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Alexa, Siri, let's talk: Adding voice control to the CNET Smart Home

We put Siri, Alexa, Google Now and Cortana to the test to see which best fit our needs for voice control of our connected tech in the CNET Smart Home.

Andrew Gebhart Former senior producer
10 min read

Editors' Note, October 23, 2015: We've updated the piece to account for a few more integrations with Cortana and Google Now.

Since the future finally arrived yesterday, according to "Back to the Future Part II," I went into the CNET Smart Home to see if I could turn either Siri, Alexa, Cortana or Google Now into our own version of Rosie from "The Jetsons" and make our place a truly interactive home of the future. In our efforts to make the CNET Smart Home actually smart, we've already added an all-encompassing Wi-Fi network, a central hub, connected lights, a smart thermostat and an app-enabled garage door opener.

It's great to have so much connected tech in our home, but I also want to keep controls simple and unified. I want to control it all...with my voice.

Watch this: Conversations with a house -- voice control in the CNET Smart Home

The one voice to rule them all -- Alexa?

Initially, I wanted to pick a single system for voice control, and Alexa seemed the obvious choice, given what was already had installed in the 5,800-square-foot living smart home test lab in Louisville, Kentucky, called the CNET Smart Home.

Alexa is the wake word for and the attributed personality of the Amazon Echo -- a Bluetooth speaker that doubles as a personal assistant and smart-home controller.

The Amazon Echo is compatible with SmartThings , our hub of choice. It's compatible with Philips Hue light bulbs and Belkin WeMo smart switches, which we used to connect our lights. It even works with online rule maker IFTTT, which made me believe we'd be able to use Alexa to control our thermostat -- a Nest -- and our garage door -- via the connected Chamberlain MyQ -- both of which also work with IFTTT.

Here's what works with the Amazon Echo

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The idea -- a single command spoken from anywhere in the house to simultaneously close the garage door, lock the deadbolt, turn off the lights and set the thermostat to the ideal bedtime temperature. Another command will set the mood for movie time or unlock and brighten the house when I arrive home.

Since most of the tech had already been set up, my first goal was to make sure Amazon Echo could hear me from anywhere in the house. That's Echo's biggest limitation. It's a great centralized control system that anyone within shouting range can interact with easily, but go where it can't hear you and it won't work.

Fortunately, I was able to adequately cover the interior of the home with two separate Echo speakers, each priced at $180, and two Bluetooth remotes. The remotes each cost $30 and each pairs with one of the speakers. Press the top button on the remote, speak into it and the Echo will respond.

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The Amazon Echo should work with lots of the connected tech we've installed in the Smart Home. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Echo has pretty good hearing, so as long as I can see it, I can control it. By placing an Echo in the kitchen, and another in the upstairs master bedroom, then placing a remote in the entryway and another in the basement, I had satisfactory coverage. I'll just need to remember to bring the remote with me if I'm lounging in the basement. The remote isn't always listening, like the Echo. It requires a button press, and I certainly don't want to have to get up for the convenience of voice controls.

Since the remotes connect to the speakers, and the speakers connect to the same Amazon Prime account, getting all four devices to control the same smart-home gear was as simple as plugging them in and going through the basic setup process. Editor Ry Crist had already done a lot of the pairing to the smart-home products during his lighting setup for the CNET Smart Home.

Smart lighting for the CNET Smart Home (pictures)

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With the speakers placed and the lights installed, I walked confidently in the kitchen, ready to control and add the finishing touches to our voice controlled smart home. "Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights," I commanded. Crist had put all of the lights above the counter into a group appropriately called "kitchen lights," so I expected my command to work.

After she thought about it for a moment, Alexa responded that she couldn't do that. I found that odd, given that I knew the kitchen lights were connected Philips Hue bulbs, and compatible with Amazon Echo.

