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How to make the most of your new smart speaker

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Nick Kirmse, CTVNews.ca Staff


Published Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:00AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:06AM EST

Christmas has come again, and many Canadians will find themselves unwrapping a voice-activated assistant this year.

Smart speakers have made it into the mainstream, with almost 15 per cent of Canadian homes owning at least one device, according to a Consumer Technology Association study from November of this year.

Though Google’s Home mini is still king, the Amazon Echo Dot is closing the gap, while Apple’s more expensive HomePod pulls up the rear.

Worried that your new smart device might end up just being an expensive paperweight? Never fear – voice-activated assistants are a simple and painless way to streamline home entertainment.

But once you know your way around the device, they have the potential to be much more than that.

With more than a year since the Google Home and Amazon Echo line of voice-assistants launched in Canada, have the smart speakers caught up to what their American counterparts can do?

Not quite yet, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot your new voice-activated assistant can do for you.

CTVNews.ca takes a look at the best tips, tricks, and tweaks to help you make the most of your new device.

Up your entertainment game

Getting started with your new smart speaker really is as simple as they make it look.

Download and open either the Amazon Alexa or the Google Home app, and you’ll be prompted to set up your device.

Follow the on-screen instructions and create or log into your Google or Amazon account, and you’re good to go.

Once you’ve got the device online and connected to your account, it’s as easy as saying “Alexa, play Despacito” and tunes will start playing from the default music service.

While the default options will work, if you want access to a deeper selection of music, the Echo and Google Home are both good at enhancing your home media choices.

Regardless of what device you own, it’s easy to explore their proprietary music services, as well as free music-streaming mainstays such as Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.

When it comes to video, the brand divide can start to complicate things.

The little speakers, smart as they may be, can’t control your TV on their own. That’s where devices such as the Chromecast or the FireTV come in.

While Roku-branded devices can play nice with either Google or Amazon products, the companies have decided to restrict their devices to their own AI systems.

That means Echo devices will only control Fire TV, while Home can only co-operate with Chromecast – if you have mismatched devices, you’re out of luck.

But once that’s sorted out, you can use your voice to control what you’re seeing on the screen, casting YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and more directly to your TV.

Just say “Hey Google, play American Vandal season 1,” and your Chromecast will start playing your show.

You can control playback with your voice, telling the device to pause, rewind, and skip episodes.

Unfortunately, requesting specific episodes or seasons of a TV series is not supported by either Google Home or Amazon Echo, but if you’re looking to binge watch a series over the holiday – you’re set.

Catch up with the latest news

Want to quickly catch up on the day’s top headlines? Alexa and Google assistant can help with that.

Just ask Alexa “What’s the news?” to start the flash briefing function, giving you news and content from the world’s most popular broadcasters, as well as local weather and more.

You can customize your flash briefing experience to have Alexa read news from your favourite sources, including CTV News.

Just say “Alexa, enable CTV News,” to add the skill to your Echo devices.

Other Canadian, U.S., and international news networks are also available.

Google Home devices can also be customized to fit your preferences through the Google News page online.

You can ask them to read you news from specific providers, a particular topic, or the latest news on a category, like sports or technology.

Simplify your morning

Picture waking up to a room slowly lighting up to emulate the sunrise, checking the morning’s news, and heading downstairs to the smell of freshly brewed coffee – all without lifting a finger.

It’s not just science fiction anymore, thanks to Routines.

Routines allow your Echo or Home assistant to execute multiple actions at once, activated through either a key phrase or at a set time.

To get rolling with automation, set up your routine through the Home or Alexa app, telling your assistant what smart devices you want to control.

For example, you could set up a “good night” routine that turns off all the lights, locks the doors, and adjusts the thermostat instantaneously.

With the ability to easily create custom routines, you’re limited only by your imagination – and the number of smart devices you own.

For Amazon Echo users, the company has announced that location-based routines will be coming to Echo devices at some point in the future.

The new feature will allow for routines to automatically start when you enter or leave your home, so you don’t even have to take the time to say the key phrase to get your smart-home humming.

Make your home ‘smarter’

There are a number of smart-enabled devices that you can integrate with your Echo or Home products to start automating your home.

