What is a smart speaker and do you need one?

Alexa, play Despacito.

They’ve been around for quite a few years now, but it’s only been relatively recently that Aussies have embraced the smart speaker life. According to a recent Nielsen study, one in six of us now own an AI-powered speaker, and that number is only growing.

But for the uninitiated, you’re probably wondering many things. What exactly makes a speaker “smart”? What can they do? And do you really need one? Before you enter the rabbit hole that is smart home accessories, we’ve answered some of the most common questions people have about smart speakers, including whether or not they’re worth your hard-earned cash.

What is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker is any speaker with an integrated virtual assistant. Using your voice, you can instruct your AI-powered assistant to do all manners of tasks, from setting alarms and timers, fetching tomorrow’s weather, or playing you a killer playlist. We’ll talk a bit more about what smart speakers can do later, but that’s the basic gist of the technology.

There are dozens of smart assistants out there from a myriad of companies, but the most common ones you’re likely to encounter are Siri (found on Apple devices), Alexa (found on Amazon’s Alexa devices) and Google Assistant (found, shockingly enough, on Google devices). Some third-party manufacturers also have Alexa and/or Google Assistant integrated into their devices, meaning you won’t just find these clever companions on speakers – you can find them on TVs and wearables, too.

How much do smart speakers cost?

The price of a smart speaker varies greatly depending on the manufacturer. Amazon Alexa devices tend to be the cheapest, with the Echo Dot starting from $59 and regular sales bringing it down even more. Google is up next, with their Nest Mini costing $79. Apple’s HomePod Mini is their cheapest offering at $149, but the HomePod series is the only smart speaker lineup that comes with Siri. On the other hand, those looking for an Alexa- or Google Assistant-powered speaker have much more choice, with Bose, Sonos, JBL and more offering their own takes. Typically these third-party speakers are more expensive, since they’re designed by audio-only manufacturers and generally feature higher-end hardware.

a white Sonos One smart speaker on a wooden table

What can smart speakers do?

Each smart assistant (and speaker) is different, but their abilities are very similar, and you’ll need to be connected to WiFi in order to make the most of their features. There are three main categories of requests you can make to your smart assistant. First up, there are the basics, like checking the weather, setting a timer or alarm, reading the news headlines and asking questions like, “How many grams in a cup of flour?” or, “How do I say ‘hello’ in Portuguese?”. Pretty simple stuff.

Next up, there are personal requests. If you’ve got your smart speaker linked to your smartphone, you can ask your smart assistant to make and answer calls, read and send messages, and check your calendar.

Finally, there’s what we’ll call smart requests. These are requests that interact with other services (for example, streaming services like Netflix and Spotify) and other smart devices (like TVs, light bulbs, security cameras and power outlets). After setting up these services and devices with your smart assistant of choice, you can simply ask them to “Play Frank Ocean on Spotify” or “Turn on the bedroom lights”.

How safe are smart speakers?

It’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Sure, having a smart assistant can be helpful, but does it come at the expense of your privacy? Each smart assistant has its own privacy policy, but if you’re dead set on keeping your data to yourself, the Apple HomePod lineup seems to be the safest option. All your requests to Siri are assigned a random, one-time identification number which cannot be traced back to you, and you’ll only be heard if you say the magic words, “Hey Siri”.

Amazon and Google, on the other hand, aren’t quite as strict when it comes to user privacy. Through their respective apps, you’ll find most of the stricter privacy settings are opt-in, meaning until you turn it off, both Alexa and Google Assistant can (and do) record your conversations, supposedly to improve the assistant’s accuracy and user experience. That means you’ll have to do some digging to ensure your data is secure, or you can use your device’s physical mute button to stop them listening in.

We recommend closely reading the privacy policy of whichever smart speaker you choose (third-party manufacturers also have different stances) before purchasing, and exploring the privacy settings once you’ve got one.

Do you need one?

There’s no clear-cut answer for everyone. Sure, no one “needs” a smart speaker the same way they need food and water, but they certainly make life a little easier, especially if you already have other smart devices or regularly listen to a subscription music service or stream movies and TV from Netflix, Stan, Prime Video and the like. They’re also a good option for older family members, since they’re easier to use than many other gadgets and even provide a little company.

If you’re not 100 per cent sold on the idea, it could be worth getting a cheap, older-gen Alexa speaker (or grab one second-hand) to test drive for a few months before you commit to a bigger purchase.