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Hey, Speaker, How Do We Make You Work?

Voice-activated devices are hot items. Here’s how to get your wishes by command

smart speakers

Sam Kaplan

Voice command speakers are quickly becoming a household staple.

En español

What are the products?

Three product lines — Amazon Echo, Google Home and Sonos One — dominate the market, with Apple HomePod set to join. All operate by voice command but differ in what apps and products they support. Prices run from $30 to $400, with increasing functionality at the higher end.

How do I get started?

Don’t think that you can plug the thing in and just start ordering it around. First, you download an app on your smartphone or computer. Then you sync your speaker to all the apps you wish to control by voice, such as your email, your phone or a music service (such as Pandora). “Setup is pretty easy but takes a while to complete if you have a lot of different logins,” Jeff Chase says. One aspect of smart speakers may take some getting used to: It’s always listening because it’s waiting to hear your commands. However, the devices don’t start recording you until you issue a wake-up command of “Alexa” or “OK Google.” Those recordings are held in cloud storage, but you can delete them.

a smart speaker

Sam Kaplan

Voice command speakers are stylish, too.

How can I make it do more?

Many news organizations now offer audio briefings. You can even get the AARP Now daily news roundup for older Americans through the Amazon Echo. Maegan Bregenser, a crisis coordinator in Pittsburgh, uses her Amazon Echo to juggle complex kitchen projects. “I can set multiple timers at once to track multiple dishes, and Alexa will tell me when each one finishes,” she explains. Google and Amazon both recently updated their devices to distinguish between different voices. You and your spouse can update your own calendars, send emails and access your apps without complicated account switching.

Can it control other devices?

With the right equipment and some setup, you can command your doors to lock or unlock, your sprinkler system to water the lawn, your lights to dim, your coffee maker to commence brewing, your furnace to turn up the heat and so on. Says Chase, “All you do is go to the speaker’s home control app on your phone and hit the plus sign to add a new device.” Don’t you feel smarter already? 

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