smart speaker

JBL’s smart display combines Google smarts with good sound

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, JBL, smart speaker, Speaker, TC | No Comments

If you’re looking for a smart display that’s powered by the Google Assistant, you now have two choices: the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. Lenovo was first out of the gate with its surprisingly stylish gadget, but it also left room for improvement. JBL, given its heritage as an audio company, is putting the emphasis on sound quality, with stereo speakers and a surprising amount of bass.

In terms of the overall design, the Link View isn’t going to win any prizes, but its pill shape definitely isn’t ugly either. JBL makes the Link View in any color you like, as long as that’s black. It’ll likely fit in with your home decor, though.

The Link View has an 8-inch high-definition touchscreen that is more than crisp enough for the maps, photos and YouTube videos you’ll play on it. In using it for the last two weeks, the screen turned out to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but you’d expect that given that I put it on the kitchen counter and regularly used it to entertain myself while waiting for the water to boil.

At the end of the day, you’re not going to spend $250 on a nice speaker with a built-in tablet. What matters most here is whether the visual side of the Google Assistant works for you. I find that it adds an extra dimension to the audio responses, no matter whether that’s weather reports, a map of my daily commute (which can change depending on traffic) or a video news report. Google’s interface for these devices is simple and clear, with large buttons and clearly presented information. And maybe that’s no surprise. These smart speakers are the ideal surface for its Material Design language, after all.

As a demo, Google likes to talk about how these gadgets can help you while cooking, with step-by-step recipes and videos. I find that this is a nice demo indeed, and thought that it would help me get a bit more creative with trying new recipes. In reality, though, I never have the ingredients I need to cook what Google suggests. If you are a better meal planner than I am, your mileage will likely vary.

What I find surprisingly useful is the display’s integration of Google Duo. I’m aware that the Allo/Duo combo is a bit of a flop, but the display does make you want to use Duo because you can easily have a video chat while just doing your thing in the kitchen. If you set up multiple users, the display can even receive calls for all of them. And don’t worry, there is a physical slider you can use to shut down the camera whenever you want.

The Link View also made me appreciate Google’s Assistant routines more (and my colleague Lucas Matney found the same when he tried out the Lenovo Smart Display). And it’s just a bit easier to look at the weather graphics instead of having the Assistant rattle off the temperature for the next couple of days.

Maybe the biggest letdown, though (and this isn’t JBL’s, fault but a feature Google needs to enable) is that you can’t add a smart display to your Google Assistant groups. That means you can’t use it as part of your all-house Google Home audio system, for example. It’s an odd omission for sure, given the Link View’s focus on sound, but my understanding is that the same holds true for the Lenovo Smart Display. If this is a deal breaker for you, then I’d hold off on buying a Google Assistant smart display for the time being.

You can, however, use the display as a Chromecast receiver to play music from your phone or watch videos. While you are not using it, the display can show the current time or simply go to blank.

Another thing that doesn’t work on smart displays yet is Google’s continued “conversation feature,” which lets you add a second command without having to say “OK, Google” again. For now, the smart displays only work in English, too.

When I first heard about these smart displays, I wasn’t sure if they were going to be useful. Turns out, they are. I do live in the Google Assistant ecosystem, though, and I’ve got a few Google Homes set up around my house. If you’re looking to expand your Assistant setup, then the Link View is a nice addition — and if you’re just getting started (or only need one Assistant-enabled speaker/display), then opting for a smart display over a smart speaker may just be the way to go, assuming you can stomach the extra cost.

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The Google Assistant is now bilingual 

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google home, google search, hardware, Roomba, smart speaker | No Comments

The Google Assistant just got more useful for multilingual families. Starting today, you’ll be able to set up two languages in the Google Home app and the Assistant on your phone and Google Home will then happily react to your commands in both English and Spanish, for example.

Today’s announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, given that Google announced at its I/O developer conference earlier this year that it was working on this feature. It’s nice to see that this year, Google is rolling out its I/O announcements well before next year’s event. That hasn’t always been the case in the past.

Currently, the Assistant is only bilingual and it still has a few languages to learn. But for the time being, you’ll be able to set up any language pair that includes English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. More pairs are coming in the future and Google also says it is working on trilingual support, too.

Google tells me this feature will work with all Assistant surfaces that support the languages you have selected. That’s basically all phones and smart speakers with the Assistant, but not the new smart displays, as they only support English right now.

While this may sound like an easy feature to implement, Google notes this was a multi-year effort. To build a system like this, you have to be able to identify multiple languages, understand them and then make sure you present the right experience to the user. And you have to do all of this within a few seconds.

Google says its language identification model (LangID) can now distinguish between 2,000 language pairs. With that in place, the company’s researchers then had to build a system that could turn spoken queries into actionable results in all supported languages. “When the user stops speaking, the model has not only determined what language was being spoken, but also what was said,” Google’s VP Johan Schalkwyk and Google Speech engineer Lopez Moreno write in today’s announcement. “Of course, this process requires a sophisticated architecture that comes with an increased processing cost and the possibility of introducing unnecessary latency.”

If you are in Germany, France or the U.K., you’ll now also be able to use the bilingual assistant on a Google Home Max. That high-end version of the Google Home family is going on sale in those countries today.

In addition, Google also today announced that a number of new devices will soon support the Assistant, including the tado° thermostats, a number of new security and smart home hubs (though not, of course, Amazon’s own Ring Alarm), smart bulbs and appliances, including the iRobot Roomba 980, 896 and 676 vacuums. Who wants to have to push a button on a vacuum, after all.

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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Amazon’s brightest new innovation might just be the smart home bundle

Posted by | Amazon, amazon echo 2017, echo, echo plus, Gadgets, hardware, smart home, smart speaker, TC | No Comments

 Amazon went above and beyond today in terms of launching stuff – it debuted not one, not two, but six brand new devices at an event held at its HQ. One of the most interesting things it did today was not any particular piece of hardware it designed or built – but the way it’s selling the Echo Plus, the version of its Echo smart speaker with an integrated smart home hub. The… Read More

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