Welcome to another week in smart home from The Ambient. It’s where we round up the biggest stories of the week, hunt out some good technology deals and shout about some of the great editorial we’ve run on the site.
Read on for our expert insights into a turbulent week for Apple’s HomePod and news of another technology giant getting into the smart speaker game.
A tad later than the first flurry of reviews, The Ambient’s Apple HomePod review went live this week. Our verdict is that HomePod is a superb AirPlay speaker deeply entrenched into the Apple ecosystem, but Siri lags behind its rivals, making its value questionable for those weighing up a purchase against an Amazon Echo speaker.
The Ambient co-founder Paul Lamkin highlighted its shortcomings in our review:
“There's no way around it – the Apple HomePod feels half-baked… we're living in a new era; an era of multi-platform streaming media, smart home automation and digital assistants. And in that era Apple is lagging behind its two big rivals – Google and Amazon.”
That lag behind Amazon and Google was further evidenced by a report by Loup Ventures, which asked all three voice assistants over 700 questions, and graded their responses. The report found that Siri only nailed 52% of questions, compared to 64% by Alexa and 81% by Google Assistant. The reason for Siri’s slump largely lies behind a bunch of features that HomePod doesn’t support, including calendars – and that will need to be addressed soon.
The final issue Apple’s been battling this week is reports that HomePod is marking wood furniture. Yes folks, the issue has been given a –gate suffix, so you know it’s a thing. Ring-gate has been widely reported, and Apple has done its utmost to play down the issue, instructing customers to re-stain their furniture to manufacturers instructions – like some kind of Ctrl-Alt-Delete for furniture faux-pars.
Anyway, we’re pleased to report that all The Ambient’s wood is ring-free so far, but we’re closely monitoring the situation.
Facebook smart speaker coming
In a good old-fashioned tech rumour, it seems that Facebook is poised to enter the smart speaker game. Digitimes has alleged that the company’s Portal smart display is being prepped and will land in July “at the latest”.
So what do we know? Well, there seems to be two variants in the works, codenamed Aloha and Fiona. Aloha – it’s believed – is an Echo Show style device with a 15” screen. It’s said to have a 360 degree camera and be focused on video calling, but also have facial recognition elements too. That means it could blend devices like Echo Show, but also the Nest Cam IQ Indoor, alerting you when members of your family arrive home, acting as a home monitor.
Fiona looks to be some kind of smart speaker, with rumours of a $100 price tag.
It’s the first product out of Facebook's Building 8 projects division and something of a milestone from the company, which hasn’t produced hardware as yet (outside of Oculus).
So what voice assistant will it use? Well, that’s not clear. Facebook just shut down a trial of M, an AI assistant – but don’t forget Jarvis, which Zuck made in his spare time in 2016. That was voiced by Morgan Freeman. Could we see a rival on Aloha and Fiona? Watch this space.
Amazon works on Alexa chip
Big improvements could be headed for future versions of Alexa on Echo smart speakers. Amazon is apparently working on a dedicated chip for Echo, which would handle Alexa commands on the device, rather than defer to the cloud.
So what does that mean? Well, first it will speed things up, making Alexa much snappier in the information she offers. Secondly, it could boost usefulness away from an internet connection in some cases, and possibly pave the way for better, portable Alexa devices.
Apple has been a leader in using on-device chips to do heavy lifting. Face ID and fitness tracking on iPhone and audio handling on HomePod are controlled by specific chips, and taking performance to the next level could be critical for Alexa to keep ahead of Google Assistant beyond 2018.
Deals of the week
Building a smart home can be an expensive business – we get it. Every week we pick out a few smart home deals on recommended tech.
US: $50 gift card when you buy 2x Sonos One with Alexa - If you plump for two Alexa-toting Sonos One speakers on Amazon, you’ll get a $50 gift card in return. Sure, it’s not cold hard cash, but it pays for a couple of Lifx bulbs to get your smart home underway. Check out our review of the Sonos One.
US: The Eufy Genie – 50% off. $19.99 down from $39.99 - At the other end of the Alexa price scale, you can bag an Eufy Genie for just $19.99, 50% off its original price. It’s a nifty little smart speaker with Alexa inside, and it uses the wake-word, rather than any press-to-wake nonsense. It boasts a 3.5mm jack, but has fewer microphones and no Bluetooth compared to the Echo Dot. But for many that’s forgivable at this price.
UK: Logitech Pop – save £50. £70 down from £119.99 - A decent saving on a pair of extremely useful Logitech Pop smart buttons and the hub makes this an attractive proposition. They can be set via IFTTT-style controls so you can set multiple scenes for your home.
UK: Arlo 3 pack – £299 down from £409.99 - If you’re looking to boost your home security, this pack of cut-price Arlo cameras could be just the ticket. They’re Full HD, battery operated and suitable for indoor and outdoor placement and boast night vision, too. This Arlo camera has been superseded by a newer version, but you get three for half the ticket price. Check out the best smart home cameras.