Sure, you could choose a smart speaker based on sound or price. The go-to gadget gift of the season is available from Amazon, Apple and Google with better acoustics, new touch screens and deep holiday discounts.
But you're not just buying a talking jukebox. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant also want to adjust the thermostat, fill your picture frame or even microwave your popcorn. Each artificial intelligence assistant has its own ways of running a home. You're choosing which tribe is yours.
I call it a tribe because each has a distinct culture — and demands loyalty. This decision will shape how you get information, what appliances you purchase, where you shop and how you protect your privacy. One in 10 Americans plan to buy a smart speaker this year, according to the Consumer Technology Association. And Amazon says its Echo Dot is the best-selling speaker, ever.
he last time we had to choose a tech tribe like this was when smartphones arrived. Did you go iPhone, Android, or cling to a Blackberry? A decade later, it's increasingly hard to fathom switching between iPhone and Android. (A recent Match.com survey found iPhone and Android people don't even like dating each other.) Now imagine how hard it will be to change when you've wired stuff into your walls.
In my test lab — I mean, living room — an Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod sit side by side and the voice AIs battle it out to run my home like genies in high-tech bottles. Here's the shorthand I've learned: Alexa is for accessibility. Google Assistant is for brainpower. And Siri is for security.
Amazon's aggressive expansion makes Alexa the one I recommend, and use, the most. Google's Assistant is coming from behind, matching feature by feature — and Siri, the original voice assistant, feels held back by Apple's focus on privacy and its software shortcomings.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)
Smart speakers are building the smart home that you never knew you needed. Inside the audio equipment, they're home hub computers that work alongside smartphone apps to connect and control disparate devices and services. Now with a speaker and the right connected gizmo, you can walk into a room and turn on the lights without touching a button. Or control the TV without a remote. Amazon even sells an Alexa-operated microwave that cooks, tracks and reorders popcorn.
But home assistants can also be Trojan horses for a specific set of devices and services that favor one company over another.
My buddy Matt recently asked me to help him pick speakers and appliances for a big remodel. He loves the Google Assistant on his Android phone, so selecting his tribe should be easy, right? Hardly: He wanted to put Sonos speakers all around the house, but they take voice commands directly via Alexa. (Sonos says Google Assistant support is coming, though it's been promising that for a year.)
Figuring out which connected doodads are compatible can be like solving a 10,000-piece puzzle. The best smart home gadgets (like Lutron Caseta and Philips Hue lights) work across all three tribes, but sometimes alliances and technical concerns make appliance makers take sides.
Each AI has its limitations. They're not all equally skilled at understanding accents — Southerners are misunderstood more with Google and Midwesterners with Alexa. The price of ownership with some is letting a company surveil what goes on in your house. You can try, like me, to live with more than one, but you're left with a patchwork that won't win you any favors with family.
How do you find your AI tribe? Here's how I differentiate them.
Supported smart home devices: Over 20,000.
Who loves it: Families who buy lots through Amazon and experiment with new gizmos.
The good: Alexa knows how to operate the most stuff, thanks to Amazon's superior dealmaking. The only connected things it can't run in my house are the app-operated garage door and some facets of my TV. Amazon also has been successful at spawning new connected gadgets: Alexa's voice and microphone are built into more than 100 non-Amazon devices. And Amazon recently announced plans to offer appliance makers a chip that lets Alexa users voice command inexpensive everyday things, from wall plugs to fans.
Alexa has also mastered some of the little details of home life. It will confirm a request to turn off the lights without repeating your command — super helpful when someone nearby is napping.
The bad: Alexa grows smarter by the week, but it can be a stickler about using specific syntax. It also has the weakest relationship with your phone, the most important piece of technology for most people today. Amazon has bolstered a companion Alexa app for phones, making it better for communicating and setting up smart home routines, but I still find it the most confusing of the lot.
Amazon doesn't always show the highest concern for our privacy. This spring, when Alexa inadvertently recorded a family's private conversations and sent it to a contact, Amazon's response boiled down to "whoopsie." And it records and keeps every conversation you have with the AI — including every bag of popcorn it microwaves. (Amazon says it doesn't use our queries to sell us stuff beyond making recommendations based on song and product searches).
Some love Alexa's ability to order products by voice. But as long as Alexa runs your house, you'll always be stuck buying those goods from Amazon. (That microwave will only ever order popcorn from Amazon.) The coming generation of appliances built with the Alexa chip inside could similarly trap you forever into Amazon-land.
Supported smart home devices: Over 10,000.
Who loves it: People who are deep into Google's services.
The good: Google Assistant comes the closest to having a conversation with an actual human helper. You don't have to use exact language to make things happen or get useful answers. Its intelligence can also be delightfully personal: It's pretty good at differentiating the voices of family members. And on the new Home Hub device with a screen, Assistant curates a highlights-only show from your Google Photos collection.
While Android phone owners are more likely to use lots of Assistant-friendly Google services, the Assistant doesn't particularly care what kind of phone you use — its simple companion apps work on iOS and Android.
And Google is neck and neck with Alexa on many of the nuances: Night mode reduces the volume of answers at night, and it can even require Junior to say "pretty please."
The bad: As a relative newcomer to the smart home, Google has been catching up fast. But in my house, it still can't fully control my Ring doorbell or send music to my Sonos speakers. And I'm not convinced that Google has Amazon's negotiating sway, or the influence to bring the next generation of connected things online.
The bigger problem is privacy. Google's endgame is always getting you to spend more time with its services, so it can gather more data to target ads at you. Like Alexa, Google Assistant keeps a recording of all your queries — every time you ask it to turn off the lights. Google treats this kind of like your web search history, and uses it to target ads elsewhere. (Thankfully, it still keeps data from its Nest thermostat and home security division separate.) The potential upside is that when Google discovers your habits in all that data, it might be able to better automate your home — like what time all the lights should be off.
Supported smart home devices: Hundreds.
Who loves it: Privacy buffs and all-Apple households.
The good: Apple means business on security and privacy. Any device that wants to connect to HomeKit, its smart home software that works with Siri on the HomePod and iPhone, requires special encryption.
What's more, your data is not attached to a personal profile, which aside from protecting your privacy also means that Apple is not using your home activity to sell or advertise things. (While other smart speakers keep recordings and transcriptions of what you say, Siri controls devices by making a request to its system through a random identifier, which cannot be tied to a specific user.)
And Apple is pretty good at keeping the smart home simple. Setting up a smart home device is mostly just scanning a special code. Even creating routines, in which multiple accessories work in combination with a single command, is easier in the Siri's companion Home app than with competitors.
The bad: You have to live in an all-Apple device world to reap these benefits. Siri's a pretty good DJ, but only if you subscribe to Apple Music. You're stuck with the HomePod as the one-size-fits-all smart speaker, and Siri still isn't as competent as her AI competitors.
And Apple's security-first approach has kept too many appliance makers from joining its ecosystem. Sure, it's quality not quantity, but Siri still can't interact with my Nest thermostat or Ring doorbell, just to name two. Apple did recently loosen up a tad: starting with Belkin Wemo's Mini Smart Plug and Dimmer, it no longer requires special hardware for authentication — that can now happen via software. The move should make it simpler to make new products Siri compatible, and allow it access to existing ones.
- Geoffrey Fowler is a technology columnist for the Washington Post.