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Getting the Most Out of Your Smart Speaker

Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri can help you check on a loved one, converse in a foreign language or make an emergency call

woman operating smart speaker devices in her home

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En español | Having a personal assistant at your beck and call has become more affordable in the past few years.

Small digital assistants such as Amazon Echo Dot ($49), Google Nest Mini ($49) or Apple's HomePod Mini ($99) may seem like a high-tech indulgence. But they can help around the house in some useful and unexpected ways.

Enable these small smart speakers by saying a wake word — “Alexa” for Amazon devices, “OK Google” on Google gear, or “Hey Siri” for Apple HomePod — before a question or command, and you'll hear a pleasant human-like voice respond. Perhaps you want to hear the weather, set a timer for the oven, or find out how old Sean Connery was when he died (90). Or if you dare, ask how your stocks are doing.

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Smart speakers also can be used to control smart devices in your home, such as adjusting a thermostat or turning down the lights — all hands free.

Some of these devices, such as the Amazon Echo Show family from $69 or Google Nest Hub from $99, have screens for seeing information along with hearing it. So you can look at a step-by-step recipe for baking chocolate chip cookies. Smart displays also can show you cat videos on YouTube, place a video call to family members, if the model has a camera, and reveal who's at your front door via a compatible doorbell cam.

But this just scratches the surface of what these voice-enabled personal assistants can do. Their capabilities have evolved through the years.

Amazon Echo

Set up Care Hub. Care Hub is a set of Alexa features designed to help older adults maintain independence and provide reassurance and peace of mind to their family members. First, both family members agree to create a connection between their two Alexa accounts. Then, the Care Hub can give the family member providing support an easy way to check in with their loved one remotely while maintaining privacy.

Aging loved ones also can get immediate help if they need it. The link between accounts can let them set their family member as their emergency contact. If help is needed, they simply can say, “Alexa, call for help,” and Alexa will call, text and send a push notification to alert the family member.

To set it up:

1. Open the Alexa app on your smartphone. Tap More on the bottom right-hand side. Select See More. Now tap Care Hub.

2. Click Create Relationship. Type in whom you'd like to connect with, including email address.

3. The recipient opens the link received and taps Get Started.

4. The recipient signs in with a personal Amazon account. To proceed with Care Hub, the recipient selects Next and fills in information.

5. The recipient taps or clicks Send, you will receive a confirmation email to accept the invitation. If needed, you can see more detail from Amazon.

Create and share shopping lists. Keeping track of shopping lists is easy. You can add items to your Alexa shopping list by simply saying, “Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list."

When you want to look at your list, open the Alexa app on your smartphone. Tap the menu icon in upper-left corner, then tap Lists & Notes | Shopping to view it. You'll notice you can check off items as you buy them.

Additionally, use the Send My Shopping List feature to share your shopping needs with a loved one. Customers can say, “Alexa, send my shopping list to [contact name],” and Alexa will identify the contact and confirm that it's the correct match for sharing.

Set up routines. Routines are designed to make your life easier and more productive, taking a bunch of things you can do with Alexa and bundling them together seamlessly.

For example, you can set up a pre-bed routine that automatically turns off the lights in your home, enables the home alarm system and lowers the temperature a tad — all when you say, “Alexa, good night.” You need smart devices or for other devices, such as a lamp, to be plugged into a smart plug for this to work.

To get going, open the Alexa app. Select the word More and choose Routines. Select Plus. Now follow the steps in the app to choose what starts your routine. Tap Save.

Google Nest

Set up interpreter mode. Your Google Assistant-powered smart speaker or smart display is equipped to translate conversations. Simply say “Hey Google, be my [language] interpreter” with several dozen languages supported, from Arabic to Vietnamese. That's not as many as you'll find using Google Translate, which has more than 100, but it can be useful.

The feature can help Americans who aren't fluent in the language of their ancestors and want to communicate with grandparents or other relatives whose first language isn't English.

Now you can sit down by a Google Nest speaker or display and have a conversation with someone, with each talking in his or her own tongue. I spoke with my uncle, who is older than 90, in English, and it translated my words into Italian for him and then Spanish and French after that.

Add a Family Broadcast. This new feature allows you to broadcast messages to all smart speakers and devices grouped together. For example, you can ask members of your family group to see if they're available for lunch at noon tomorrow, and each family member can “reply” hands free or by tapping the Reply button from an iPhone or Android device.

To set up Google Assistant's Family Broadcast, you first need a Google Family Group in the Google Assistant settings. Google has provided instructions for setting this up based on the device you're using. Alternatively, you can open the Google Home app on your phone and tap More | Settings | Google Assistant | You | Your People | Your Family.

After your family group has been created, you can send broadcasts from your Google Nest or Home devices or a smartphone. Say, “Hey Google,” then something like “Tell my family [xxx]” or “Broadcast to family [xxx]” or “Ask my family [xxx]."

Find your stuff. Google devices can remember where you've placed important things — if you tell it while the location is fresh in your mind.

Say “OK Google,” followed by something like “Remember my passport is in the small drawer in the kitchen.” In the future, ask “Where's my passport?” and your smart speaker will tell you where it is and on what date you mentioned the reminder.

Google Assistant also can help you find your smartphone at home, perhaps if it slipped between the sofa cushions.

Say, “OK Google, find my phone,” and listen for your smartphone to ring loudly, which it will do even if you've set it to Do Not Disturb. It knows it's your phone because you've set up the companion app on that device.

Apple HomePod

Pick your Siri voice. Siri now includes more diverse voice options in U.S. English, including male and female, and no longer has a default voice. So you can choose the voice that speaks to you right from the start. Set it up by going to Settings | Siri & Search | Siri Voice on iPhone.

For your HomePod, follow these steps:

1. Open the Home app on your iPhone and find your HomePod in the list of Favorite Accessories.

2. Press and hold your finger on the word HomePod.

3. At the bottom of the screen, tap Details.

4. Scroll down to Siri. Choose Siri Voice in the menu here.

5. Tap Siri Voice and choose the accent and gender for the voice that you wish to use.

Place an emergency call and now call emergency contacts. With the latest iPhone operating system update, iOS 14.5, Siri added support for calling emergency contacts if the iPhone or HomePod owner needs assistance and is unable to make a call.

You can say “Hey Siri, call 911,” or “Hey Siri, call emergency services.” Once you do, Siri will attempt to use the iPhone you've connected to the HomePod or another iPhone on the same network to complete the call.

As for emergency contacts, you can set them up on your iPhone in any of these apps: Contacts, Health, Phone or Settings.

With the Health app as an example:

1. Open the app and tap your profile on the top right.

2. Select Medical ID. If you have not yet set up your Medical ID, you'll be asked to do so.

3. Tap Edit at the top and then scroll down to Emergency Contacts.

4. Tap the plus sign (+) to add a contact. Choose your contact and phone number, then pick the Relationship to you.

5. You can add another contact or tap Done at the top.

Learn nutritional information. Siri can provide nutritional information for foods, including calories, cholesterol, fat, fiber, sodium and vitamins.

For example, say “Hey Siri,” followed by:

  • Tell me nutrition information for [food]
  • Is [food] healthy?
  • How many calories are in [food]?
  • How much fat is in [food]?
  • Is there any vitamin D in [food]?

Finally, don't forget to experiment with your smart speaker to see what your personal assistant can do. It's part of the fun.

Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.