Voice-commanded devices and their apps are turning up the volume in the market, but who will get your ear?
When Apple finally entered the wireless speaker market with HomePod, which can be voice-controlled by Siri, its competitor Sonos, which now responds to voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa, took a swipe at the launch with a tongue-in-cheek playlist on Spotify, a service that the HomePod cannot access except through a workaround using other devices. While gags like this make the rivalry of these manufacturers sound like fun and games, the truth is that they are in a ruthless race to gain market share among literally dozens of new players in the space, from some you may have not yet heard of, like the TCL Xess video home hub ($499), to spin offs to the most popular devices, in different sizes and colors.
Some of these speaker systems and their attendant voice-commanded assistants are better than others, and some are simply clones. Here’s a short list of the ones we like, and why.
HomePod is a powerful speaker and sounds amazing, but Siri has a lot of catching up to do in order to hold a candle to Alexa, and at the sticker price of $349 and its inability to work with streaming music services besides Apple Music, there’s better bets out there, unless you are simply an Apple fanatic and will have nothing else.
Sonos remains a favorite, with its first-to-market Hi-Fi Wi-Fi streaming abilities and pairing with speakers in the Sonos family, including the new single speaker silo, Sonos One ($199), with Alexa built in.
808 XL-V smart speaker is a new entrant to the Alexa-enabled speaker systems, with a design closely resembling the original Amazon Echo, though the 808 has a bit more style than the original with its fabric-like wrap, resembling a traditional Wi-Fi speaker. Using the 808 audio app, you can use voice commands to control all the smart devices in your home, like thermostat and lightbulbs, and you can access your Amazon music and book library as well as premium accounts on Spotify and other music streaming services; or you can always use the Bluetooth connection to stream audio from other Bluetooth enabled devices or hook it up devices to the aux-in jack. The 808 XL-V also has the ability to stream the same music simultaneously from another 808 XL-V, you can play the same music in every room where you have a speaker.
Of course, you can’t talk about Alexa, without talking about the Poindexter stepsister-from-another-mother, Google Assistant, originally developed for Google Home and now expanding into a number of devices, including the adorable Google Home Mini ($49).
The TicHome and TicHome Mini are two great entrants into the Google Home voice command family. These speakers have great audio quality, especially for their size, and they also come in a variety of attractive colors to spruce up your countertop, desk or wherever they sit with their compact footprint. Like Google Home, they access the massive knowledge base of Google search, so by comparison to Alexa-enabled devices, The Google Assistant-enabled devices are far superior. The one big downside is that Google Assistant is not able to access your Amazon Music account at this time, obviously because their competitor controls the behemoth Amazon enterprise, but if you subscribe to premium services on Pandora and other listening services, you won’t miss a beat.
Amazon has had to up their game with more exciting speakers to compete with all the other Alexa-enabled systems now on the market. Amazon has met the demand for variety by adding not only an assortment of devices, such as the Dot ($49), Tap ($129), featuring both wi-fi and Bluetooth capabilities, and the tablet-like Show ($229), they’ve also added colors to the scheme. Now you can choose from hues like a teal and orange to liven up your table top and blend in with your decor.
As the creator of Echo ($129), of the first-to-market voice command speaker, Amazon Alexa is still king, or queen as it were, when it comes to audio quality and responsiveness, with its Dolby-powered omni-directional seven speakers that detect voice from multiple directions around it. And because Amazon’s signature Alexa-enabled speakers were build to work with the Alexa app, they are the most seamless in performance with Alexa and experience much lower rates of error than the other systems built by third parties.
With all of these systems, there is still work to be done to perfect their interactions with voice command. Expect that for no reason at all sometimes these speakers drop off Wi-Fi, requiring a reset or other intervention, and no matter how clearly and loudly you command them, sometimes you have to repeat yourself and yell at them like they are a petulant child to get them to do something or stop doing what they’re doing. But just like our kids, once we have them, we wonder how we ever lived without them.
I admit I am a bit biased when it comes to Roku. I was the first on my block, maybe my hood, to have Roku, back when smart TV was just catching on, and the industry was still grappling with what to call this ilk of device — set top box, streaming TV, video-on-demand — you get the picture. I told anyone who would listen about my cool new little Roku XS, which from what I can figure is now called Roku 2 ($69.99), with some adaptions.
Then I learned you could get Roku 3, which features earbuds that you can plug into the remote control for private listening. I was sold. Roku 3 ($currently priced at $89.99) was the perfect solution to my problem of having to turn up the TV loud enough that I could hear it over the noise of my elliptical trainer in my bedroom. Now when I worked out, I did not have to hear my family and even my neighbors complain about the loud TV. Then I added the new Roku 2 to the TV in my guest room.
So now that I have the good, better, best models, I can compare them. Roku 1 comes standard with composite cables just in case your TV doesn’t have HDMI. For full HD, you’ll need HDMI though. While you get all the features of the other Rokus, the 1 does not have the headphone jack for earbuds.
Roku 2 has all of the above, plus the headphone jack. It also has pre-set buttons on the remote for four of the most popular channels — M-Go, Amazon, Netflix and Blockbuster. Perhaps it was my TV or settings, but when I hooked up 2, it was not as clear a picture as with 3 on my 39″ HD flatscreen. I ended up putting the 2 on a smaller HD 26″ flatscreen where it looked just fine.
