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One smart assistant to control them all?

CNET Magazine: CNET's consumer advice columnist Marguerite Reardon looks at digital assistants for the home.

Dear Maggie,

There are all these new voice assistants for the home that make it seem like they could become my virtual butlers. But is that true? What can I really do with them?


Looking for a Jeeves to call my own

Dear Looking,

Voice-activated personal assistants like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant (from you guessed it) are moving into our homes to help us control our surroundings without lifting a finger.

Amazon really kicked things off in 2014 when it released its Echo smart speaker. Since then, the company has sold more than 5 million units of the Alexa-powered speakers. Google followed last year with Google Home, which gets its smarts from Google Assistant. Apple has taken Siri on a different tack with HomeKit, which lets you control all sorts of smart-home gadgets by speaking to your iPhone or iPad.

It's no stretch to expect these assistants will do and control more over time -- but they already do plenty.

Here are five things your digital butlers can do right now.

1: Play music

This is pretty much how most folks use these AI-powered personal assistants. Just say the magic words ("OK Google," "Hey Siri," or simply "Alexa") to listen to music streamed from the likes of Google Play Music, Spotify and Pandora.

2: Turn on lights

Why get up to flip a switch when you can just tell your personal Jeeves which network-connected lightbulbs or switches to turn on?

3: Control climate

With Wi-Fi smart thermostats like those from Nest, Honeywell or Ecobee, you can remotely change the temperature, set schedules and save energy. Apple's Siri can also control HomeKit-compatible fans, shades and air conditioners.

4: Find facts

Want to know if it's going to rain tomorrow, or the fastest route for your morning commute? These personal assistants can tell you that and other random facts -- like the 15th president of the United States (James Buchanan) or the capital of Maine (Augusta) -- although they vary in accuracy. They can be particularly useful in the kitchen, where they can convert measurements and set timers. Google Home and Echo can also answer questions about that bouillabaisse you're making.


See more from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

5: Organize your life

Now that you've found the perfect recipe, these assistants can add the ingredients to your shopping list. You can ask Alexa to review the list with you. Google Assistant and Apple's Siri can set alarms to remind you when things need to be done.

The bottom line:

Today's voice assistants aren't ready to do all our bidding just yet. But that will change as Wi-Fi-connected things in the home get smarter in their own right. That might be sooner than we imagine.

Marguerite Reardon (@maggie_reardon) answers readers' phone, wireless and broadband questions. Email yours to Please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. Follow her "Ask Maggie" page on Facebook.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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