What's in this guide?
We compare the features of the most popular smart speakers available in New Zealand to help you find the one that best suits your needs.
Curious but a little confused about smart speakers?
Despite the original Amazon Echo launching in the US back in 2014, New Zealanders have only recently come to know the merits of the smart speaker. In New Zealand, Google actually beat Amazon to market with the launch of Google Home. Now, the three key names in smart speakers, Amazon, Google and Apple, have all brought their intelligent devices to the Antipodes, and other companies are starting to roll out their own speakers built on the smart technology developed by the big three.
With an increasing number of options out there, not to mention the frequent updates existing devices receive, figuring out which smart speaker is right for you can be a little confusing. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve collected and compared the key features of smart speakers available in New Zealand. We’ve also tracked down the best smart speaker deals to save you money and put together a selection of guides to help you get the most out of your new device.
Learn more about the big three smart speakers
What is a smart speaker?
At its most basic, a smart speaker is a voice-activated audio device powered by a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa. Provided it’s plugged in, it will constantly listen for valid voice commands and execute them to the best of its abilities. This can be something as simple as playing the song you requested, or it could be as involved as you asking for the quickest route to the airport and the speaker determining it for you based on current traffic conditions.
Most smart speakers are fairly small devices and typically feature cylindrical bodies, though smaller, cheaper models like the Echo Dot and Google Home Mini opt for disc-shaped designs to save space. Inside its body, your average smart speaker packs one or more actual audio speakers – these usually take the form of woofers and tweeters – along with an array of microphones for detecting voice commands.
Alongside these audio components sits a Wi-Fi chip, and it’s this chip that makes a smart speaker truly “smart”. Whether a smart speaker uses Google’s Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, all the voice recognition and command processing occurs online, using powerful servers operating in the cloud. This means that a smart speaker needs a constant Internet connection to provide voice-activated functionality. Some speakers may have limited offline functionality, too, but this is typically little more than the ability to operate as an external Bluetooth speaker.
What can smart speakers do?
Despite what the name may suggest, smart speakers can do a whole lot more than simply play music. Thanks to the impressive voice-recognition software powering Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, smart speakers that run on these virtual assistants can perform a wide array of tasks including, but not limited to, the following:
- Read the latest news headlines
- Report on current traffic conditions
- Deliver a weather forecast
- Answer fact-based questions
- Manage your personal calendar
- Find local services
- Make a booking at a restaurant
- Order an Uber
- Place a hands-free voice call
- Take notes
- Set an alarm
- Interface with other smart devices in your home
And of course, they can play music from a variety of online streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play Music.
What makes smart speakers so compelling, though, is the fact that their capabilities aren’t limited to those they come with out of the box. Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri are constantly developing new skills, allowing them to access a broader range of online stores and services, to deliver more accurate and more detailed answers to your questions and to connect with a wider variety of smart devices.
These skills don’t just come from Google, Amazon and Apple, either. All three provide a means for app developers to build smart-speaker functionality into their apps and services. Because of this, skills can be built and updated quickly without the bottleneck of a single company’s approval process.
The decentralised nature of these skills also means they’re less bound by hardware than a lot of modern devices. The smaller, cheaper Echo Dot, for example, can do everything the bigger Echo can – the only concession is the Echo Dot’s less-powerful speaker. From a functionality standpoint, you won’t have to worry about upgrading to a newer model once a year just to maintain compatibility with Domino’s ordering system.
What are your main options?
Right now, there are three prominent players in the smart speaker game: Google, Amazon and Apple. Each has its own physical speaker and the virtual assistant to power it. Both Google and Amazon offer multiple models of their speakers, which feature smaller or larger internal speakers and different designs.
For the most part, though, the actual hardware matters less than the virtual assistant it plays home to. As such, you only need to consider three main options: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri.
As the first of the big three to reach our shores, Google Assistant has a strong foothold in the New Zealand smart speaker market. Since its launch, it has steadily expanded its repertoire with features like hands-free calling, audiobook support and the ability to act as an intercom when you own two or more Google Assistant devices.
