Smart Homes: Why We Love Smart Home Automation (And You Should, Too!)
What if all of the devices in your life could connect to the internet? Not just computers and smartphones, but everything: clocks, speakers, lights, doorbells, cameras, windows, window blinds, hot water heaters, appliances, cooking utensils, you name it—even bathrooms are getting an upgrade. And what if those devices could all communicate, send you information, and take your commands? It's not science fiction; it's the Internet of Things (IoT), and it's a key component smart homes.
The whole point of smart home devices is to make simple tasks even simpler. But that can be easy to forget when you can't remember which app dims the lights and which one turns on the coffee pot. Luckily, there's a fix for this problem, but it requires an additional piece of hardware: a hub. Let’s explore the leading two.
1. Amazon Echo
I didn't know how much I wanted to talk to my house until I started talking to my house. Now, after living with the Amazon Echo for more than a year, I talk to it every day.
I ask it for the morning headlines as I drink my 8 a.m. cup of tea. I ask it to play the most recent episode of my favorite podcast while I work out. I ask it to set a timer when I throw a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner. I ask it to turn my lights off when I'm heading to bed. It's always listening, and it always just works.
That's the true success of Amazon's likable smart speaker—it fits in seamlessly with your daily routine. It doesn't ask you to change any of your habits, it just makes a surprising number of those habits better.
Meet Alexa: using Alexa is as simple as asking a question. Just ask to play music, read the news, control your smart home, tell a joke, and more—Alexa will respond instantly. Whether you are at home or on the go, Alexa is designed to make your life easier by letting you voice-control your world.
Alexa is a good listener. Hidden within, are seven noise-canceling microphones that use “far-field” voice recognition technology. All that really means is that it's good at hearing you even when you aren't next to it, and even when there's other chatter going on. In my home, Alexa can understand me just fine from several feet away, even when I've got the TV on.
Alexa lives in the cloud, so it’s always getting smarter, and updates are delivered automatically. The more you talk to Alexa, the more she adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. Amazon recently released a new feature, called Your Voice, which allows Alexa to learn who’s talking to her. During a training session, you'll be prompted to say 25 different phrases to your Alexa device. Multiple users can train their voice into Alexa, and then you can say, “Alexa, who am I?,” and she will identify you.
This feature allows for true multi-user support: once Alexa learns your voice, she will be able to recognize when it's you who's speaking and offer you and the other members of your household personally tailored results for everything from flash briefings to shopping suggestions. She will even learn what music you prefer, so when you ask her to “play music,” she will recognize your voice and select songs based on what she already knows you like.
Alexa has Skills: skills are created by third-party developers and add even more capabilities, like ordering a pizza from Domino's, requesting a ride from Uber, tracking your fitness with Fitbit, controlling your TV with DISH Hopper, ordering flowers from 1-800-Flowers, calling and messaging other Alexa users, and more—new skills are being added all the time.
Voice control your smart home: ask Alexa to switch on the lamp before getting out of bed, turn on the fan or turn up the thermostat while reading in your favorite chair, or dim the lights from the couch to watch a movie, lock your doors when you go to bed at night—all by just using your voice.
Alexa works with smart home devices such as lights, switches, TVs, thermostats, door locks, security cameras, and more from WeMo, Philips Hue, Sony, SmartThings, Insteon, Nest, Schlage, ecobee, Wink, HP, Asus, Acer, and Kohler—and the list just keeps growing.
One of newest smart home devices on the market is Kohler’s Verdera smart mirror. That’s right, I said a smart mirror: the mirror actually has Alexa built in, so you can ask it to read the news, adjust mirror lighting, or control other paired gadgets in the bathroom. It has a built-in dual microphone and sealed casing to protect the tech from being damaged by water splashes or condensation. The mirror can also detect motion to illuminate a soft night light when it notices a user walking up to the mirror. With the Verdera, users can talk to it to control other Kohler smart products, which include: a faucet that can dispense the exact amount of water you want; a toilet that has seat and feet warming features in addition to touchless flush, mood lighting, and music control; a shower system that can adjust water temperature, pressure, steam duration, and music; and a kit that you can attach to your bathtub to automatically fill a bath at precisely the desired depth and temperature.
And Alexa isn’t confined to your home, as Toyota, Lexus, and Ford all recently announced that they will be including Alexa in upcoming vehicles.
All in all, Amazon is currently dominating the smart home market.
2. Google Home
Google showed up a bit late to the game (Amazon has a 2-year head start), but they are keen to take a bite out of Amazon’s share of the smart home market—and just recently, they are finally starting to catch up.
Google Home has the advantage of Google’s search and voice-control expertise (and the ability to tie in multiple Google accounts, so you can check your calendar for the day, set and manage reminders in Keep, and report traffic conditions on your commute using Maps data).
Meet your Google Assistant: Ask it questions. Tell it to do things. It’s your own personal Google, always ready to help, with over 1 million Actions. You can browse Actions by category or easily search for something specific.
However, as impressive as that sounds on paper, the Assistant isn’t quite as robust as I was hoping it would be. It generally provides more detailed answers than Alexa, but in day-to-day use, it isn’t noticeably more capable of performing simple tasks—for example, the process to add events to your Google calendar requires far too many steps. You’re better off just using your phone or computer to create a new event.
The Assistant’s notification system is one of the places where the device really shines. It will notify you of things without you having to ask. For example, if you have something scheduled on your calendar, Google will let you know if traffic has gotten bad enough that you should consider leaving early.
While the Assistant has some smart-home integration and third-party Actions (comparable to Alexa’s Skills), it has fewer of either than Alexa does—though Google is starting to catch up.
The one indisputable advantage of the Home, over the Echo, is its ability to serve as a controller for a Chromecast Audio multi-room audio system. This means you can use voice commands to stream the same song or podcast to several synchronized speakers in different rooms simultaneously. While Alexa recently added similar capabilities, Chromecast still boasts more options with more consistent results.
SO, WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
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The choice really comes down to what services and devices you already use. If you are a heavy Amazon shopper and have an Amazon Prime membership, then the Echo is the obvious choice for you. You get access to Amazon Music’s streaming library, you can order products with your voice, and check the status of current orders. The Echo line is larger, more developed, and has more partners than Google Home, so if you want more options and features right now, then I would again recommend the Echo.
If you have a Chromecast, subscribe to Google Play Music, subscribe to YouTube TV, and/or don’t mind waiting for Google to catch up to Amazon, then I recommend going with the Home.
Also, don’t forget to try before you buy. Chances are you know someone who uses one of these devices. Or stop by a store to see if they have one you can try. Last year, Lowe’s started building smart home demonstration rooms in their stores so customers can see what would be best for them.
At Armor, we use our Echo to control the lights, thermostat, security cameras, and ask Alexa to make us a sandwich. ;)
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