#007 – Things Thursday – A Smart Home Speaker Battle, IoT Security (again) & More

Image of people beneath an array of security cameras
After a lengthy summer and fall break, Things Thursday returns! Today, we’ll look at the battle of the smart speakers, and what smart home devices can mean for older homeowners plus much more!

  1.  Amazon Echo v Google Home: Battle of the smart speakers (via Wareable)
    Wareable looks at the pros and cons of the two best voice enabled smart speakers on the market. If you’re not sure which speaker to get, this is a good piece for you. Also, please note that Amazon makes the Echo Dot as well, and that goes for $50. I think it makes a great closing gift. As far as the article goes, personally, I think Amazon has the lead, but Google is gaining fast here. Today they released their developer API for Actions, which are like Alexa’s Skills. This allows for custom apps for voice interaction. By way of example, here’s an Alexa Skill for Tech Valley Homes Real Estate by Voiceter Pro. In my opinion, this is going to be the dominant way for controlling and interacting with our homes. It happens we wrote about this very subject and you can check out Adrienne’s post on the future of IoT and the role voice plays.
  2. What Bruce Schneier teaches us about IoT and cybersecurity (via IoT Central)
    Bruce Schneier is a highly respected security expert and boy does he have opinions about IoT and security. They are solid ones at that. Recently he testified to the Congress Committee on Energy and Commerce on the topic of the DDoS attacks. What he does well in his testimony is simply define how we should think about smart home technology and the internet of things in general. Currently, we tend to trivialize the security concerns related to these replacements of everyday devices (smart lights = lights, smart thermostats = thermostats, etc.). In fact, what Schneier recommends is that we don’t do this and instead we see each item as an individual computer. Treat these devices as needing the same hardening as we provide for laptops and other computers. I recommend both the article and testimony above.
  3. Top 10 Smart Home Technologies for Older Homeowners (via Claims Journal)
    SRES Designees take note. Claims Journal just published a list of devices that older homeowners will find useful. MIT’s AgeLab and The Hartford insurance company conducted the survey. Here’s something I found truly fascinating from the study:

    According to the survey, just over half (51 percent) of homeowners over the age of 50 either have smart home technology or are interested in buying it. Of those who do not currently have smart home technology but plan to purchase it or are interested in getting it, about half (49 percent) are willing to spend between $101 and $500 on it in a year.

    Pretty cool to see these numbers. This seems to align with previous reports and it also shows a great opportunity to provide these devices as closing gifts, as, according to our Smart Home Survey, only 2% of members are giving these devices as closing gifts.

  4. BONUS: If you haven’t already, check out our Smart Home Survey (via CRT Labs Blog)
    Great segue to talking about our Smart Home Survey…We are really excited by our new survey as it’s helping us set direction and see where we can provide coverage. We’d love to get your feedback on it. Let us know how you’re using it too!!

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook.

Voice Control and the Future of IoT

Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the Google Assistant – soon, one of these helpful voice assistants might just be the best way to control your smart devices, instead of pulling out your phone and tapping the screen. We think the future of the internet of things will be shaped by these three major assistants, and we’ve been testing all three in the lab and our own homes recently. In this post, we’ll talk about how they’ll be shaping the industry, and our thoughts on each offering.


There have been many voice-controlled user interfaces over the years, but it wasn’t until Siri was included on the iPhone 4S in 2011 that a voice assistant became part of our everyday life. At first, Siri was used for controlling functions of an iPhone – setting calendar events, creating timers and reminders, and answering simple questions. Now Siri can send text messages, tell you the next time your favorite team plays, and even hail you an Uber. On top of making it easier to use your phone, however, Siri (as well as Alexa and Google Assistant) can control your smart devices – it can turn off your lights, play music on your stereo, and adjust your thermostat – all just using your voice.

We love voice controllers, because they adhere to a zero UI (user interface) model – which we think is going to be incredibly important for the future of the smart home. Small digital screens, like a phone, can be hard to manipulate, especially for the old, young, or the disabled. A zero UI system means a system without reliance on a screen for controls; in the case of voice assistants, that interface is auditory, but there are systems that work with computer vision (the Microsoft Kinect, used mainly in gaming), haptics (touch controls, like the Logitech Pop Switch), and gestures (the Fibaro Swipe, a screen that uses hand gestures to control your smart home). These non-screen interfaces are great for addressing accessibility concerns; someone might not be able to easily navigate screens and get to their Philips Hue app, but asking their voice assistant to turn on the lights can be easy for them. All three major assistants – Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant –can handle these tasks, but all three do handle them quite differently. They all can be activated by a trigger phrase, but how you speak to them differs depending on the assistant itself. We’ll take a look at all three below and discuss what’s great – and not so great – about each. These assistant all handle a wide variety of commands, but for purposes of this article, we want to talk about how well they control internet of things devices, such as smart home products.

