Smart speakers have grown in popularity in recent years and have revolutionized how we interact with technology in our homes.
These voice-activated assistants can perform a variety of tasks, from playing music and making phone calls to turning off lights and organizing your calendar.
But many people worry about having a listening device in their homes.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of smart speakers. Hopefully, this article will help you decide if a smart speaker is right for you.
- The Pros and Cons of Smart Speakers
- Advantages of Smart Speakers
- 1. Greater accessibility for older people
- 2. Make your home safer
- 3. Get emergency help
- 4. Order takeaway food
- 5. Hear jokes
- 6. Give commands from anywhere in the house
- 7. Get directions
- 8. Get recipe help
- 9. Make shopping lists
- 10. Get weather alerts
- 11. Make hands-free phone calls
- 12. Make video calls
- 13. Quickly get the weather and news
- 14. Use it as a smart home control
- 15. Use it to convert weights and measurements
- 16. Use it as a timer
- 17. Use it as an alarm clock
- 18. Play music easily
- 19. Save electricity
- 20. Act as a personal assistant
- 21. In the kitchen
- Disadvantages of Smart Speakers
The Pros and Cons of Smart Speakers
As with all technology, there are pros and cons with smart speakers. There’s a trade-off between convenience and security.
Smart speakers make it much easier to control the devices in your home and access the Internet. But they can also potentially create a backdoor vulnerability for hackers.
We use smart speakers in our house and in my opinion, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But everyone has to make that judgment for themselves – I hope this article will help you do that.
Advantages of Smart Speakers
1. Greater accessibility for older people
Smart speakers can have an enormous impact on the lives of elderly people. For someone with reduced mobility, a smart speaker can really change their quality of life.
With a smart speaker, an elderly person can turn off lights or close blinds without moving.
They can re-order things online and shop without having to leave the house.
Elderly people often struggle to use a computer screen due to visual impairment. But with a smart speaker, they can get the information they need without using a computer.
Another way that smart speakers can help elderly people is companionship.
Obviously, a smart speaker is not a person, but a smart speaker does have a certain kind of ‘personality’. A smart speaker can engage with an elderly person and answer questions. And that can give an elderly person the sense that they are not entirely alone.
Seniors like to listen to audiobooks – a smart speaker can help with this as well. Instead of having to go online and browse, an elderly person can simply ask Alexa to play a particular audiobook.
If you are elderly and have mobility problems, the last thing you want to be doing is searching for the remote to change the TV channel. With a smart speaker, there’s no need to do that: you can tell Alexa or Google which channel you want to watch.
Routines are another way smart speakers can make life easier for elderly people. With an Echo or a Google Home smart speaker, you can create a series of actions that are triggered by a single command.
A single command such as ‘Good Morning’ can turn on the TV, start the coffeemaker, and give your elderly relative a reminder to take their medications.
2. Make your home safer
There’s much talk about the security issues involved in using a smart speaker, but did you know that a smart speaker can help make your home more secure?
Amazon’s Alexa Guard listens for the sound of breaking glass, smoke alarms, and carbon monoxide alarms. If Alexa hears any of those sounds, it sends you an alert with a 10-second recording of the sound. You can even program Alexa Guard to play the sound of a dog barking if it hears noises suggesting an intruder.
You can also use Alexa Guard to turn lights on and off in a way that makes it seem like someone is at home.
3. Get emergency help
But you can set up an emergency contact (e.g., a son or daughter). You can then set up an action so that when the elderly person says, “Alexa, get help”, the smart speaker calls that number.
Google Home Mini (image credit: Google)
4. Order takeaway food
You can use your smart speaker to order food directly from certain takeaway food outlets.
With Amazon’s smart speaker, for example, you can order and reorder food from Domino’s, Grubhub, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Starbucks, Denny’s, Wingstop, and Whole Foods.
The Alexa command for ordering a pizza from Domino’s is “Alexa, open Domino’s”. That opens the app, and you can then tell Alexa what you want.
Google Assistant has a similar function. You can order food using the smart speaker from delivery companies such as DoorDash, Postmates, and ChowNow.
