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Will the voice of the future be Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri?

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Voice-commanded devices and their apps are turning up the volume in the market, but who will get your ear?

When Apple finally entered the wireless speaker market with HomePod, which can be voice-controlled by Siri, its competitor Sonos, which now responds to voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa, took a swipe at the launch with a tongue-in-cheek playlist on Spotify, a service that the HomePod cannot access except through a workaround using other devices. While gags like this make the rivalry of these manufacturers sound like fun and games, the truth is that they are in a ruthless race to gain market share among literally dozens of new players in the space, from some you may have not yet heard of, like the TCL Xess video home hub ($499), to spin offs to the most popular devices, in different sizes and colors.

Some of these speaker systems and their attendant voice-commanded assistants are better than others, and some are simply clones.  Here’s a short list of the ones we like, and why.

HomePod is a powerful speaker and sounds amazing, but Siri has a lot of catching up to do in order to hold a candle to Alexa, and at the sticker price of $349 and its inability to work with streaming music services besides Apple Music, there’s better bets out there, unless you are simply an Apple fanatic and will have nothing else.

Sonos remains a favorite, with its first-to-market Hi-Fi Wi-Fi streaming abilities and pairing with speakers in the Sonos family, including the new single speaker silo, Sonos One ($199), with Alexa built in.

808 XL-V smart speaker is a new entrant to the Alexa-enabled speaker systems, with a design closely resembling the original Amazon Echo, though the 808 has a bit more style than the original with its fabric-like wrap, resembling a traditional Wi-Fi speaker. Using the 808 audio app, you can use voice commands to control all the smart devices in your home, like thermostat and lightbulbs, and you can access your Amazon music and book library as well as premium accounts on Spotify and other music streaming services; or you can always use the Bluetooth connection to stream audio from other Bluetooth enabled devices or hook it up devices to the aux-in jack. The 808 XL-V also has the ability to stream the same music simultaneously from another 808 XL-V, you can play the same music in every room where you have a speaker.

Of course, you can’t talk about Alexa, without talking about the Poindexter stepsister-from-another-mother, Google Assistant, originally developed for Google Home and now expanding into a number of devices, including the adorable Google Home Mini ($49).

The TicHome and TicHome Mini are two great entrants into the Google Home voice command family. These speakers have great audio quality, especially for their size, and they also come in a variety of attractive colors to spruce up your countertop, desk or wherever they sit with their compact footprint. Like Google Home, they access the massive knowledge base of Google search, so by comparison to Alexa-enabled devices, The Google Assistant-enabled devices are far superior. The one big downside is that Google Assistant is not able to access your Amazon Music account at this time, obviously because their competitor controls the behemoth Amazon enterprise, but if you subscribe to premium services on Pandora and other listening services, you won’t miss a beat.

Amazon has had to up their game with more exciting speakers to compete with all the other Alexa-enabled systems now on the market. Amazon has met the demand for variety by adding not only an assortment of devices, such as the Dot ($49), Tap ($129), featuring both wi-fi and Bluetooth capabilities, and the tablet-like Show ($229), they’ve also added colors to the scheme. Now you can choose from hues like a teal and orange to liven up your table top and blend in with your decor.

As the creator of Echo ($129), of the first-to-market voice command speaker, Amazon Alexa is still king, or queen as it were, when it comes to audio quality and responsiveness, with its Dolby-powered omni-directional seven speakers that detect voice from multiple directions around it. And because Amazon’s signature Alexa-enabled speakers were build to work with the Alexa app, they are the most seamless in performance with Alexa and experience much lower rates of error than the other systems built by third parties.

With all of these systems, there is still work to be done to perfect their interactions with voice command. Expect that for no reason at all sometimes these speakers drop off Wi-Fi, requiring a reset or other intervention, and no matter how clearly and loudly you command them, sometimes you have to repeat yourself and yell at them like they are a petulant child to get them to do something or stop doing what they’re doing. But just like our kids, once we have them, we wonder how we ever lived without them.

