
If you’re in a home with different Apple and Android devices, or you simply want extra versatility, choose a smart speaker that has Bluetooth functionality. Bluetooth in a smart speaker means you can use it as a portable speaker if there are compatibility concerns. For example, not every music-streaming service is natively supported by every smart speaker. Having Bluetooth connectivity as a backup means you can opt for a cheaper smart speaker or belay compatibility concerns, at least for music playback.

What can I do with a smart speaker?

Smart speakers can be used for basic digital assistance to smart home integration. As speakers, they’re great choices for music and other audio playback in rooms that typically don’t have speakers (basically, anything outside the lounge). Their core purpose, though, is to act as digital assistants, but you’ll want to learn the specific phrases they understand to get the best results.

Better smart speakers will learn the specific ways you talk or let you use shorthand for multi-step verbal tasks and adjust accordingly. As digital assistants, smart speakers can be used as a virtual home aide to talk you through calendar items, answer calls with a loudspeaker function, language translation, and a whole lot more. If you can be told the information, a smart speaker should be able to do it.

For those in smart homes, smart speakers can be used as interconnected devices for enhanced voice control. For instance, a smart speaker can control the lights, turn on your coffee machine, or be instructed to lock or unlock a door with a smart lock. Note that Apple smart speakers tend to exclusively use HomeKit, so shop around if smart home integration is important and you have specific requirements.

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Smart speaker security
Understandably, when a smart device is constantly listening to be of assistance, there are concerns about privacy. Keep an eye out for smart speakers that have opt-in or opt-out privacy features so your personal data isn’t being shared. Additionally, as smart devices, smart speakers can be vulnerable to cyberattacks, so ensure you have a strong WiFi password to help protect smart devices on your network.

FAQ

At its most basic functionality, a smart speaker is like any other speaker albeit with extended connectivity. When used to fullest functionality, a smart speaker can help with hands-free control of smart home devices and act as a digital assistant.
Bluetooth speakers connect to Bluetooth-compatible devices for wireless audio playback, while smart speakers use WiFi internet connectivity to act as both a playback speaker and digital assistant. Some smart speakers include Bluetooth support.
Yes, the ‘smart’ part of a smart speaker means it needs internet connectivity. While certain smart devices support wired Ethernet or wireless WiFi, smart speakers use WiFi for internet connectivity to unlock full functionality.
Nathan Lawrence
Written by
Nathan Lawrence

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