I use a fairly simple metric to determine which artificially intelligent voice assistant is the best for controlling my smart home: Which one do I swear at the least? Apple’s Siri, which turns 10 today, wins hands down. This is slightly to do with the fact it rarely spews useless information at me when it didn’t understand what I was asking (*cough* Google) and definitely because it never asks if I want to buy something (you know who you are). But mainly, it’s because as a smart home controller, Siri is seriously fast.
Siri, you say? That same Siri whose lagginess is legendary in its native iPhone home? Yes, that’s the one. Bring Siri into your home, put the power of an Apple TV 4K or HomePod (maxi or mini) behind it as a HomeKit hub, and the snappiness with which the AI does what you command will floor you.
A simple, “Hey Siri, Good Night” turns off all the smart lights in my home, locks the front and back doors, closes the garage door, pauses any music playing, lowers the shades, and sets the thermostat to my sleep temperature in around 6 seconds, give or take.
A quick “Hey Siri, lights on” directed at the kitchen HomePod Mini turns just those lights on in under a second. As a bonus, it has never once accidentally illuminated the whole house at 5AM, as some other voice assistants have unhelpfully done (I mentioned the swearing already, right?)
A whispered “Good Morning” into my Apple Watch while pressing the digital crown, and my home springs gently back to life; turning on just the lights I need to get ready without waking up my partner and playing NPR quietly on the kitchen Mini, all before I’ve made it out of the bedroom.
Siri may lack some of the excellent qualities found on competing smart speakers. It’s not the smartest AI — that goes to Google Assistant with its powerhouse backend. It’s not the most helpful — that goes to Alexa with its frequent (and frequently unsolicited) offers of assistance. But when all what you want to do is turn the lights on and instead your AI launches into a monologue about who invented the light switch, that’s when you say to yourself, “I wish my smart home controller was a little dumber.”
While the smart home dream is one powered by artificial intelligence that uses context to anticipate your every need, we are a long way from that reality. Today, all you really need from your smart home voice control are listening skills and comprehension — we’re talking first grade here, not a master’s degree.
To be helpful, voice control in the smart home just has to be easier and less obtrusive than pulling out a phone and opening an app, and more convenient than walking over to flip a switch. It’s a challenge and one that Apple is the closest to conquering — in my home at least.
Yes, fart jokes are fun, and it’s great to have the world’s knowledge just a few words away — Siri is no good at either of those things. But Siri does hear me 100 percent of the time, even when the closest speaker is on the other side of the room, understands my smart home requests 95 percent of the time, and limits its chatty banter to the absolute minimum — “On it” or “Coming right up.” These are qualities I admire in a smart home controller.
However, I do wish Siri was more promiscuous. There are a fair number of gadgets and gizmos in my admittedly out-of-the-norm smart home that can’t talk to Siri. This means I occasionally find a member of my household standing haplessly in the middle of the room saying, “Hey, Alexa. Hey Siri. Hey Google. Hey, can anybody hear me??”
It was also not a simple nor inexpensive process to set up my partly-Siri-powered smart home. (The nature of my job means I’m contractually obliged to run all four smart voice assistants at once — yes, I have Bixby in here too). Searching for Siri-compatible devices generally means choosing the “highest-priced” filter in the search results and closing your eyes when you hit that buy button. A few more budget-friendly offerings released over the last year from Aqara and Meross have made it a little easier on the wallet, but there are still a number of categories entirely missing or sparsely populated — such as robot vacuum cleaners, smart smoke alarms, and home security systems.
The coming promise of Matter may fix this interoperability conundrum, which, to be fair, is not just Apple’s problem. But in the meantime, I’ve found that Siri Shortcuts offers a useful way around some of these limitations. Tailwind, my favorite garage door controller, didn’t have HomeKit support for a long time. It does now, but in the interim it offered a Shortcut to program in my own command to have Siri open and close the door. The same deal with my ceiling fans. The Bond Bridge (an RF device that can communicate with a ceiling fan remote control, not a scene from No Time to Die) can use Siri on your iPhone or Apple Watch to trigger Shortcuts to control my not smart, definitely not HomeKit-compatible fans.
The downside of Shortcuts, however, is they only work on an iPhone or Apple Watch, and smart home control needs to be easily accessible to everyone in the house, whether they’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem or not. Until the advent of the HomePod Mini, the price to outfit a modest-sized home with on-demand Siri access was prohibitive, and even the HomePod Mini’s $99 per room is still steep.
In honor of Siri’s tenth birthday, it looks like the AI is inviting some friends to the party. A new Siri-enabled accessories program allows non-Apple gadgets with speakers and microphones in them to relay requests to a HomePod. As of now, the Ecobee SmartThermostat is the only manufacturer to have committed to this. (Considering Amazon just Sherlocked them with its new smart thermostat I wouldn’t blame Ecobee if it evicted Alexa entirely.) With more ways to talk to Siri in the home and more products that can be controlled by the smart assistant, I’m hoping my swear jar will be gathering cobwebs by Christmas.