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GiftsInternet of ThingsLifestyleShoppingTech

Tech the halls 2018 gift guide

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Eight smart gifts of gadgets, toys and accessories for electronics lovers

Plug into fun this holiday season with these awesome devices and tech toys that will make the holidays  electric.

We will, we will Roku

Binge watchers will love the ultimate top-of-the-line streaming device, Roku Ultra, that streams high-quality HD and even 4K video with a slim design that neatly tucks into TV cabinets or looks sleek on a shelf. For those who want to lie in bed and turn up the volume on their favorite action series and not wake up their partner with every explosion or gun battle, Roku offers private listening, which allows an individual to listen with headphones connected to a jack on the Roku remote or on a smart phone using the latest Roku app. Another great feature on the Roku remote is the ability to control volume and power up and turn off a connect TV. Like other models in Roku‘s lineup, the Ultra also offers dedicated buttons to popular networks, like Netflix and Hulu. New this year to Roku is the brand’s own free channel, chock full of premium movies and shows. Roku Ultra is available for $99 at retailers nationwide.

Thinking in a vacuum

Neat freaks can take a break from constant cleaning with iRobot’s Roomba, a vaccum robot that will do the work for them so their home can have that just-vacuumed look all the time. The original and most tech-forward of the automatic vacuum brands, Roomba has developed an army of round robots designed for a variety of carpet and floor surfaces, with its most advanced units, like the wi-fi connected Roomba 980 ($899), featuring smart technology that allows Roomba to be operated and programmed using an app or with voice- command devices like Echo or Google Home. While Roomba doesn’t do windows, it’s a great helper around the house that won’t complain about chores, and with its endearing Jetson-esque robotic voice, Roomba may just become your next pet, that picks up fur instead of shedding it.

Click tap, my phone was taking a bath

For the tech enthusiastic who has everything, give them the peace of mind of a bacteria-free cell phone with phone soap ($59.95). This sanitizing unit that looks like a mini sunbed, uses UV lights to kill germs on your phone in 10 minutes. The unit features an opening to thread through a phone cable, so the phone can charge while it’s in use. Available at www.phonesoap.com.

Tic Talk

The Mobvoi TicHome Mini ($99) is a great new entrant into the works-with-Google-Assistant family. This speaker has rich audio quality, especially for its size, and this portable, compact unit comes in a variety of attractive colors to spruce up your countertop, desk, bathroom vanity (it’s splash resistant) or wherever it sits, ready to respond to your commands. Using the Google Assistant app, it can access the massive knowledge base of Google search, and can play music from a number of streaming services like Pandora. Also, the TicHome Mini can untether from its USB charging cable and run on its internal battery, either operating as truly wireless Wi-Fi streaming speaker or a Bluetooth speaker.

Own your stuff

While you cozy up in front of the TV this holiday season, save some money for your family with a TP-Link Archer CR700 Wireless Dual Band DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem Router ($159), a modem-router combination that can replace the unit that the cable service provider makes you pay to lease each month. Owning your own equipment is not only more convenient and less expensive in the long run, you will own the most advanced technology that often can perform better and faster than the no-frills devices the cable companies buy in bulk and rent to subscribers. The Archer CR7000 also features Parental and Access Control using a web management page that allows you to safeguard your network, restricting who can join and what content users may access while on it. Check compatibly with your cable service provider.

Strong arm

Spark the engineering spirit in young builders with the Hearthsong Hydraulic Arm Edge ($49.98, ages 10 and up), a working arm that kids assemble and then learn to maneuver using sequences that move its six water-powered levers to make the arm turn, lift, lower, and move blocks and other items to create structures using the arm’s grippers and its super-strong suction cup. As a feel-good bonus, when consumers purchase a STEM toy from HearthSong before December 11, 2017, and Bayer will donate the full value of that toy to Toys for Tots to buy STEM toys from HearthSong at a discount and donate up to $250,000.

