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Why invest in a voice assistant

Just think out loud to get things done

What's a voice assistant?

You know how iPhones have Siri to set reminders and search for things when you've got your hands full? That's a voice assistant. But Apple isn't the only company with one, and they no longer just exist inside your phone.

Amazon and Google both offer voice assistants, and they live inside high-quality speakers that can also be the music centre for the room. Amazon's assistant is called Alexa, and Google's is Google Assistant.

One assistant can dwell in lots of different devices: Alexa has a smartphone app, the Amazon Echo and Dot speakers, plus TV-connected devices like the Fire TV Stick. She's like one person that you can find in lots of different places, and they all connect to each other.

Why would I want one?

We've all got too much to do. Being able to command a virtual assistant to do something for you saves time, and it also means you can multitask more effectively. If your hands are covered in flour but you need a two-minute timer, you can set it by voice without even having to stop kneading.

Because virtual assistants live in a speaker with a microphone, they're present in your home whenever you need them. Talking to one is kind of like thinking out loud – instead of saying to yourself "I need to buy bin bags," you can say, "Alexa, add bin bags to my shopping list" and it's done.

What can they do?

The main thing many people use their virtual assistant for is music. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home include high-quality speakers, and you can use them to dictate the music you'd like to listen to.

For instance, you can say "OK Google, play The White Album" or "Alexa, play the song that goes 'I would do anything for love'" and they'll do it instantly. You can play, pause, skip and change the volume hands-free, too: ideal for singing along while washing up.

Voice assistants can play digital radio stations, or read you the news. They can tell you what's on your schedule for today, what the traffic's like, and whether you'll need an umbrella. Plus there are all sorts of extra functions: they can tell you a joke, play trivia games, or entertain the kids.

Which device should I get?

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant offer a similar range of features – music, radio, timers, news, weather, that kind of thing – but some people prefer one over the other because of what else it works with.

If you use a lot of Google products and services, you might prefer Google Home. It links up to your Google account and Google search, so it can do things like telling you where your meeting is and how to pronounce 'train station' in Spanish. If you use Chromecast for TV or audio, it can link to Google Home, meaning you can control Netflix by voice, and command music to play through specific speakers throughout your house.

If you use Amazon a lot, you might prefer Alexa, which can place orders through your Amazon account by voice, as well as linking up with other apps like Uber and Just Eat.

The two systems work with a slightly different set of smart home products. Mainstream smart home brands like Philips Hue work with both systems, but if you have a particular device you want to be able to control by voice, check it works with your chosen assistant before purchase. Most of them work with at least one, and both assistants are adding more compatibility all the time.

Finally, it'll depend on your home audio setup. If you already have a good speaker you want to use, you can get the cheaper Amazon Echo Dot (£49.99) and connect to it, rather than paying more for the Echo (£149.99), which has its own speaker. Currently, Google Home only comes in one version with a built-in speaker, for £129.

What can I listen to?

Unsurprisingly, both speakers default to their manufacturers' music services: Google has Google Play Music, and Echo likes Amazon Prime Music. If you've got a Spotify Premium subscription, however, you can use either speaker to listen to it, and both offer free digital radio stations.

You can also listen to podcasts and audiobooks. If there's a particular service you want to use, it's best to check compatibility before making a purchase.

How easy is it to set up?

Really easy. Just install either the Amazon Alexa or Google Home app, connect to your device, then set your preferences as you want them. You can choose your default music service, the news sources you like, where you live for weather, and so on. With Alexa, you can even change the name you address it by – Star Trek fans will be pleased to know it can be called "Computer" if you prefer.

You add other smart home devices within the apps, too. If you have a Nest thermostat, for example, you can voice-control the temperature using either Amazon Alexa or Google Home. It's very easy to set up, but if you get stuck, the product website has detailed instructions.

Anything else?

Both Amazon and Google's voice assistants have fun little extras you can try out. Try asking Google Home what it's afraid of, or ask Alexa if Santa Claus exists.