What to Know About Smart Speakers

Smart speakers can do more than play your favorite songs — they can help you with your everyday life. Here's what you need to know.

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Smart speakers are one of the biggest trends in home automation. Not only do they give you a way to listen to your favorite music, they can also make your day easier, entertain, check weather and much more.

What Is a Smart Speaker?

A smart speaker has technology added to give it voice command capability. Some examples of smart speakers include the Amazon Echo, Google Home Mini, and Apple HomePod. Unlike other speaker systems, smart speakers do not come in pairs. They stand alone or connect to a separate, compatible sound system.

Each smart speaker has a built-in virtual assistant. In Amazon smart speakers, the assistant is called Alexa. In Google smart speakers, it’s Google Assistant. In Apple smart speakers, Siri. You are probably familiar with at least one of these assistants because they are often used for voice commands on smartphones.

How Do Smart Speakers Work?

Smart speakers operate via voice commands. When the speaker “hears” you speak a trigger word, it tries to carry out the command that follows. The trigger word is typically the smart assistant’s name. With Google Assistant, the trigger word is two words: “Hey Google.” It’s like trying to get a person’s attention.

Say you wanted to listen to music. You would say the trigger word and then your command. It would go something like this:

  • “Alexa, play pop music.”

  • “Hey Google, play pop music.”

  • “Siri, play pop music.”

Smart Speaker Features

All smart speakers can play music from streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Sirius. In addition to streaming music, they can also:

  • Create virtual grocery lists;

  • Give you reminders;

  • Add events to your online calendar;

  • Give you weather and traffic updates;

  • Answer questions.

Speakers that use Alexa and Google Assistant can also do advanced tasks like order pizza, play games and tell stories.

Can Smart Speakers Be Hacked?

It is possible for hackers to remotely access your device so that they can listen to your conversations. There really isn’t any evidence this is a common problem, although there have been instances of other smart devices getting hacked. In most of these instances, the hacker accessed the devices through an owner’s weak passwords or through the app, not by actually hacking into the electronics of the device itself. Using a strong password and two-step authentication is the best way to protect your devices from hackers.

Do Smart Speakers Listen In?

Smart speakers are built to listen all the time, in case you need them. The words you say are sent to the device’s cloud to be “translated” so the assistant knows how to help you. Sometimes what you say is collected and analyzed by the company to “improve customer performance.” You can turn off the ability to save sound clips for analysis in the speaker’s app settings.

How Much Do Smart Speakers Cost?

Smart speakers run from around $40 up to around $300. We’ve found that price really does factor in when it comes to quality sound. The more you pay, the better the sound quality. For example, the Amazon Echo ($100) has much better sound than the much less expensive Amazon Echo Dot ($55).

Alina Bradford
Alina Bradford is a technology and internet safety and security expert for SafeWise.com and has contributed her insights to dozens of national publications, both in print and online. Her goal is to make gadgets less mystifying, one article at a time.