Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod — or all 3? How to choose a smart speaker

Google introduced the Mini and the Max at an event in San Francisco.

All you’re hearing out of the voice-activated smart speaker market is static. You wish you could ask Alexa or the Google Assistant to help you sort out this burgeoning business, a space in which the biggest names in tech are all crowding around to grab your attention.

You wonder how much to spend. Mini, Max, Plus or original? Whether to choose a speaker with a screen? And must you commit to one virtual assistant over another?

The latest noise came with Google’s unveiling Wednesday of new Google Home offerings built around the Google Assistant. Only a week earlier, Amazon announced the expansion of its own line of Echo speakers, featuring its voice-driven virtual assistant Alexa.

Meanwhile, Apple is readying its HomePod speaker activated with Siri, best known from the iPhone. Harman Kardon (owned by Samsung) is doing the same with the upcoming, yet-to-be priced, Invoke speaker that houses Microsoft’s Cortana assistant.

Alexa continues to branch out into other devices, too, including speakers made by the likes of Sonos and Lenovo.

More:Google launches $49 Google Home Mini, rival to Amazon Echo Dot, and $399 Home Max

More:Watch out, Apple: Amazon announces new $99, Alexa-powered Echo

More:Amazon Echo Show: Worth it once the kinks are worked out

More:Sonos speaker now works with Alexa and soon, Siri and Google Assistant

More:Follow USA TODAY Money and Tech on Facebook

The smart speaker market really got going in 2015, when Amazon introduced consumers to Alexa as part of the original Echo speaker. Amazon has remained the clear leader since, controlling about 70% of the market, eMarketer says, and now boasting north of 20,000 Alexa “skills.”

Here are the key questions to help you get smarter about smart speakers:

What makes a speaker smart?

These aren't the dumb speakers of yesteryear but rather connected speakers that leverage the Internet and artificial intelligence.

You engage them by calling upon one of the aforementioned cloud-connected virtual assistants by barking out a wake word — notably “Alexa” in the case of an Echo.

Amazon and Google each have lined up partners to work with the speakers, and the kinds of things you can accomplish with the devices continues to mushroom.

There are the basic, and yes, useful, things you can do: asking for the weather, a wake-up alarm or kitchen timer, for example. Or getting the speakers to deliver news, podcasts or music on command — limited by the available services you subscribe to.

The speakers can respond to financial queries and answer questions related to trivia or your kids’ schoolwork. You can use them to make calls, too.

There’s also a growing emphasis on home automation: using your voice to control lights, thermostats, doorbells and other items are what tech companies are banking on will become your increasingly intelligent home.

What are the main buying decisions?

In simple terms: design, price and any steadfast loyalty you might have for one ecosystem or digital assistant over another.

Alexa may help you shop (through Amazon of course). A Google advantage comes through search and the company’s vast reservoir of knowledge. If you’ve got an iPhone you’re probably most comfortable with Siri, though many pundits believe Apple’s assistant must play catch-up to the others.

Amazon and Microsoft announced recently that Alexa will talk to Cortana and vice versa, though it is unclear how smooth (or useful) such interactions will be. Meanwhile, don’t hold your breath waiting for the other virtual assistants to become chums anytime soon.

Why such a disparity in price — from around $49 to $399?

Google Home Mini.

In general terms, you’re paying for speaker quality, though there are other factors like whether the device has a screen or built-in smart home hub.

Let’s start at the low end. Amazon sells the $49 Echo Dot, a price matched by the just- announced Google Home Mini. The pint-sized Dot speakers are adequate for Alexa or the spoken voice generally but not for music mavens seeking richer, louder and purer sound. Though I haven’t tested one yet, the same can surely be said for the Google Home Mini.

You do have options if you want a better music experience, however. In the case of the Echo Dot, you can connect optional headphones or other speakers by running a 3.5mm stereo cable to the jack on the unit. Or you can connect Dot wirelessly to a range of Bluetooth speakers.

Amazon Echo Dot

There’s no such 3.5mm jack on the Home Mini or Bluetooth support. But in keeping things within the Google ecosystem, you can connect Google Home Mini wirelessly to Chromecast Audio-capable speakers.

At first blush, the new stone-shaped Home Mini is better looking than the Dot. It comes in three colors, is covered in fabric and is meant to blend in nicely with your home décor. But either the Dot or Home Mini can be helpful bedside or kitchen companions.

The benefits of stepping up?

You get better sound, for starters. And Amazon did recently lower the price of the full-size Echo to $99.99, where it competes against the full-size $129.99 Google Home, which is now on back order.

Amazon also just unveiled a $149.99 Echo Plus with a smart home hub inside, a price that under a temporary promotion includes a free Philips Hue smart light bulb. Setting up smart home devices can be exceedingly complicated, but Amazon insists Echo Plus makes it a breeze to do so, a claim we’ll have to put to the test.

Since Apple, Google, Samsung and others have a vested interest in pursuing a smart home strategy, don’t be surprised to see speakers that follow suit down the line. Even without a dedicated hub, you can use your voice and these speakers to control many of the smart devices you may have in your house. 

HomePod vs. Max: Spending even more?

The HomePod speaker is photographed in a a showroom during an announcement of new products at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Monday, June 5, 2017, in San Jose , Calif.

For now, the highest end of the smart speaker market means Apple’s $349 HomePod with Siri and Google’s $399 Google Home Max with Google Assistant, both not slated to ship until December. Such speakers still may not tickle the fancy of audiophiles, but these pricier options are meant to get music lovers jazzed.

Google says it will be able to deliver superior sound not just through tweeters and woofers but by employing artificial intelligence and machine learning. It has trained the Max speaker in thousands of different room configurations to fine-tune sound profiles based on the environment and can pretty much change on the fly as you move it around (though it still must be plugged in).

Google Home Max

Worth considering though if you’re a music fan is the Sonos One speaker that was also announced Wednesday, which features Alexa and a lower $199 price tag.

Since these are larger speakers more likely to be out in the open, you’ll want to pay attention to the aesthetics. That's a very personal thing  but Apple often comes on top when it comes to design.

Of course, the most important way to evaluate these speakers will be to listen to them.

Portable speakers?

Amazon Echo Tap in a Sling case. The Tap is battery operated.

Though you can schlep Dots or Minis from room to room, these and most other speakers need to be plugged in. One exception is the Amazon Tap, a portable Bluetooth Alexa speaker that operates on a battery. And when it comes to portability, all these digital assistants live in your smartphone.

Do I want a screen?

Use the Echo Spot as an alarm clock that can also show you the weather, play videos, and more!

In short, maybe. For now, you have two options, and both are from Amazon. There's the $229.99 Echo Show ($100 off when you buy two), which has a 7-inch color touchscreen, and the $129.99 Echo Spot, which has a 2.5-inch screen. The latter won’t be available until December.

A show and tell Echo means you can eyeball song lyrics, watch movie trailers or other clips, peek at security cameras, and yes, make a “drop-in” video call to a loved one equipped with their own Echo Show or Spot.

Show is functional but but won't win any awards for beauty. The compact Spot is more appealing physically.

You can make video calls through Echo Show.

It should be noted that through a recent spat between companies, Google recently removed YouTube videos from Echo Show.

Google hasn’t ruled out coming out with a Google Home unit with its own display, but for now, as Google exec Rishi Chandra told me, the company would rather “take advantage of screens you already have,” be it the phone in your pocket or the TV in the living room.

But Chandra says manufacturers are going to eventually build devices with every screen size imaginable to see which ones sticks and which ones don't.

Which means there’s likely to be a lot more noise surrounding your decision to choose which speakers to buy down the road.

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