Google hasn’t been shy about getting Google Assistant out there, either. Numerous devices, including select smartphones, smart TVs and Google’s own Chromecast HDMI dongles, are compatible with Google Assistant, allowing them to link up and respond to your voice commands even if they don’t support it on their own.
By default, Google Assistant activates with the command phrases “Ok Google” and “Hey Google”, and you can tie it to your Google Account for more personalised responses along with the ability to distinguish your voice from anyone else who uses the same device.
Siri might be the most well-known of the three main assistants in New Zealand, but it’s still a ways behind the competition in the smart speaker game. In traditional Apple style, Siri is only available on Apple’s own devices, leaving you with just a single option for a Siri-enabled smart speaker: the Apple HomePod.
As the flagship device for Siri on smart speakers, the HomePod doesn’t make the greatest first impression. Its support for basic functionality is lacking not only when compared to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, but even compared to what Siri can do on the iPhone as well. For instance, Siri can only play songs from Apple Music, with no direct way of linking your Spotify or Google Play Music account. Also, it only supports a single user, and its ability to understand and answer your queries is decidedly limited in comparison to Google and Amazon’s assistants.
Which smart speaker is best for you?
Like most products and services these days, there is no “best” smart speaker for all situations. Your brand affinity, your budget and how you’re going to use it all influence which speaker will best serve your needs. Even the decor in your house might dictate which speaker will fit you the best. The standard white design of Google Home looks fine when paired with a similarly light-coloured room, but it can seem a little out-of-place when stationed amidst darker furniture.
Nevertheless, if you’re after a quick overview of what each speaker does best and worst, take a look at the comparison below:
|The Good||The Bad|
|Amazon Echo Plus||
How to compare smart speakers
There’s a lot more to consider when comparing smart speakers than just the price. For instance, while Amazon Echo has its two main competitors beat as the most budget-friendly option, it pays for this with lower audio quality, so buying an Echo expressly for blasting tunes through your house might not be the best investment.
To avoid disappointment, consider the following options when shopping for your new smart speaker:
- How accurate is the voice detection? Your new smart speaker won’t do you much good if it can’t understand your accent or has trouble converting your voice commands into useful answers. If you can, test out prospective speakers at a store or a friend’s place before plonking down your cold hard cash. If you don’t, you might be left with nothing more than a stubbornly ignorant and expensive paperweight.
- How important is audio quality? Along with the varying audio capabilities of the three main speakers, Google and Amazon both offer smaller and cheaper models that cut back on audio quality even further. If you only plan on using your new speaker to issue commands and ask questions, these cheaper options are an excellent choice, but if you want to crank up your favourite tracks so you can hear them clearly down to the other end of the house, you’ll want to opt for a speaker with more audio oomph.
- What’s the smart home compatibility like? New smart home devices seem to crop up every other week, and this can make it tricky for hub devices like smart speakers to maintain compatibility with them all. If you’ve already kitted your house out with a bunch of smart devices, you’ll want to make sure that your new smart speaker supports them – preferably through native support. Otherwise you’ll have to spend hours devising hacky work-arounds or simply abandon the effort and miss out on voice control altogether.
- What’s your budget? Tech is rarely cheap, and while Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot offer an affordable entry point into the smart speaker market, you’ll want to be aware of their concessions before discounting their more expensive brethren. Audio quality and voice detection suffer in these cheaper models, so be sure to manage your expectations along with your budget.
- How’s the future looking? Because the virtual assistants powering all three smart speakers are stored in the cloud, they’re able to constantly evolve with new skills and features over time. This means it’s worth considering not only the features a smart speaker has now, but the features it could get in the future when deciding which one to buy. Of course, just because a company plans on developing new skills doesn’t mean it will, but in cases like Amazon Echo where the US version already supports multiple users, it’s a safe bet the same feature will reach Aussie shores relatively soon.
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