Using contact and payment details saved in Google Pay, your Google smart speaker automatically makes its way through the restaurant’s checkout process.
5. Hear jokes
If you’re down in the dumps and need to be picked up, you can ask your smart speaker to tell you a joke. With Google Assistant, just say, “Ok Google, tell me a joke”. With Alexa, say, “Alexa, tell me a joke”.
6. Give commands from anywhere in the house
The ability to give commands from anywhere in your house is another benefit of smart speakers.
Each smart speaker brand has a cheaper version (e.g., Amazon’s Echo Dot or Google’s Home Mini). These usually sell for $30 to $40. You can sprinkle these around your home so that wherever you are, your voice is never out of range of a smart speaker.
7. Get directions
In both Google Assistant and Alexa, you can get directions to a destination. You can also ask what the traffic is like along that route.
You can then ask either Google or Alexa to send the information to your phone. You’ll receive the information as a tappable notification that starts route guidance within your default maps app.
8. Get recipe help
If you’re in the kitchen and stuck for recipe ideas, you can ask your smart speaker for help.
Just say, “Alexa, read me a recipe for [insert food here],” and Alexa will find you a recipe and create a shopping list for you, if needed.
If you have a smart display screen (e.g. Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub Max), you can also watch a YouTube video that shows you how to make that recipe.
Amazon Echo Dot (image credit: Amazon)
9. Make shopping lists
You can also use your smart speaker to make shopping lists.
With Amazon’s smart speaker, just say “Alexa, create a list”. Alexa will ask you what to name your list and will then ask what items you want to add to the list.
Once created, it will synchronize the shopping list across all your devices (smartphone, tablet, etc) that have the Alexa app installed.
To find your lists in the Alexa app, go to Settings > Lists > Your List Name.
On a Google Home device, the procedure is the same. Just say, “Hey, Google, start a grocery list”. Google will confirm that it’s made the list and then ask what you want to add.
10. Get weather alerts
Smart speakers can help you stay safe during severe weather.
On Amazon’s smart speaker, you can enable weather alerts by saying, “Alexa, tell me when there’s a severe weather alert.”
The next time there’s an extreme weather event headed your way, you’ll get an alert across all your Echo devices.
You can also ask your smart speaker if there are any weather events in your area. Just say, “Alexa, what are the current storms?”
Severe weather alerts are currently not available on Google smart speakers, but you can get regular weather updates.
11. Make hands-free phone calls
Hands-free phone calls are another enormous advantage of smart speakers. However, this is currently only available for outgoing calls only.
Phone calls from smart speakers are made over the Internet using “VoIP” or Voice over Internet Protocol. That means you don’t even need a landline to make a phone call.
Google’s Hands-Free Calling allows you to call anyone for free if you are in the US or Canada.
Amazon has a similar feature on its Alexa smart speakers: the ability to make free calls from your Echo device to mobile and landline numbers.
12. Make video calls
If you have a smart display (a smart speaker with a touchscreen), you can make hands-free video calls.
With an Echo Show, just say, “Alexa, video call [contact name]”. If this is the first time you have called that person, Alexa may ask you to confirm the person’s details, but otherwise, your call will go straight through.
On a Google Nest Hub simply say, “Video call [contact]”.
13. Quickly get the weather and news
Instead of using your phone to get the weather or news, you can simply ask your smart speaker.
On an Echo device, you can get an Alexa flash briefing. You also listen to long-form news updates or tune into the radio station of your choice.
14. Use it as a smart home control
Perhaps the biggest benefit of a smart speaker is that it serves as a control for all your smart home devices.
Both Alexa and Google can integrate with things like smart bulbs, smart thermostats, smart doorbells, smart security cameras, smart sensors, smart garage doors, and so on.
And if Alexa doesn’t already integrate with one of your smart home devices, you can create a ‘Skill’ that will handle that device.
The same goes for Google Home – if a device doesn’t already ‘Work with Google’, you can simply download the manufacturer’s app and link the app to Google Home.