Roku 3, touted as the fasted Roku, has an HDMI output but no RCA jack connectors, so you must have a modern TV with HDMI. Roku 3 also does not have the pre-set buttons on the remote, which I happen to like better, as its cleaner; and really I only regularly watch Amazon and Netflix of those pre-set channels, and the buttons seem like a bit of commercialism to me. the 3 has an Ethernet port as well as a USB and MicroSD slot, so you can add personal media, expand storage and go cabled if you do not have Wi-Fi to connect to. I have found this handy when wireless streaming is spotty and the show is constantly interrupted by the annoying “loading” message. When I switch from wireless to the Ethernet connection the signal seems to be more consistent.
All Roku models carry over 2,000 channels with over 200,000 movies and TV episodes; plus music, news, sports and more. they are all about the same in their pocket-flask size, except for the Roku streaming stick ($49.99), which is ideal for mounted TVs since it can be hidden behind the TV when plugged into an HDMI imput; but it lacks the headphone jack.
Over the years Roku has continued to improve the layout of the screens and setting and search features. I still get excited when I see the little personified Roku logo dance around when the unit is first fired up. As someone who refused to pay high cable subscription fees, Roku is a great alternative. Though many of the premium channels has a fee, i.e., Netflix is $7.99 per month, and come still require a cable or Direct TV subscription,like HBO Go or Showtime Anytime, I still feel like i have more control over having to pay for a multitude of channels I don’t want.
I did freak out to think that if my remote crashed I was SOL, because there is no way to turn on or operate the Roku box on the unit itself. But I discovered the Roku app, and now I have it loaded on my iPhone 6 and a couple tablets, so I will never be without an remote.
Now every TV in my house has a Roku, which is great, and also not so great. My hope is that Roku will develop a unit that can replicate so I do not need a receiver in every room. Also, thought it seems it is often the fault of the channel and not the streaming device, I am looking forward to the day when programs stream without “loading” breaks. Ok Roku, I am tapping my foot like the logo-man. Lets see what you got next.
Wireless is the word this holiday season. Here are some of the hottest new products for streaming, remote controlling, connecting and getting your Bluetooth on for the tech geek on your gift list.
Speakers of the House
Give the music lover on your list something to sing about with Sonos. This versatile wireless streaming speaker system, controlled by a simple app for MAC/PC, smartphone or tablet, allows you to play music in every room you have a speaker. Play the same song, or a different song, from your music library or any podcast, Internet radio station or service like Pandora or I Heart Radio. Give a Sonos PLAY: 1 Gift Pack ($199, including Sonos Bridge, http://www.sonos.com) compact speaker as a starter, which delivers powerful HiFi sound all by itself; or a pair it with a second speaker for truly rich stereo sound; or build it out year by year into an immersive multi-room set up that will rock the house.
For the frequent traveler on your list, keep them connected with Kanex mySpot ($49, http://www.kanexlive.com) a travel-sized access point that can turn a hotel live Ethernet connection into a wireless-g signal. Plug mySpot’s USB cable into your laptop or charger for power, and with a click you can safely and securely connect all your wireless devices to your own personal wireless network.
Lots of Hub Hub
Keep the plugged-in addict on your list powered up and connected on the go with the IOGEAR Wireless MediaShair Hub ($99.95, http://www.iogear.com). The paperback book-sized device charges up – using USB or included cigarette lighter charger — and then serves as a hub for media storage devices to stream music, movies, photos and files to up to seven Wi-Fi enabled devices. The hub doubles as an access point when connected to an Ethernet cable. Equipped to stream from a SD card, flash drive or external hard drive using a USB connection, the hub’s built in power station battery can charge other devices and lasts for up to five hours.
Three’s a Charm
The thrice-as-nice-as-the-original-Roku, Roku3 ($99, http://www.roku.com), raises binge TV watching to new heights. For the show monger on your list who can’t get enough streaming video, this amazing and diverse palm-sized powerhouse delivers Netflix, HBO GO, VUDU Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and over 1000 other free and subscription services to any HDTV. The simple hook up includes an HDMI connection to your TV and a wireless connection to your home network. The sleek remote control handset comes with Roku’s signature purple earbuds for personal listening – ideal for late night viewing that won’t wake the rest of the house. The improved and easy- and fun-to-use interface includes a one-stop search across multiple channels, so you can comparison shop those episodes of Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey.
For the Helicopter Parent (and Kids)
It’s been said the difference between men and boys is the size of their toys, but the MOTO TC and the HELO TC by Griffin Technology proves size doesn’t matter. Designed for users age 14 and up, and coveted by men (and of course women and girls) of all ages, the toy remote touch control monster truck and helicopter utilize free apps for IOS devices for control. Powered by a 4.8 V @ 600mAh NI-MH fuel cell, the Tonka-sized truck can slide, tilt and track with a virtual steering wheel and throttle or perform figure eights and laps. The twin-rotored HELO TC indoor helicopter app can record up to three flight plans and use a touch control throttle and joystick or tilt-and-steer control to move the helicopter forward, back and side to side. HELO TC’s built-in battery recharges from any USB power source. The Flight Deck module requires 4 AAA batteries. (HELO TC $49.99, MOTO TC $59.99, www.griffintechnology.com and retailers nationwide).
At a press event in San Francisco today Google announced a new device that will put content from Android, iOS and Chrome OS devices and content from Chrome browsers to a TV screen. A next and better generation than Google’s similar but costly oogle Nexus Q, which never made it to market, the $35 dongle-type device, called Chromecast, runs a simplified version of Chrome OS and connects directly to a TV through the HDMI port. The device allows users to wirelessly send 1080p content from services like Pandora, Google Music, YouTube and Netflix from various devices to their TV. Users can still use their device to multitask without interrupting the stream. Devices can also be used as a remote control to turn the TV on, raise the volume and add more content to the streaming queue. Chromecast is available now through Google Play, Amazon and Best Buy. Early adopters will be given three months of Netflix service for free with their purchase.