The Amazon Echo might have first appeared at the end of 2014, when it was a Prime member exclusive, but 2017 has really been the year of the smart speaker. Google unveiled the Google Home right before the year started, and Apple has now entered the fray too.
With new Alexa-equipped Echo speakers on the market as well now, plus mini and max options, the choice of options for the smart speaker shopper has never been wider. Here we'll guide you through the features you need to look for when making your choice.
Choose your assistant
Perhaps the most obvious difference between all these smart speakers is the digital assistant on board: Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, or Google Assistant. We're even seeing some devices appear with Cortana integration or with support for more than one of these assistant apps.
The good news is that whichever assistant you like the sound of best, you'll have all the basics covered: setting reminders and timers, looking up calendars, finding facts from the web, checking the weather and so on.
Beyond that, it really depends which ecosystem you're already most heavily invested in. The Google and Apple speakers and assistants naturally work better with other Google and Apple services and gear (whether that's a Chromecast or an Apple TV), while Alexa currently has the largest selection of third-party plug-ins and integrations.
If you can test out these assistants on your phone, inside another app, or on the web, it should give you an idea of which one's going to work best for you.
Choose your size and price
Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home ranges have a choice of speaker sizes at a choice of prices, depending on how much you want to spend and how much oomph you want on your bass. What's more, the Echo Spot and Echo Show add a screen too.
Currently for the Google Home you can pay £49/$29 for the Mini and £129/$129 for the full-size Google Home, with the extra big and high-fidelity Google Home Max launching soon for $399 (UK pricing to be determined).
Compare that with the Amazon Echo range, which will set you back between £49.99/$29.99 and £199.99/$229.99, depending on what size speaker you want and whether or not you'd like a screen attached. If you want a variety of choice and shapes and sizes - to kit out every room, say - Amazon and Google offer the most variety.
Apple's HomePod (set to launch at $349 in the US) and the new Sonos One (£199/$199 with integrated Alexa) come in just one size and at one price, with the emphasis on superior audio quality first and foremost. You can still put one in each room of the house, but it'll cost you more.
If you're going to be spending a lot of time streaming music, and want it to sound its best, stick to the larger, higher-end (and more expensive) options. Note though that Apple's HomePod will only support Apple Music at launch.
Choose your accessories
Another consideration when picking out a smart speaker is the hardware that goes beyond the smart speaker - we've already mentioned the Apple TV and Chromecast, for example, which work seamlessly with the HomePod and Google Home respectively.
In terms of integration with other smart home kit, both the Amazon Echo and Google Home score strongly here. You can see a list of compatible gear for Google's smart speakers here, and see everything that the Amazon Echo works with here, so it's easy to double-check if your existing devices are compatible.
Thanks to Alexa,, the Sonos One can work with all the same smart home gear that the Echo can too. The HomePod, meanwhile, acts as a HomeKit hub - so anything that works with Apple's smart home standard can be controlled remotely and even over the web. The lists of supported gear are only going to get longer as well.
Smart home support is one reason to pick the bigger Echo Plus over the standard Echo in Amazon's range: it supports the ZigBee standard (like products from Philips Hue, Hive and others) so you can get up and running more quickly without adding extra skills or hubs.
The final verdict
There's no doubt the main smart speakers on the market are all impressive bits of gear, and you wouldn't really rule any of these devices out of consideration because it doesn't perform as advertised or is defective in some way. Apple and Sonos have the edge in terms of audio quality for music lovers, but the Google Home Max speaker also has good credentials in this area, and any smart speaker will do a job at streaming music for the casual listener.
Your main concerns when shopping for a smart speaker should be to make sure it works with the devices and services you need it to - from your smart home plugs to your music streaming service of choice - and to check you can live with the smart assistant on board. The Google Home range is a sensible choice if you're already good buddies with the Google Assistant on your phone, for example.
After that, it's then a question of how much you want to spend. As we've said, Google and Amazon have the edge here with a more varied range of products, so if you're going to kit the whole house out then you'll probably edge towards these.
Another factor that comes into play is the delay on the launch of Apple's HomePod, now expected early in 2018. If you need something sooner than that, you're going to have to look at alternatives, no matter how much you love the Apple ecosystem and Siri. If you really can't decide though, and you have the cash, why not buy a couple of smart speakers and let them argue it out in the living room?