 

Fast and curious

Kids can ramp up on the latest augmented reality technology with Osmo’s latest fun, mind-challenging game, Hot Wheels MindRacer ($59.99 on Amazon, ages 5 and up). This interactive game expands the boundaries of play with the classic play experience of Hotwheels cars with the power of mobile computing. Using tokens for a boost and real Hot Wheels cars – each with their own unique skills and personality quirks, players rev up and launch the toys into a fantastical computer-generated racetrack where winning takes both speed and smarts. A special note: this game is the first-ever Hot Wheels product marketed on the package, “For boys and girls!” (iPad sold separately)

Just watch

Give the gift of peace of mind to yourself or love ones with the Honeywell Lyric C2 Wi-Fi Security Camera ($169.99), an easy-to-install and use security system that keeps on eye on your home while you’re away, or inside. Using the Lyric app on a phone or tablet, the C2 streams live video and records using free secure cloud storage (up to 1 GB) and 8GB SD-card storage for back-up, so that you can download surveillance clips from the past 24 hours. The system features voice control capability using the Alexa app, sound detection, night vision, and an HD 145-degree wide-angle view that captures video in sharp 1080p high definition.

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Decor

A bedroom for all seasons

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Make your bedroom a refreshing retreat, any time of year

Many a travel-weary soul has exclaimed, “There’s nothing like being home in your own bed.” Your bedroom is your private sanctuary, so make it an inviting place where you can rest, sleep and feel restored, surrounded by pure comfort and beauty.

Blooming bed

Bring a lasting bouquet beauty of seasonal blooms into your bedroom with Ted Baker London floral bedding.  The designer known for its rich, vibrant hues and elaborate prints is launching a new line of luxury linens for spring, including the Blue Beauty collection, inspired by souvenir photographs taken by the designer on a bicycle ride around Holland’s tulip fields. The tonal blues create a striking statement against a pristine white backdrop.

The soft 100-perfect cotton comforter sets, coverlets, and decorative pillows are available at Nordstrom.com, priced between $65 to $285.

Counting sleep

Sleeping in total comfort not just a dream. PONS bedding has made it their mission to create the ultimate environment for perfect sleep. The PONS mattress (starting at $599) will help you rest well not just because of its gel infusion for cooler sleep, its breathable knit cover for airflow and its body-conforming foam with three levels of pressure point relief for restful shuteye, but you will sleep well knowing the materials under you are 100-percent eco-friendly and CertiPUR-US certified from head to toe.

The mattress contains no ozone depleters, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, or formaldehyde or phthalates, and low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million). PONS made the perfect match to its mattress in a bedframe ($1,199) equipped with USB ports for recharging while you sleep. Soon PONS promised to offer cooling and ultra-dry sheets, comforters and pillows.

Airbn-be-better

Nature’s bounty of trees, plants and flowers, as well as our beloved animals, bring us beauty and joy that make our house a home, inside and out; but they also bring into the home pollen, dander and other indoor pollutants that can be harmful to our health and comfort. Blueair Classic 405 ($599) air purifier filters out the polluting particles to clean unhealthy air in your home environment. It operates quietly, and its modern design discreetly blends in with home décor. Integrated smart technology allows it to be operated remotely with a smartphone.

The clean-air companion to the Blueair air purifier is Blueair Aware ($199), a sleek, small air monitor that continuously measures indoor air quality and quickly detects airborne pollutants, including ultrafine particulate matter (PM2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde and benzene and carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2). You don’t need to know what any of these chemicals and contaminants are – just that when the Blueair Aware indicator shines blue, the air you breathe is A-OK. If the indicator light turns orange, it’s time to shut the windows or eliminate other sources of air contaminants.

Clean case

Feeling good under the covers begins with a fresh, clean bed and pillows. Cover your mattress and pillows with an allergen-barrier to keep down dust mites, pollen, pet dander and other household allergens. AllerEase Ultimate zippered mattress protector ($55.99) and pillow protectors ($9.99) fully encase mattresses and pillows in antimicrobial, hypoallergenic fabric to reduce exposure to irritants; and because the top fabric is soft and pliable, the covers do not alter the feel or breathability of your sleep surface. As an added benefit, the waterproof coverings offer protection from spills, and they can be machine washed and dried for easy care.

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