Smart Speakers: a cold, not cool gift

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Christmas gifts are a tricky thing. For the most creative, romantic, or codependent amongst us the “thoughtful” gift is probably the gold standard; for example a trinket that symbolize or commemorates an important event or experience you share with someone. Second best is the expensive gift which basically says “I have a lot of money and rather than putting actual thought into the gift I just bought the highest priced item on your Amazon Wish List.” Third there is the exactly what they asked for gift, which isn’t necessarily expensive or thoughtful, but the recipient will be happy. There are a dozens of other gift giving strata in the spectrum of thoughtful-to-revenge gift, but exactly in the middle is an era I have dubbed “cold technology gifts.”

Now we all know what a piece of “hot technology” is; the latest and greatest phone, a video game system that always seems to be sold out in stores, a top of the line camera, et cetera. On the other extreme “crap technology” is more impulse buys at truck stops, things that resemble something you want but lack all the engineering, durability, and features of the desired item it resembles. These are tablets from companies you’ve never heard of, key finding widgets, sunglasses with cameras embedded, and other stocking stuffers that you will promptly lose.

Cold technology can easily be summed up with one item; the smart speaker. A year or two ago, the Amazon Echo stormed this previously undiscovered marketplace. It seemed every other person was unwrapping a smart speaker and envisioning music streaming, audible recipe guidance, shopping list making, finally syc up your tv, thermostat, lighting, house locks, security system, and everything else you’ve dreamed about since the term “internet of things” crept into the lexicon. Problem is to do all of that, your home and appliances must be connected in a manner that allows it. So rather than figure all that out, or buy new appliances that allow such connectivity, most users simply use their smart speakers to stream music at voice command. Cold tech; seems to have promise, but reaching that promise requires a lot of work.

Thankfully, all recipients of smart speakers are happy just to have that streaming music, and should they find a free weekend they might dip their toe in the rest. This means giving a smart speaker isn’t received without enthusiasm, just know it won’t be remember as a great gift.

So with all that said, what speaker is the smartest and has the best chance of overcoming deflating label of “cold tech”. First, let’s look at the Amazon Echo. Having been around and buzz worthy since 2015, you would imagine Amazon would have used it’s jumpstart to refine it’s product and build something worthy of leading the pack. Sadly this is not the case. At $100, the Echo (2nd generation) is still connected to Amazon’s marketplace which enables voice shopping, adding items to wish lists, and music streaming, but as a speaker it’s just okay. The sound quality is fine, with okay bass output but depending on the room size it could end up sounding hollow and underwhelming. Of course any smart speaker can be linked with a stereo system, but only through analog means. Finally, a big downside is the Echo can’t be used a speakerphone. Still $100 bucks it's a decent investment and the recipient will know the device when they unwrap it.

Next to Echo, the other tech giant speaker options of the Google Home ($130) and Apple Homepod ($350) are actual more versatile, include smarter features, sync wirelessly with your phone, but vary on sound quality and have peccadillos of their own; i.e. Apple only syncs with Apple devices, Google has no analog inputs or outputs. Now this is just scraping the top layer of smart speakers and we haven’t even sniffed the screen enabled models. But if you’re giving to a tech lover and not an audiophile, these are the serious choices.

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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