With a smart speaker, you don’t need to open the Alexa app or the Google Home app on your smartphone. You can just tell the smart speaker to turn off the lights in a particular bedroom, close the garage door, turn on the oven, arm the security cameras, or make a phone call.
And if you have a smart display screen, you can access the video doorbell and see who’s at the front door.
Having an app on your phone that controls all your household devices is a great convenience. But a smart speaker takes that convenience to another level.
15. Use it to convert weights and measurements
Another advantage of having a smart speaker is that you can ask it to convert weights and measurements on the fly.
Let’s say you’re in the kitchen, and the recipe calls for 55 grams of butter. Normally, you would have to pull out your smartphone and search for an online converter.
But with a smart speaker, all you have to do is say, “Alexa, what’s 55 grams in ounces”.
Simple as that!
16. Use it as a timer
You can also use a smart speaker as a timer. Again, this is simpler than using the timer on your phone.
If you have a dish that needs to be in the oven for 35 minutes, just say “Alexa, start a timer for thirty-five minutes”.
It’s hands-free, and there’s no break in your workflow.
Sonos Smart Speaker (image credit: sonos.com)
17. Use it as an alarm clock
You probably already use your smartphone as an alarm clock, but you can just as easily use a smart speaker.
In fact, it’s probably easier – if you want to turn an alarm off or adjust the time of the alarm, you can do it with a voice command without opening the app on your phone.
18. Play music easily
The ability to listen to music is one of the biggest advantages of a smart speaker. For many people, this is the best benefit of owning a smart speaker.
Instead of scrolling through endless playlists searching for a song, you can simply say, “Alexa, play [name of song]”. And if you have an account on Amazon Music, you’ll have your song in less than two seconds.
It’s great for when you’re cooking, doing some housework, or when you have guests over for a dinner party.
However, if you are a music lover and have a discerning ear, you should probably avoid getting entry-level smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini.
Apple’s HomePod gives the best sound of any smart speaker, but as a controller of smart home devices, it’s nowhere near as good as Amazon’s Echo or the Google Home smart speakers.
If you want both a powerful virtual assistant and a smart speaker with great audio, your best bet is the Google Home Max. It has better sound than Amazon’s Echo Plus, and it automatically adapts the sound to adjust to the room.
Another plus with the Google Home Max is that if you buy two of them and pair them together, you’ll have stereo speakers.
19. Save electricity
A smart speaker makes the job of controlling your smart devices much easier than using the app on your phone. That means you are more likely to turn appliances off when you don’t need them than if you had to use the Google Home app or the Alexa app on your phone.
The result is that you are more likely to save on electricity when you have a smart speaker.
Apple HomePod (image credit: Apple)
20. Act as a personal assistant
A smart speaker will act as your very own personal assistant. Obviously, it won’t do your filing for you, but a smart speaker can definitely cut down your workload.
Here are some of the cool things a smart speaker can do for you:
- Remind you to do things – just say, “Alexa, remind me to go to my doctor’s appointment at 3 p.m.” or “Ok, Google – remind me to put out the bins tonight”
- Remind you where things are – just say, “Alexa, remember that I hid the passports under the floorboards”. When you need your passports, just say something like: “Alexa, where did I hide the passports?” In Google Assistant, you can do the same thing. For example, you could say, “Hey Google, remember that my spare keys are in the kitchen cabinet.” When you need the spare keys, just say: “Hey Google, where are my spare keys?”
- Find your phone. If you have the ‘Find My Phone Alexa skill’ enabled, just say, “Alexa, find my phone,” and Alexa will call your smartphone.
- Book appointments. With Alexa’s Smart Scheduling Assistant you can use Alexa to move appointments and schedule meetings based on participants’ availability.
21. In the kitchen
The one place where a smart speaker can be really useful is the kitchen. When I’m cooking I often have sticky fingers, and I don’t want to be touching my iPhone. It’s really nice just to be able to say: “Alexa, convert 32 ounces into grams”.
Another reason a smart speaker in the kitchen is a great idea is that you can set overlapping timers (e.g., you have two things in the oven with different cooking times – roast beef and roast potatoes).
Disadvantages of Smart Speakers
The biggest disadvantages of having a smart speaker in your house are undoubtedly security and privacy issues.
