Should you buy a voice assistant for Christmas?

Should you buy a voice assistant for Christmas?

An important question comes up before Christmas: Which gift is the right one? How can I be sure that the gift won’t sit and collect dust after a few weeks and actually enrich the life of the person I give it to? Digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Siri are heavily promoted as being able to really enrich one's life. I spoke with my colleague Pierre about whether they belong under the Christmas tree, and this was the result.

Currently, the leading providers of compact and affordable voice assistants for your home are Apple, Amazon, and Google. Amazon and Google in particular have opened up their ecosystem in such a manner that the devices can be connected to quite a number of electronic devices in order to control them via voice command.

Over the past weeks, Pierre and I have extensively used the Amazon Echoes and Google Home. As such, we will focus on Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and the Echo devices and Google Home/Mini.

Google Home Mini Tink Androidpit
The Google Home Mini is tiny. / © tink

I have a big trust issue with both Amazon and Google. They are two internet behemoths that can either directly or indirectly profit from product sales via advertising partners. And here’s the kicker: Neither the Echo devices nor the Google Home family are these products. They are simply additional channels that Amazon and Google use to continue their profitable business in your house over the long term.

Pierre: Yes, but you can’t forget about the added value for the user, Eric. Thanks to the artificial intelligence behind them, these assistants offer a treasure trove of knowledge. They read you Wikipedia articles, predict the weather, plan your appointments, manage your shopping list, play back the news and radio, read you bedtime stores, and wake you up the next morning with your favorite song.

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Philips sells numerous smart light bulbs. / © NextPit

That sounds real fine and dandy, Pierre, but let’s take another look at the business models. Amazon has the Prime program for consumers and a comprehensive range of data services for business owners. Google has its apps and services on billions of smartphones and sells the user data it collects to advertisers. So, the assistants are merely the next necessary step: Using the always-listening Echo Dots and Google Home Minis, they train their artificial intelligence’s voice recognition.

But you can turn off the microphone, Eric and, of course, the companies have to make money off of the products somehow. By contrast, the assistant’s functionality will consistently increase. New products and software updates enable integration into your phone or hands-free kit; free phone calls to other users of these assistants are now possible or planned. These assistants learn to distinguish several users from each other and administrate rights: Children can no longer order expensive items on Amazon.

Yeah, great. So, the Echo Dot is no longer a consumer trap for children. Apart from that, I think that the sound quality is weak, mainly on the small assistant devices; I’d rather listen to the radio another way. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a convenient non-profit alternative to Alexa, Assistant or Siri. I’m just left with the choice of whose profits to pad. At the same time, I am excitedly waiting for an equivalent implementation of Mozilla Voice. I’d quickly put that in my living room.

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The Hue Bridge (left) can be voice-controlled using the Echo Dot (right). / © NextPit

Certain smart home devices like the Philips Hue lamps can be conveniently controlled without voice commands, so you can only take full advantage of them via the assistants. And once you begin talking to your house, you will quickly get used to it. Our colleague Steffen discussed this in his hands-on review and even his kids are now giving Alexa commands. The next generation will accept it as a completely normal part of our lives.

Yes, but this same naivety worries me a lot, especially since these assistants create a large attack surface. Their purpose is to connect our home electronics and make them centrally controllable. However, this networking entails immense potential for abuse. After all, every single element of this network in the internet of things is a potential backdoor into my house. What if someone opens my smart lock through my vulnerable Wi-Fi refrigerator?

Sorry, the offer is no longer available. But check Amazon directly for the latest offers on Google Home Mini.

Which assistant is better?

Google and Amazon above all are now in a neck-and-neck race when it comes to the quality of voice services. The basic functions along with the integration with third-party smart home hardware are evenly matched for the most part. Unfortunately, the same also holds true for the disadvantages and privacy concerns. Pierre and I will analyze Alexa and the Google Assistant’s specific differences in a separate article.

Users of Google services will have a better quick start with the assistant in Google Home. After setup, it can immediately access your existing calendar, and it already knows your news interest from your old Google Now data.