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Alexa couldn't control the Hue Lights. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I tried again to similar results, and went to see if I was wording the command incorrectly. As it turns out Crist had swapped the Philips Hue Bridge that plugs into your router with the Philips Hue 2.0 bridge. Like the original Philips Hue, the newest hub should be compatible with Amazon Echo, but as of right now, it's not.

After that unexpected hurdle, I then tried to sync the Chamberlain MyQ garage and the Nest Thermostat in the CNET Smart Home to Alexa before returning to this problem with the lights. No luck there either. For both of those, I was planning on using IFTTT -- the online rule maker that already has plenty of uses for the smart home. The Echo, Chamberlain and Nest were all compatible, so I thought the integrations would be easy.

Connect with these 35 IFTTT-friendly smart devices (pictures)

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Unfortunately, the Echo's IFTTT channel isn't robust yet, and the only IFTTT triggers revolve around sports, shopping lists and timers. The Echo doesn't have an IFTTT trigger that correlates to activating a smart-home gadget.

Still, I looked for a workaround. It wouldn't be the most elegant solution to close my garage door by telling Alexa to add something to my shopping list, but I thought it might work and wanted to try, at least for comic relief. But Chamberlain can only trigger emails and notifications via IFTTT, it can't respond to triggers itself. Similarly, controlling the Nest thermostat through the Echo proved more trying than it was worth.

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Alexa also couldn't control the garage doors. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Alexa has a lot of promise as a centralized smart-home controller, but it's not quite there yet. I already knew it wouldn't allow any remote functionality, but I was ready to live with that for whole home, unified simplicity. Since my efforts fell short of that, I started to look elsewhere, and the next best option seemed to be Apple. The HomeKit functionality built into iOS 8 and improved upon with iOS 9 allows control over all compatible smart-home devices with Siri.

Switching to Siri

I didn't go to Apple's smart-home system first, because a number of the products already have installed in the home -- Nest, the SmartThings hub, and the Belkin WeMo switches -- aren't compatible with HomeKit. One of the main problems of trying to build a unified voice control system is this mish-mash of platforms and devices.

With both Siri and Alexa, I can't pick and choose which smart-home options I'd like based on what's popular, what's the best or even what product has the most value. For now, if I want to control everything with one platform, I need to pick based on the currently limited number of options available specifically for those platforms. I'm a captive consumer without more reliable crossover. Even once crossover is established, different platforms updating at different times can lead to problems, as exemplified by the Philips/Amazon glitch.

I thought IFTTT would help Alexa overcome compatibility issues. It doesn't for now. As a result, Alexa can really only control a variety of lights and switches. If I wanted to do more than that, I'd have to install the Scout security system or the Garageio connected door opener.

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Switching to Siri let me control the Home's Schlage locks. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Similarly, with Siri, I have a bunch of switches and light bulbs to pick from, then one choice at most for more advanced functionality -- the Schlage lock and the Ecobee thermostat . More options for both Siri and Alexa are on the way, but for now, that's it.

I'm also wary of HomeKit's current limitations. With iOS 8, no HomeKit device could send push notifications; all functionality had to happen in the foreground. I also couldn't establish rules to have one device talk to another, and I needed an Apple TV to have Siri control your home remotely.

To top it off, you need to have an Apple device to give commands, which isn't necessarily the best solution for a large family with varied interests. Even if everyone has an iPhone, you have to manage the accounts of each family member to make sure they have access to the lights and locks.

Some of this has been fixed with iOS 9. Many HomeKit devices now support push notifications. Other HomeKit issues will be fixed soon. I still need an Apple TV for remote functionality now, but the iCloud will soon be able to connect to devices without it.

The main issue for making Siri my whole-home voice assistant -- the lack of centralized controls accessible to the whole family -- remains a problem. It's one I struggled with while looking into Siri as an option. Ry Crist tried repeatedly to share access to the established HomeKit "Home" for the CNET Smart Home with my Apple ID. That can work, but it didn't this time, and I ended up needing to use his ID.

