Voice control comes to the forefront of the smart home

Forget about your phone or tablet -- these voice-control products let you control your home via verbal command.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
4 min read
Apple's iOS 8 HomeKit platform. Tim Stevens/CNET

Voice control has always been a bit of a smart-home outlier. Command-style products are definitely intriguing, but tend to disappoint in practice. Many of the voice-activated products we've reviewed have either had limited functionality, trouble understanding what we were saying or both. Not ideal.

Even Siri, Cortana and other advanced voice-activated platforms fall short sometimes. But with Amazon's recent announcement of the Echo, a voice-control speaker with more than music-playing capabilities, and Apple's HomeKit software that will use Siri to control various third-party gadgets, interacting with your smart home via verbal command might become much more commonplace.


ActiVocal's Vocca

Vocca is a lighting adapter that turns traditional bulbs into voice-activated ones. The phrase "Vocca switch light" will alert the device that you're ready to give a command, and from there, you can turn your lights on or off on demand. Vocca works with standard E27 fixtures, which are common throughout the US and UK, so it should work with your existing home lighting.

We haven't reviewed a Vocca yet, so I do wonder if it's possible to give a voice command to one bulb and not another within the same room. Perhaps ActiVocal lets you assign different names like, "Table lamp" or "Floor lamp" so the verbal cues are different. I can definitely see the appeal of the Vocca as you're drifting off to sleep, a time when even the closest bedside light can feel out-of-reach. Read CNET's first take of the ActiVocal Vocca.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon's Echo

The Echo is Amazon's brand new voice control device. The trigger word, "Alexa," will awaken this cylindrical speaker-gizmo so it's able to listen for your questions and commands. According to Amazon, the Echo is supposed to be able to respond to general questions that you might stick in a search engine, from the current weather conditions to "When is Thanksgiving?"

It's also designed to play music, act as your morning wake-up call and set reminders for you. Think of it as a computerized personal assistant, information database and daily planner all rolled into one. It can't control any home automation devices Ivee Sleek or Ubi , but built-in Bluetooth and WiFi transmitters potentially leave the door open for that capability with the right software update. Amazon hasn't said whether that sort of integration is forthcoming, but we wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of future smart home-oriented update. Read CNET's full review of the Amazon Echo.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Apple's HomeKit

HomeKit is Apple's foray into the smart-home sector, and Siri-based voice controls are keyed to figure prominently. By trying commands to HomeKit-compatible smart home devices directly into iOS, Siri will be able to control a whole suite of products, saving you from having to fiddle around with various apps and screens.

Apple announced HomeKit at WWDC 2014, along with a preliminary list of companies working on HomeKit integration. The partnerships, ranging from August to iDevices , tap into a bunch of different smart home specialities such as locks, lighting, garage doors, cooking thermometers and more. Apple hasn't revealed much info since its initial unveiling, but we anticipate that CES 2015 will mark the debut of a host of HomeKit-ready products. Expect a busy January for the smart home. Read CNET's first take of the Apple HomeKit.


Athom's Homey

Homey is the voice-activated version of Wink or SmartThings . It operates on a variety of protocols like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave and more to accommodate a number of different home automation products. But, in addition to its Android and iOS app, Athom made Homey voice-activated. So, while you can still rely on the app as needed, Homey takes multi-product home automation to a whole new level. Read CNET's first take of the Athom Homey.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Honeywell's Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control

The Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control is nearly identical to the brand's standard Wi-Fi Smart version , but it has a black finish and voice command capabilities. That means that you can ask it to make temperature adjustments totally hands-free. The thermostat itself worked very well and the voice control feature worked fine, but was fairly limited in terms of what commands you could give.

The list of questions and commands is ever-expanding, though, and has already grown significantly since I reviewed it last December. So, if you'd rather not leave the comfort of your couch and don't want to mess with an app all the time, Honeywell's Smart Thermostat might make a lot of sense. Read CNET's full review of the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Interactive Voice's Ivee Sleek

The Interactive Voice Ivee Sleek is a radio alarm clock with built-in voice control tech. When you say "Hello, Ivee," it's supposed to answer all sorts questions from the current time in Atlanta, Georgia, to the latest stock prices. Despite its initial promise, Ivee Sleek had a lot of trouble hearing my commands and often returned inaccurate responses. Also, its built-in radio, a core feature of this radio alarm clock, wasn't functional at all.

This Wi-Fi-enabled device is also designed to work with select third-party products for instant, voice-activated control. It performed better here, but that wasn't enough to negate its poor results elsewhere. Read CNET's full review of the Interactive Voice Ivee Sleek.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation's Ubi

Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation's Ubi responds to the phrase, "OK, Ubi." After that, you can instruct this "ubiquitous computer" to set alarms and appointment reminders, play music, answer general questions and even control third-party products.

It generally succeeded in some areas, like turning my Belkin WeMo Switch-connected space heater on or off when I said, "Turn on/off heater," but it really struggled to answer basic questions. For example, the question, "Who was the first US president?" returned the answer, "Wilbur Wright." Its unpredictable answers made Ubi fun to test, but you'd have to rely on a secondary source to confirm its accuracy. Read CNET's full review of the Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation Ubi.