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Get the Most From Your Digital Home Assistant

Voice-activated, hands-free home devices help with mobility, memory and more

Digital Home Assistants

Courtesy of Amazon, Google

Smart speakers, or digital assistants, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo can prove helpful for older users.

Digital voice-activated personal assistants — such as Amazon Echo ($99) and Google Home ($129) — can be helpful tools to users age 50 and older in some everyday ways.

These small Wi-Fi devices, available to consumers since 2015, can be placed in any room. They have a loudspeaker and a sensitive microphone, which make it easy for the devices to hear directions and for the users to understand the questions they ask or the information they provide.

Both assistants can be helpful with:

  • Safety and service. You might ask your assistant to turn the lights on, for example, as you enter a dark house or room with your arms full. Or you may ask to have the temperature adjusted if you are unable to get to a thermostat.
  • Mobility. Use your voice to set a timer to turn on the oven in which you've already put dinner. Or ask the assistant to turn on classical music when you've settled in for a post-work glass of wine.
  • Memory. Assistants can remind you of birthdays, even suggesting age-appropriate presents. They can take dictation of your grocery list and — if you can't get out to a store — order everything you need to be delivered.Assistants can recall for you the place you told them you put your passport or keys. They can prompt you to take medication at the correct time or pay credit card bills on time.

Voice-activated assistants work like a computer — all the smarts are hosted and delivered by Amazon or Google over the internet. To get started with Google Home, users need a Google account, a mobile device — such as a phone or tablet — and the latest version of the Google Home app (found in the App store on your mobile device). Plug in Google Home and follow the instructions on the app to connect to Wi-Fi. Amazon Echo sets up in a similar fashion, but requires the Alexa app instead of Home.

After saying a word to awaken the assistant — “Alexa” for Amazon Echo, or “OK Google” for Google Home — simply ask a question or give a command, and you’ll hear a human-like female voice respond accordingly.

You'll find as much information on the assistants as you could look up on any internet-connected computer. For example, you can ask how many calories in a piece of chocolate cake. Or you can request a recipe to make the cake, with step-by-step instructions. You might check your portfolio with the latest stock quotes, or find out how long it will take you to get to the local mall given real-time traffic.

And if the grandchildren are over doing homework, both Amazon Echo and Google Home can give language translations, math equations, geography facts, spelling help and much more. Powered by Google Assistant, Google Home can also play noises for the kids on demand — such as animal sounds and vehicles.

Both smart-home assistants can detect different voices in your home, so they can be shared. Each user will get his or her own calendar appointments or curated music playlists when asking for them. And both Amazon Echo and Google Home will find a song for you — even if you don’t know the title. For example, if you say, “OK Google, play that song that says, 'Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner,' ” it will play "Get Back" by the Beatles.
So, which voice-activated assistant should you buy? Both Google Home and Amazon Echo are worthy picks to give you hands-free access to information. (A third version, Apple’s HomePod, has been delayed to 2018.)

If you're a fan of Google products — such as Gmail, Google Calendar, YouTube and Google Maps — you may lean toward the Google Home or Home Mini.

If you're a fan of shopping at Amazon.com and are an Amazon Prime member — which includes access to streaming music and video services — you may consider the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot.

Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot are the smaller assistants that are more affordable (each $49), and they do much the same thing as the larger options. They’re not as loud, but you can place a few of these around your home — and they’re all connected over your Wi-Fi.

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