First up is Siri, which a lot of people already have in their pockets. Siri is great because you don’t need any additional equipment. Amazon’s Alexa, for instance, requires one of their devices, while any iPhone user is already carrying Siri with them. Siri can be set up for the trigger phrase “Hey Siri,” or to only activate while pressing the Home button if you don’t want Siri to always be listening. Siri is probably the least conversational of the three, requiring almost exact phrases to be said in order to control a device. Apple’s Home, which is the app that acts as a hub for your smart devices, only works with a small number of devices; in order to work with Home, a company has to work directly with Apple to install a special chip in their device. While this limits the number of devices that Siri can control, it does mean that any product that claims to work with Home will have to work directly with Siri as well. Another interesting thing that Siri has that the other two devices don’t are Apple’s AirPods, which allow you to use the voice assistant by just tapping on your earphones. This could be interesting because you could have not only voice controls, but perhaps haptic controls as well by different taps of the earphone. We’re speculating with that, but the more ways to interact with a device, the better in our minds.

Amazon’s Alexa works with three of their products so far – the flagship Echo, Echo Dot, or Tap. Alexa is also by far the most open ecosystem when it comes to voice assistants (although we suspect that Google will not be far behind once they open their development kits up for third parties). Through the use of programmable skills, Alexa works with a wide variety of smart home devices. An Alexa device is always listening (unless you manually turn off the microphone), so it’s as easy as saying a trigger phrase to get started. You can choose from three phrases – “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Amazon.” It’s a bit more conversational than Siri, with a variety of phrases that can trigger controls. Talking to Alexa isn’t a fluid conversation; right now, there’s no contextual conversations like there are with Google’s Assistant. We really love the ability to create your own skills if you’re programming-minded. Overall, the Alexa is the most customizable of the three. And the price-point can’t be beat. The Echo Dot is only $49.99, making it the least expensive option on the list compared to buying a new phone or the Google Home. Amazon just announced that they’ll be partnering with Intel to bring Alexa to more devices; we’ll be watching to see what this means for Amazon’s voice assistant.

Lastly, we have the Google Assistant, which comes on the Google Pixel phone or their Google Home speaker. We’ll be focusing on Google Assistant when it’s used on the Google Home for this article, but there might be a time where people are more commonly using a Google or Android phone just as they use Siri. Like an Alexa device, the Google Home is activated by a trigger phrase – “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Google.” It also is slightly ahead in terms of ease-of-conversation, and even allows for context when asking it questions. But being the newest of these three assistants, it falls flat right now in terms of what devices it can control. This, of course, will likely change as the Google Home stays on the market; soon, the software development kit will be available for third parties to begin using, meaning more products will start to integrate. We’re excited to see what the future is for the Google Assistant, because of the three companies behind these voice controllers, Google is the one who has spent the most time thinking about how we casually interact with its products – just think about how vague a Google search can be that still produces the correct results, and how that information will allow for the widest possible ranges of control phrases that can work with your smart home devices.

Fully voice-controlled homes, like what Tony Stark or the Enterprise might have, are still a thing of the future, but with the three biggest corporations in the world focusing on voice assistants, the future might not be so far off. We’re excited at the possibilities that zero UI voice controlled systems bring, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how they can benefit your home.

Facebook Live Office Hours: Surveys and Gifts

It was a busy week last week in the labs – we published our gift guides (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), as well as published the results of our first Smart Home survey. We discussed both the survey and our favorite tech live during Office Hours on Friday.

We’re excited to take a deeper look at our survey results and use that information to shape what the lap will be doing in the future – stay tuned for blog posts, videos, and more! And don’t forget, if you like our Facebook page, you’ll always be notified first when we go live during Office Hours (Fridays at 1PM Central), and you’ll be able to ask questions live. We’ll see you next time.

CRT Labs Gift Guide 2016, Day Three

This week, we’ve been looking at our favorite tech gifts, with guides for devices for gifts under $100 and from $100-199. Today, we’re going to round out the guides with gifts for when you feel like splurging, with price points above $200. Just like with our other guides, we recommend you search your favorite online (and offline) stores, because these devices often go on sale around the holidays.


  1. Ecobee 3 Starter Bundle, $313. We’ve featured the Ecobee 3 smart thermostat in both our Thermostat Tearsheet and first episode of CRTv, with good reason – it’s one of our favorite smart thermostats. It’s got a large, easy-to-read screen, works with a variety of hubs and voice-assistants, and looks great on your wall. But our favorite feature is the Lil’ Bee room sensors, which allow you to extend the sensing capabilities of your thermostat beyond just the room in which the thermostat is installed. This means the Ecobee can sense when you’re in a room away from the thermostat, and adjust your heating/cooling needs to bring comfort to that room. For $313, you get the Ecobee and 3 Lil’ Bees.
  2. Netatmo Presence, $299. Netatmo is another one of our favorite companies, with a great lineup of security, air quality, and weather smart devices. We love the Presence, an outdoor security camera, which is simple to install, includes free video storage (in a variety of methods), and an great app for viewing footage. It can identify if a person, animal, or car is detected, as well as reports in real time so you know what’s going on outside your property, all the time.
  3. SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit, $249. The SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit is a great start for simple sensing within your home. It comes with a SmartThings hub (which can control more than just SmartThings devices), two multipurpose sensors for doors/cabinets, a motion sensor, and an outlet. You don’t have to just monitor with these sensors – you can use them to trigger lights (such as turning on a bedroom light when the bedroom door is opened), arm and disarm security, and more. SmartThings works with Alexa and Google Home, making these voice assistants compatible with any device that works connects to the SmartThings hub.