Smart lights, such as the Phillips Hue, are one of the most common smart items, allowing you to remotely turn your lights off and on.

But some of the more expensive smart bulbs go way beyond the traditional on-off, giving you the option to change the colour of the light, dim the brightness, or play music through a built-in speaker.

Smart thermostats such as the Nest or the ecobee can be paired with voice-assistants to let you make the room more comfortable without leaving the couch, while products such as the Ring doorbell allow you to remotely view and talk to anyone who comes to your front door.

You might even want to take it to the next level and install smart locks, allowing you to ask Alexa if your doors are locked, remotely allow people to enter your home, or get warnings when your door didn’t close properly.

Have any other “dumb” devices that you want to integrate into your smart home?

Several companies offer smart plugs that allow you to control your TV, lamp, or other appliances or integrate them into your routines.

Major appliances are also making the jump into the realm of voice-control, with ovens, washers and driers, and refrigerators being developed to allow you to remotely run wash cycles or preheat your oven.

For those looking to try out voice-activated appliances without breaking the bank, Amazon has released an Alexa-enabled microwave.

Retailing for only US$60, the smart microwave can intelligently heat items; picking a power level and time based on what you tell it is inside.

Currently, the microwave is only available in the U.S. on Amazon.com, but keep your eyes open for the device to make it to Canada if you don’t want to go through the trouble of importing one.

Not all gadgets are universally compatible, so before you start buying any and every smart gadget, check the product information to make sure they’re compatible with Alexa or Google Home, and that they don’t require a home hub to operate.

Reach out

Making and receiving phone calls through your Echo or Home device Is an added perk.

Simply register for device-to-device calling in the Alexa or Google Home app, which verifies your phone number, and you’ll be able to use your voice-activated device in place of a phone.

Currently the Echo allows you to make calls to most mobile and landline numbers in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, while Google Home can reach numbers in Canada and the U.S.

Another cool feature you can take advantage of, if you’ve got multiple Echo or Home devices, is to use the devices as a multi-room intercom with the Announcements and Broadcast features.

Forget yelling downstairs to tell the family it’s time to eat – simply say “Alexa, tell everyone supper is ready” and your voice will be broadcast to any Echo devices or Fire HD tablets around the house.

If you’re after a more in-depth conservation, both the Echo and the Home can do device-to-device calling, including video chats if you own an Echo Show or Echo Spot or a Google Home Hub.

Call another room in your house, a friend, or a relative on the other side of the world, and their device will let them know you’re waiting to talk.

Sort out dinner plans

One of the most touted functions of voice-activated assistants is their usefulness in the kitchen.

Echo devices and Google Home can become your personal sous chef, talking you through 60,000+ recipes step by step – but they have plenty of other uses in the kitchen you may not know about.

The devices can convert measurements, keep multiple timers running, and even play music while you cook – all you have to do is ask.

Build a shopping list by telling Alexa or Google assistant what you need to buy, which you can print or check on the go through the respective apps on your phone.

If shopping isn’t in the cards today, enable the Allrecipes skill on Echo devices to receive recommendations of what meals you can make based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Or, if you don’t feel like cooking at all, ask Alexa or Google Assistant to order from Foodora, giving you a curated choice of local restaurants.

The skill, launched last summer for Alexa and last month for Google Home, allows you to order food by name, ask for your “usual” order by setting your preferences online or in the app, or to repeat a past order.

You can also track your delivery through your virtual assistant, getting an estimate for how long it will take until the delivery is at your door.

Have some fun

Google Home and Amazon Echo may have plenty of more serious uses, but they also know how to have fun.

Both have a variety of fun activities that you only have to ask to play, including riddles, jokes, and games.

The games range from the simple – Blackjack, 21 Questions, and Hangman – to more in-depth fun such as trivia and quizzes, Mad Libs, or voice-based RPG and exploration games such as 6 Swords.

Both Alexa and Google Home have an endless knowledge of pop culture, making for some fun Easter eggs.

Alexa who she’s gonna call, to set beam you up, or where in the world is Carmen Sandiego and see what happens.

Some of the best Easter eggs for Alexa and Google Home have been compiled by Reddit users, if you don’t want to search them out by yourself. 

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