Voice assistants are becoming increasingly useful in our hectic world. Also known as Digital Assistants, Virtual Assistants, and various similar names, the use of voice assistants has now become widespread. It is estimated that 128 million people in the US used a voice assistant during 2020 - that’s about 38% of the US population.
From their clunky, almost comical beginnings, these smart tools have been refined into modern, intelligent assistants who can carry out numerous tasks. They can now adapt to understand our language (and accent), anticipate the kind of requests we make, and recommend things that are relevant to us. With just a few spoken words, calls can be placed, and emails can be sent and reminders set. Of course, voice assistants can be used for many different purposes, but they really come into their own when used to control the smart home. After a simple setup process, a voice assistant becomes a home assistant - always ready to help and waiting for your voice command.
While KNX is the most stable and secure smart home system you could hope for, it does not come with a ‘native’ voice assistant. However, this functionality can be added by bridging your KNX home to one of the other smart home platforms (Homekit, Nest or Amazon) with a Thinka KNX bridge, and using the appropriate voice assistant for that platform. This then gives you a wide selection of different home assistants to choose from.
There are lots of things to think of when choosing which platform and home assistant is right for you, including data privacy, cost, security, system stability, and functionalities - so we’re going to look at the big three voice assistants and see how they compare when used as smart home assistants. Of course, this also means we will look closely at the smart home platforms that the assistants work with - because they essentially come as a package.
For Apple users, it is hard to believe that there is any other voice assistant than Siri, but there are other options too, and you might be surprised at how they compare!
Google Assistant is a powerful voice assistant that can be used to control the Google Nest home automation ecosystem, and a number of other integrations too.
Google is everywhere and has been for years. The formation of Google’s home automation brand has taken some time, and the development has unfolded as the result of several acquisitions made by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. It isn’t necessary to go over the Game of Thrones-like backstory, but it is worth noting that some unsuccessful products have been in the mix. Now, however, Alphabet’s comprehensive suite of home automation products has all been brought under the Google Nest branding and are all controllable using Google Assistant.
‘Hey Google’ brings you instant access to news, plays you music, gets your shower warm, organises your bedtime routine, and brings connectivity with all the devices in the Google Nest family. Google assistant is available on more than 1 billion devices, including smart speakers, cars, TVs and watches. It is integrated with other google products like Chromecast, and Nest but also third-party products like those from iDevices.
Google Assistant supports a total of 44 languages on smartphones, but currently just 13 languages for Nest (previously Google Home). These are: Danish, Dutch, English (6 dialects), French (2 dialects), German (2 dialects), Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Spanish (3 dialects), and Swedish. You can use three languages simultaneously.
A wide range of affordable hubs and smart speakers all help to make smart home automation easy and accessible for most budgets. Google uses its ubiquitous cloud processing to manage data and voice requests, customise experiences, and store settings. You can expect all the Google products to work well together, so you can expect smooth operation of Nest products using Google Assistant. A major advantage of the platform is the number of modular options available from third-party manufacturers, but this can also make it harder to guarantee system stability and security. Be aware that the cloud-based infrastructure of Google Assistant means personalisation data and other information about you (and your home) is stored on external servers, but it also has powerful processing capabilities.
Your KNX system can also be controlled by Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant. Alexa has been around for some time now, and has increased functionality over the years as new skills, apps, and devices have become available. Originally debuting with the Echo speakers in 2014, Alexa has been consistently updated, ungraded, and nurtured. It is actually a very well-designed product that is also under constant development and improvement.
One of the big features for a lot of people is the novelty of using celebrity voices for Alexa. Who wouldn’t want Samuel L Jackson telling them they look wonderful, or informing them about what is on the agenda today? Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is the operating core of this service, and it works ‘in the cloud’, in a similar way to Google’s Assistant. This makes Alexa quite powerful and versatile, but also means there is some unclarity over data privacy.
‘Um, Alexa, are you listening?’ You can be sure it is! Alexa can help with all kinds of things, but has been developed with your smart home in mind. There are many compatible devices and accessories that can be added and controlled by Alexa. These are made by various third-parties and are often relatively affordable. This includes all the lights and power sockets you would expect up to your vacuum cleaner!