Many people feel uncomfortable having an open mic in the house. And it’s not just one microphone we are talking about – the Amazon Echo, for example, has seven different microphones (these different microphones capture voice from different distances and in different background noise conditions).
Here are some disadvantages of having a smart speaker in your house.
1. Having a mic in the house
When people worry about having a microphone in the house, there are usually two different underlying issues: 1) do smart speakers listen to everything I say, and 2) do they record everything they hear?
Let’s look at these two questions in more detail.
Do smart speakers listen to everything?
Alexa will wake up whenever it hears the ‘wake word’. This creates the impression amongst users that Alexa is constantly listening to everything that is being said.
Strictly speaking, smart speakers are always listening as long as they are switched on. But until they hear the wake word, that’s all they are doing: listening. They are not recording what they are hearing and they are not sending information to the cloud.
When a smart speaker is idle, all it is doing is waiting to be activated with a wake word.
Do smart speakers record everything they hear?
A smart speaker is always on, but it doesn’t start recording until it gets activated. So, nothing is being recorded when the smart speaker is in standby mode.
However, Alexa can be activated accidentally.
This happened to a family in Portland, Oregon in 2018. During a private conversation, Alexa was activated by a word that sounded like the wake word. Alexa started recording the conversation. It then heard words that sounded like a ‘send message’ command, and Alexa sent a recording of the conversation to one of the family’s contacts.
This was obviously an accident and was a rare occurrence. But it shows that smart speakers can breach your privacy.
When you give Alexa a voice command, a recording of that command is sent to Amazon’s cloud where they process the request and find the right response.
This worries some people. But don’t worry: your recorded interactions with Alexa are encrypted before being sent to Amazon’s cloud.
2. Vulnerability to hackers
Any smart home device that is connected to the Internet can potentially be hacked.
This was highlighted in August of 2021 when a security researcher named Matt Kunze discovered that the Google Nest Mini had a “backdoor” vulnerability that allowed hackers to create a dummy account. That account could then be used to control the smart speaker.
The hacker would then be able to listen in on private conversations and also gain access to other smart home devices linked to your Google smart speaker.
Google reportedly fixed this problem in early 2022 and awarded Matt Kunze a ‘bug bounty’ of $107,500.
Clearly, smart speakers can be a weak spot that gives hackers a way into your home. But this is a broader problem facing all smart home devices: anything connected to the Internet is potentially vulnerable.
In the end, using smart speakers (and other smart devices) is a trade-off between convenience and security.
3. How to limit the security risks
There are various measures you can take to reduce the security risks of using smart speakers.
For example, you can implement two-factor authentication (2FA). This would mean that before making a purchase through your smart speaker, a confirmation code would be sent to your smartphone.
There are other ways to make your smart speaker more secure, such as disabling purchasing commands, limiting the type of devices you connect to the smart speaker, deleting your recordings, securing your Wi-Fi network, and enabling voice recognition so that the smart speaker will only respond to your voice.
4. Being locked into an ecosystem
Another disadvantage of smart speakers is that once you buy one, it can lock you into the ecosystem associated with that smart speaker.
Google, Amazon, and Apple each have their own families of smart home devices and each will try, through its smart speaker, to keep you “within the family”.
However, with the development of the Matter protocol, this is becoming less of a problem.
Matter is a new industry–unifying standard that allows smart devices and systems to work seamlessly together, regardless of the smart home control platform you are using.
This means that in the future, it won’t matter whether you have Google’s, Amazon’s, or Apple’s smart speaker. All these smart hubs will be using the Matter protocol, which makes smart home devices interoperable across platforms.
Smart speakers are a powerful way of controlling all your smart home devices from a single device, completely hands-free.
They can also act like a personal assistant and do things like booking appointments, organizing your calendar, making to-do lists, and reminding you of upcoming events.
There are certainly some privacy and security issues involved in having a smart speaker in your house, but you can reduce those risks by changing the settings for your smart speaker.
For me and my wife and for many other people, the advantages of smart speakers far outweigh the disadvantages.