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What is a smart speaker?

Using your hands to do anything is old-fashioned and clearly not of the future that Star Trek envisioned. A smart speaker is the answer to those problems, but what exactly are they and how do they work?

This guide tells you everything you need to know about the technology, how it operates and which options are available.

What is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker has microphones built-in so that it can listen for an activation word, take your voice request and then perform the right action, which can range from giving you a voice reply (such as the current weather forecast) or controlling a smart device (such as turning on a light).

All smart speakers work with a voice assistant, with the three main ones being Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri. The voice assistant you get depends on the product you buy. Every main voice assistant has its own range of speakers: Alexa gets the Echo range, including the Amazon Echo 4th Generation; Google Assistant gets the Nest Hub range, including the Nest Mini; Apple Siri works on the HomePod Mini speakers.

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant also have third-party companies that make speakers. Most come pre-installed with a voice assistant, but the Sonos range, such as the Sonos One or Sonos Arc, let you choose which voice assistant you want to use.

All voice assistants are cloud-based. That is, your voice request is sent to a cloud server for processing, and the result is funnelled back to your smart speaker. The advantage of this system is that there are few software updates to handle, and new features appear instantly on all connected smart speakers. It also means that smart speakers don’t become obsolete very fast: the first-generation Amazon Echo has, largely, the same range of features as the latest model.

What can smart speakers do?

Smart speakers are capable of doing a lot of varied jobs. At their simplest, you can ask basic questions, such as the weather forecast, what the answer to a sum is, or even who’s starring in an upcoming film. You can link your personal accounts to smart speakers too, so you can get an update of calendar appointments for example.

With the addition of smart home skills, you can link your smart devices to a speaker, giving you voice control over your home, such as turning up the heating without having to get off the sofa.

All smart speakers can play music, streaming directly from a linked account to a music service like Spotify. You can usually cast music to speakers from your phone, plus most speakers can be used via Bluetooth as well.

What about smart displays?

A smart display is similar to a smart speaker, only it has a screen built-in, so you can see visual information alongside voice replies. This can be a full week’s weather forecast on screen or something more specific, such as a video feed from a security camera.

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