A smart speaker answering comands
The Best Smart Speakers of 2017 PHOTO: Shutterstock

When smart speakers first burst on to the scene in 2015, you would have been forgiven for labeling the whole movement a fad. It’s just another luxury item that doesn’t bring much value, you may have thought. But since then, the smart speaker market has grown exponentially, and it’s showing no signs of slowing. In fact, Juniper Research recently published a report forecasting that by 2022, 55 percent of U.S. households will have at least one smart speaker installed.

What Is a Smart Speaker?

Smart speakers, also known as smart home speakers and digital voice assistants, are devices designed to sit in the home and react to voice commands. The average smart speaker can help a user execute voice search commands to find answers on Google, check the weather, monitor traffic, control other smart home devices and tap into audio platforms like Spotify or a podcast app. They respond to comments directed at them, and can even tell a joke.

While there’s no doubting that smart speakers are cool, their functionality at the time of writing, is admittedly basic. But the reason for the rapid rise in popularity is not because of what a smart speaker can do now, but what they’re showing signs of doing. The potential of smart speakers was summed up by branding guru and serial investor Gary Vaynerchuk at the Oslo Business Forum 2017. “[I believe in] Alexa Skills and Amazon's big push for Alexa and Google Home and the Apple HomePod. I believe in that space not because it's showing ROI today, but my intuition and consumer behavior tells me in 36 months and 48 months every single person here is going to interact with an AI-based speaker or device to [execute] search queries and buy products,” Vaynerchuk said.

Smart Speaker Features: A Brief History, A Bright Future

Smart home speaker systems are all the rage right now, but you could argue that they have roots back in 2006, when Apple launched the iPod HiFi — a product which flopped thanks to limited functionality and a hefty price tag. The technology wasn’t there, and the market didn’t really see the point. But a lot has changed since then. Smart speakers don’t just have wifi, they have the ability to recognize voices, tap into databases, schedule meetings and play games.

Consumer usage of smart speaker since the Echo was released in 2015 has been interesting. A 2016 Experian study found that 51 percent of all smart speakers were located in the kitchen, with the most popular Alexa Skill being the kitchen timer. But as we move into 2018, it would be fair to assume that things are changing on that front thanks to the 15,000+ Alexa Skills publicly available, including long lists of narrowly targeted skills, like Alexa Skills for marketers.

With artificial intelligence and machine learning making strides, there’s no telling just how advanced the average smart speaker will be in just five years time, let alone beyond that.

Top Smart Speakers 2017

Amazon Echo

At the time of writing, the Amazon Echo is the smart speaker market leader by a long stretch. The Amazon Echo hold approximately 68 percent of the smart speaker market, and thanks to the ever-growing number of Alexa Skills being released by third-party brands and indie developers, the Echo leads the way in terms of functionality, too.

The Echo’s unique differentiator, which no other device will be able to match, is its deep integration with Amazon’s core retail arm. Amazon customers only need to ask Alexa to buy something, and the order will be placed. Later, you can track that order or check your account information. Amazon has also ensured that their smart speakers appeal to all pockets, with a relatively large line of Echo products that range in price. The cheapest is the miniature Echo dot, while the most premium product is the Echo Plus.

Amazon is not alone in the smart speaker market however. In fact, quite a bit of pressure is applied from some of the biggest names in tech.

Google Home

Google Home is Amazon Echo’s biggest competitor with around a 20 percent slice of the smart speaker market. 

Feature-wise, Google Home is very similar to the Echo, but they each have their own subtle differences. For example, Google Home has a larger brain thanks to access to Google’s native search engine, not to mention seamless Chromecast integration. Google also provides a framework for developers to build their own Google Home apps, and they recently teamed up with Target to allow U.S. users to make purchases using nothing but voice. So, while it’s not quite the Amazon Echo, it’s getting pretty close.

Apple Homepod

The Apple HomePod is scheduled for an “early 2018” release and puts a lot of emphasis on audio quality. Apple HomePod packs a pretty serious seven beam-forming tweeters and a four-inch upward-facing woofer that Apple promises will rock the house with distortion-free audio And yet, Siri — which, at this stage in its life, simply isn’t as intelligent as Alexa or Google — will be on hand to answer questions and execute tasks on command. Also, HomePod will also form part of Apple’s HomeKit platform which seeks to provide all the smart technology a home needs, from bulbs to thermostats.

Raven

China’s most popular search engine, Baidu, which is also a global force in artificial intelligence, has announced their own line of smart speakers (which appear more akin to robots) set to go on sale in China. While there is no release date yet, you can be sure that Ravens will play a role in the future of smart speakers, particularly as Baidu has plans to sell outside of China.

Other Smart Speakers To Watch

The remaining 12 percent of the market is shared between a number of emerging smart speakers. Since the software is the hardest piece of the smart speaker puzzle, most vendors have drafted in Amazon, Google and Microsoft technology to handle the “smart” part, while they focus on the “speaker” part.

The Sonos One — which has Amazon Alexa built right in — is perhaps the most popular option thanks to their brand being synonymous with great audio systems. Samsung-owned Harman also has a line of Link smart speakers, each boasting a different virtual assistant. One has Google Assistant, another has Alexa, while the third boasts Microsoft’s Cortana.

Anker’s Eufy Genie speaker also boasts Alexa. It’s cheaper than all the Amazon smart speakers, but with a supposedly better speaker than the Amazon Echo Dot.

Alexa-enabled Fabriq and UltimateEars are two more smart speakers to keep tabs on.

Do you have a smart speaker already, or, are you planning to build your own Alexa Skill? Tell us where you stand on smart speakers in the comments below.