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Google Home now integrates itself with Google Cast-compatible loudspeakers via Wi-Fi and simultaneously controls several compatible devices latency-free as part of a multi-room setup. / © NextPit

If Google is not as important to you as music streaming on demand, then you should probably purchase an Echo Dot. The affordable Alexa puck can be connected to your stereo system via Bluetooth or stereo jack cable, thereby solving the low sound quality problem in no time. On the other hand, multi-room audio is only available with Google Cast, but it does not require Google Home.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Since the mini-editions of the assistants can each be had at affordable prices, you can try both once risk-free and play around with them for a bit. However, they only truly shine with some smart home accessories. You can obtain smart lamps at IKEA or Best Buy, and everything else will come in time.

Software updates to the devices themselves and to the AI-servers behind the scenes make the assistants a little better every day. As such, we can’t yet tell the extent to which their added value will increase over the coming years. But perhaps this is precisely the reason for buying it: You can see how machines gradually learn to understand humans thanks to artificial intelligence.

What do you think? Is a smart voice assistant the perfect Christmas gift for yourself or your family?

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  • Ellett Nov 29, 2017 Link to comment

    NO! NO! NO! Google does NOT sell your personal information. Google uses the information INTERNALLY to accurately place targeted ads. If Google sold personal data they would be selling off the goose that laid the golden eggs. The information they collect on you is their most valuable intellectual property so they're not going to sell it to anyone else.

    My big worry is not what Google does with my information, but that some agency will get some sort of warrant that allows them to tap into the microphones in the Echos and Homes that someone has. I've made short-term peace with that... don't think that things are going that far in the next couple of years, so I have several Homes scattered around the house, and my phone and tablet listen for Hey Google as well.

    •   31
      Deactivated Account Nov 30, 2017 Link to comment

      ask Google how much it spends on trips to the Whitehouse.. and why
      Same for Apple, Microsoft, Facebook..

      • Ellett Nov 30, 2017 Link to comment

        What does that have to do with whether Google sells personal information or not? Lobbying is an entirely different issue.

        And while Google continues to lobby Congress, they haven't been seen much around the White House since Agent Orange took up residence there.

      •   31
        Deactivated Account Dec 1, 2017 Link to comment

        yes lobbying since Trump has changed, now deals are done on the golf course, but what hasn't changed is the fact that Google's data isn't as "private" as you may like to think..
        data is now one of the most powerful political tools..
        used by likes of Cambridge Analytica, Palantir..
        don't think Google has much say in the matter..
        at least in the UK it's public knowledge that all data is intercepted and recorded which includes everything I do via Google's apps...

      • Like I said in my original post, my worry is FISA and other ways for law enforcement to overreach and collect my personal information. I generally despise the European Commission, but I wish the US leaned more toward privacy than toward the authoritarian form of law enforcement the US is moving toward.

        Once again, availability of private information is more a matter of US law enforcement efforts. Google and other tech firms are, paradoxically, more on the side of the individual (except maybe for Facebook).

  • Privacy issues aside (as they are exactly the same via our smartphone/watch).

    At the moment I don't see the need, my phone or tablet can provide the exact same functionality. Ok it may become more beneficial to have a central hub once the IoT really takes off.
    Though again as this is the early stages of this tech it's most likely that these devices will be superseded with improved set up.

    Also how can we know if device A will work with iot B etc, what needs to be decided is a universal standard so that any iot device will be able to work with any of the Central hub devices, though it's unlikely that this will be happening any time soon. Also there needs to be a huge upgrade to the amount of iot devices and functionality, otherwise it will just be a fad, something that will be used less and less becoming a dust collector.

    Lastly, the quality of the speech/voice response from these devices and smartphones/tablets/watches needs to be improved dramatically, as does voice recognition. (which has improved greatly over the last few years). To the point that you don't have to pronounce each word or to ask questions in the simplest way.

    I personally will wait a couple years for the tech to catch up with expectations.

    Peace 🖖

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  •   46
    Deactivated Account Nov 26, 2017 Link to comment

    I agree 100% with Storm, no way would I have one in my house. There is little enough privacy as it is. Putting a microphone hooked up to the web listening 24/7 in your house, no thanks.

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  • storm Nov 26, 2017 Link to comment

    I just can't find a use case that is worth the privacy violation.

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