There are also plenty of fun accessories too, so you can talk to your pet and give it treats from hundreds of miles away, or turn on the sprinklers at just the right moment (while watching through your ring doorbell camera). The sheer volume of different devices and accessories that can work with Amazon’s system (and be controlled using Alexa) is one of the biggest draws, but a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, so if security is a concern you should be very selective - or choose a different voice assistant (and smart home platform). Alexa supports 8 Languages: English (4 dialects), Spanish (3 dialects), French (2 dialects), German, Italian, Hindi, Japanese, and Portuguese (Brazilian). You can use two languages simultaneously, with mixed results.
Siri is the familiar voice assistant, found on Apple iPhones, and iPads, that can be used to control Apple HomeKit too.
HomeKit has taken a different development path to both its major competitors, opting for a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ kind of approach. HomeKit has relied a lot less on the development of cheap, generic, ‘compatible’ products by smaller companies. Instead, it has leaned further into ensuring the core design philosophy is maintained throughout the HomeKit ecosystem. This means the system works together seamlessly, and with a level of security that is unparalleled. Apple has worked hard to maintain this. Every device that is certified by Apple contains either an MFi (Made For iPhone/iPad/etc.) authentication chip or a secure software equivalent, and this can only be obtained by working closely with Apple’s technicians through all stages of the design and development phase.
For this reason, there are fewer devices that work with HomeKit, but they do work perfectly. Another advantage of this is that Apple has maintained control over system security. The high security level of HomeKit makes it the ideal pairing with a KNX system, which is also secure by design. With a KNX home bridge (like Thinka) you can use the power of Siri as a voice assistant to control all the features in your smart home
‘Hey Siri, play some jazz in the kitchen, and dim the lights downstairs.’ There may be more limited options, but there is no limit to the functionality of HomeKit, no matter what your plans are. Of course, you pay for the quality and conscious design of HomeKit’s approved accessories, but there is nothing missing in terms of capability. You basically just miss out on cheap, unstable knock-offs.
Siri fully supports 21 Languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch (plus dialects), Finnish, English (plus dialects), French (plus dialects), German (plus dialects), Hebrew, Italian (plus dialects), Japanese, Korean, Malay, Mandarin (plus dialects), Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Spanish (plus dialects), Swedish, Thai, and Turkish. Siri is not yet bilingual, but that will come in time.
The main advantage of Siri as a smart home assistant is that most of the processing occurs within the hub itself - not in the cloud - meaning very little data about you or your home leaves the building. Siri is just as powerful and capable as the other voice assistants (maybe more so), but comes with this added reassurance of stability and security. If privacy is a concern, Siri is the superior choice.
Choosing the right voice assistant for your smart home can be tough. Most of us prefer to keep using the same system we already have, so if you already use Alexa for playing music it is easier to simply extend the functionality to the rest of your smart home by adding ‘skills’ to its repertoire. But this may not be the right choice for you if security and data privacy are a big concern.
Your budget may be an important consideration too, and the Google and Amazon smart home products are cheaper than Apple’s. If you have a smaller home and are not bothered by the data security aspect, either of these budget options are totally fine, and both Google Assistant and Alexa are powerful smart home assistants.
Each voice assistant can support a limited number of languages, but Siri is in the lead on this front. As the most popular voice assistant, Siri has a serious advantage by being able to further develop its abilities from experience. It is also better at giving accurate responses to requests. Google and Amazon are continuing to push the development of more language support - and both Google Assistant and Alexa have bilingual capabilities, but these are far from perfect. It is important to be aware that the voice assistant comes with the smart home platform it is designed for, so the pro’s and con’s of the platform should be a part of the equation. The advantage of a KNX system is the built-in security and privacy that comes with a professional hard-wired system. It would be a pity to lose this advantage by bridging to a platform with weak data privacy protections. Because Siri works primarily within the hub, your data stays very safe, so it is a natural choice if bridging to a KNX smart home.
Whichever voice assistant (and platform) you choose, the Thinka KNX bridge is capable of integrating with each of these platforms, as well as combinations of the platforms, so that’s one less thing to worry about.