Siri runs the smart home with these Apple HomeKit gadgets

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Once I was connected, though, I enjoyed being able to lock and unlock the currently installed Schlage deadbolts with my voice. And since the new Philips Hue 2.0 bridge is compatible with HomeKit, I could now change the color of the kitchen lights and turn them on and off through Siri.

Additionally, though remote functionality via HomeKit can be a pain because of the Apple TV requirement, any remote functionality is better than what the Echo can offer. And if I carry around my phone while in the house, I don't have to worry about controlling devices from remote corners. I can just pull out my phone.

HomeKit also offers easily understandable buckets for grouping devices. I can group everything in the "downstairs" zone, then specify further which devices are in the "kitchen" room. I can also set certain commands under "scenes" which comes the closest to my ideal of a single command doing everything I want as I get ready for bed or prepare dinner.

I liked a number of the perks offered by HomeKit, but I didn't want to go back and swap out all of the Belkin WeMo switches, or replace the SmartThings hub or the Nest. I also didn't want to deal with the mess of multiple users. HomeKit gave me a few perks that the Amazon Echo didn't, but on its own, it wasn't the comprehensive solution I was looking for.

Considering the dark horses -- Cortana and Google

If Apple and Amazon didn't fit the bill, I thought maybe Google or Windows could. Google Now and Cortana are both competent personal assistants built into Android and Windows phones, respectively. Cortana, the AI from the Halo video game franchise, consistently responds quickly and with accuracy to commands given to a Microsoft phone or tablet, but as yet, she only integrates with Lifx bulbs and Insteon , neither of which we've integrated into our CNET Smart Home setup.

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With Google, I could control the Home's temp. John Kim/CNET

Google Now responds to the wake words, "OK, Google" but also doesn't have nearly as many options for smart-home voice control as either Siri or Alexa at the moment -- just Nest and Wink for now (the latter pointed out by CNET reader samuhlarik10). That could change in the coming months as the Google owned Nest brings more and more devices under its "Works with Nest" umbrella. Google is also readying a smart home protocol that should compete with HomeKit -- called Brillo. Brillo will communicate with a proprietary signal called Weave. We haven't seen any official Brillo devices yet, and the first Weave devices are just being announced.

Google, then, might be my answer at some point down the road. Currently, I can control the Nest with my voice, but that's it as far as what we have installed in the home, so it's also eliminated.

The yin and yang -- picking two for the home

Because of the lack of robust options, and because of the lack of a unified control system for Siri, or a remote option for Alexa, building a single voice command system for the CNET Smart Home isn't yet feasible. I could do it if I was willing to commit to a single universe of products, but I want the CNET Smart Home to be widely compatible. The future might be now, but Rosie hasn't yet arrived.

Once I gave up the idea of a single system to rule everything, the answer was obvious. Siri and Alexa complement each other well, and between them, I can control almost everything installed in the house.

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Siri and Alexa -- best friends forever? Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Alexa handles most of the lights and provides centralized controls. Siri controls the currently installed Schlage locks and can manipulate the Philips Hue bulbs in the kitchen. Since we have an Apple TV, Siri also allows remote functionality.

Again, needing two systems isn't ideal and I still can't control the Nest or the Chamberlain MyQ garage -- though the latter should fall under the HomeKit umbrella soon -- but it's a functional way of providing voice control to anyone within the house, and to certain people outside of the house. With both, I now have centralized and individual control systems.

What's next

We're not done making the CNET Smart Home smart, not by a long shot. I'm not even done trying to build a unified voice system. Between Siri and Alexa, I have a viable setup for the time being, with two ecosystems that complement each other's strengths and weaknesses well, but they certainly won't communicate with each other.

As both individual umbrellas widen their scope and expand their functionality, I'll be looking for a way to switch everything over into a single basket. Siri and Alexa will have to get along for now, but I'm hoping one will grow strong enough to push the other out of the way, and I'm not counting out the possibility that Google could make a comeback and supplant them both.