It seems like we can talk to just about all the gadgets that cross our desk these days, thanks to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. 2018 is indeed the year of the smart home. Here are some smart gadgets that we reckon will make great gifts this Christmas
Lenovo Smart Display – $299/$399
The smart home started out as audio only. You talk to a smart device and it talks back and does what you want. But this year we saw smart displays introduced. One of the first was the Lenovo Smart Display.
There are two versions – so you have choice in your gift giving. Both the 8-inch and 10.1-inch models sport touch screens. The larger screen runs to 1,920 by 1,200 pixels of resolution. Also included is a ten-watt speaker and a camera. It runs a version of Android called Android Things.
Basically, it can do all the Google Assistant stuff, but adds things like video calling (using Google Duo) and a host of other visual things.
Naturally, Google has added its own screen-based device to its smart home offerings. The Google Home Hub is surprisingly low in price at only $30 more that the Google Home speakers.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a Google Android tablet. It is very much designed for purpose: showing things like photos and information screens, but not so good for video given the 1,024- by 600-pixel resolution of the 7-inch display. Like the Google Home, it can support “routines”. Say “Hey Google, good morning” and the recipient of your gift can have his or her routine read out, lights adjusted, smart appliances switched on and so on.
Synology DS418play 4K UHD capable NAS server – less than $700 (plus drives)
A smart home needs storage. We know, all the vendors want you to store everything in the “cloud”. Which is to say, their network storage. That leaves you at the mercy of your internet connection. And of ongoing usage fees.
We have over a terabyte of music alone on our network attached storage – NAS. This Synology device is optimised for media, including 4K UltraHD video. As is the way of the better NAS systems, it comes empty of disc drives. You can add one to four. If you have more than one, then it will use a RAID format. That makes all the drives look like one, spreads the data over them intelligently to increase speed, and has them back each other up in case of failure.
Tech companies like Google are behind the smart home ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean that home entertainment specialists shouldn’t get into the act. LG has one of the better sounding Google-Assistant-understanding speakers out there.
In big part, that’s because LG invited Meridian Audio to tune up the speakers. Meridian Audio is a British company known for its high-end gear and technological savvy (it invented the compression technique used by Dolby TrueHD).
So, in addition to being a smart speaker, the LG WK7 ThinQ speaker handles high resolution audio (up to 192kHz sampling). Our reviewer reckeons that “the LG WK7 ThinQ
is the one to buy for the best, easiest listening sound reproduction.”
First there was the Google Home, then the Google Home Mini (see the next item for these). Most recently Google has introduced its Home Max, a bigger bolder speaker for your loved one’s smart home.
This one packs stereo speakers and comes in at a solid 5.3 kilograms. Two of them can work as a stereo pair. They work as “Chromecast” speakers and can reproduce high resolution audio (up to 24-bit/192kHz sampling). And of course they respond to “Okay Google” with just about any information you need.
But they’re smart in another way. They continually analyse the sound they’re reproducing and adjust it to optimise the sound for the acoustics of the room and where they’re located.
Here’s where it all began for Google. And here are a pair of sensibly priced Google Assistant speakers. The cool things about these is as gifts, one can’t really receive too many of them. Particularly the Home Mini. Your loved one can have one in every room, so they’re always ready to act on his or her commands.
The Mini is so/so for audio. It is a tiny little thing. But it uses almost no space. The Google Home is better on the sound, although for real audio quality look at some of the other speakers we’ve mentioned here. These ones work best for practical applications. And being from Google, they’re likely to be the first to be upgraded for any new hardware features.
Panasonic was one of the first to launch a smart home speaker compatible with Google Assistant. And being an audio company, it does a first-class job on sound quality (within the constraints imposed by size). Most smart speakers are round. This one may fit your loved one’s décor better if he or she prefers square.
Square styling, but not square sound. We were pretty impressed with the audio quality. It went nicely loud and the Google Assistant function worked well. It also works as a DLNA speaker for those who prefer that older Wi-Fi audio standard.
See our two reviews here and here. We rated it at 4.2/5 and 4.0/5.
Sonos Beam – $599
Sonos is famous for creating the first successful multiroom audio system. So, the Sonos Beam is going to be best for your loved one if he or she already has a Sonos household. But even as a standalone, in the form of a compact soundbar, it produces respectable sound. And it listens for commands.
In fact, it’s multilingual. When we reviewed it back in the middle of the year, it then spoke only (Amazon) Alexa. But by now it should have the other two promised languages added: (Google) Assistant and (Apple) Siri.
And if your loved one wants to expand it to a full surround system, Sonos has plenty of other speakers to handle the other channels.
Philips Hue – pricing varies according to system requirements
So, we’ve covered lots of smart speakers for a smart home, but what else can you control with those commands? Well, the music of course. But also smart appliances. These remain relatively few, but more are appearing all the time.
What else? How about your loved one’s home lighting? Yes, you can get smart switches and smart lights. The Philips Hue system is one such. A smart home may have one or twenty smart lights, all or each able to be controlled by voice.
Do read our review to see how this works, and how there are an astonishing number of configurations available. If your loved one loves making things work, and isn’t daunted by tech, this could be just the thing they want, and maybe even need.