Lost in Translation (why smart speakers are often more useful than the assistant built into your phone)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

There is a sentiment out there among some that these smart speakers that have become all the rage in recent years are just a fad. The idea is that voice assistants are indeed helpful, but they are always better on a phone or smart watch than they are in a stationary device in your home. They say “Siri on my Apple Watch is just as good as Alexa and it’s with me everywhere” or “Google Assistant is already on my phone, why would I want it stationary in my house?”

I understand these sentiments, as I once felt the exact same way. I didn’t understand how a voice assistant could possibly be more convenient by being somewhere stationary in my home, rather than in my pocket or on my wrist.

I’m here to say I was a fool.

After getting our first Echo Dot on Black Friday 2016, my wife and I now have 3 voice speakers in our home: Google Home in the living room, Google Home Mini in the bedroom, and Amazon Echo Dot in the kitchen. With this setup we have a situation where we can ask a question from anywhere in the house (besides the bathroom) and get a response from one of these assistants. That’s about $150 total in hardware, which is not that bad for getting full coverage of our home. At $29-a-pop for these mini speakers, it’s not that expensive to get really good coverage really fast.

We’ve upgraded from one to two to three devices over time because of the value we see in these speakers. I have an iPhone, a Pixel, and an Apple Watch, and my wife has an iPhone. The number of times we’ve used Siri while in the house this past week is exactly zero. The Pixel 2 is always on me, but again I have not used it for Google Assistant when I’m in the house. The number of times we’ve used Alexa and Google Assistant is off the charts. I’d guess about 100 times, but that’s kind of a ballpark. Whatever the exact number is, it’s a hell of a lot more than Siri.

So why do I do this? After all, I actually really like Siri and think she gets an undeservedly bad reputation. I think the reason is that voice assistants remain a very new and hit-or-miss technology. Most tech things in our lives basically work all the time. Voice assistants are more like 50-70% successful, which makes them useful but also very frustrating. When you add whether the device hears you at all into the mix, it gets even worse. My phone could be in 100 different places at a given moment: in my pocket, on my desk, in the couch, in the bedroom, in a bag, in my hand, in my wife’s hands, etc. There are maybe 2 or 3 positions where it’s ready to listen for “Hey Siri” and the odds of it being in one of those spots is low. I need to move my phone so it’s ready for “Hey Siri” before I speak to it. Even if it is in a good spot already, I need to think about where it is and then ask my question. The Apple Watch is better for this, but I still have to raise my wrist first. This can be awkward, especially when I’m cooking and need to know how many tablespoons are in a cup.

Meanwhile, a stationary voice assistant is always in the same place and is always ready to respond to requests. There is no extra thought that needs to go into a request like this, you just ask away. It’s easy.

There’s also something to be said for a “public” or a “family” assistant. If my wife and I are wondering how tall an actor is, for example, either one of us can simply call it out wherever we are and we know an assistant will respond. To have this sort of convenience with our iPhones, we would need to each have our phones out in the perfect position to hear each of us. Since our phones are trained to respond just to our own voices, we can’t talk to each other’s phones. Meanwhile, the Echo and Home will answer any question or complete any request either of us asks. The Google Home has the added benefit of being able to distinguish between voices, so I can ask “what’s on my calendar?” and it will tell me my events, and my wife can ask the same question and it will giver her her own events. If you were wondering, if a stranger asks, it won’t tell them anything since it’s not a voice it recognizes.

The two reasons listed above are the main reasons I personally find a voice assistant far more useful to me when it’s built into a speaker in my home. It’s totally true that these speakers are not with you everywhere, and a smartphone or smart watch wins in that situation, but that doesn’t mean there is not room for another device when you’re at home.

For what it’s worth, I actually find Alexa to be less useful than Siri in almost every way. My argument is not based at all on the quality of the assistants in any of these phones/watches/speakers. Even though I like Siri more than Alexa, I use Alexa more when I’m at home because the hardware it is on is more convenient.