What Parents Need to Know Before Buying a Smart Speaker
Ready to jump on the smart speaker train? If you're wondering if they're all that, you might be tempted by the many deals you're seeing this time of year. Though voice-activated home assistants can do everything from turn off your lights to read your kids a story, they have some hidden costs and privacy risks you'll want to investigate before you commit.
Check out our comparisons of the top four smart speakers -- Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Facebook Portal, and Google Home -- for a rundown of features and privacy policies. Still have questions? Get answers to the most important issues about how these useful, but somewhat mysterious, products work for families. Keep in mind that all smart speakers require Wi-Fi and a smartphone to control the device.
Amazon Echo Dot Kids' Edition
The Echo Dot Kids' Edition has the most comprehensive library of "skills" for kids, including music, games, and educational activities (and even more when you opt for a FreeTime Unlimited subscription). You may have to dig around to find the best skills, though, and many have subpar privacy policies, which could put your kid's information at risk. Like Google Home, Echo Dot Kids' Edition offers parental controls so you can choose and approve content, limit use, and turn off the device.
Privacy snapshot: Echo Dot Kids' Edition doesn't use kids' data to advertise or track kids, but it still collects and stores a large amount of data about them, including anything they say to Alexa.
Choose this product if: You want a low-cost, screen-free entertainment and learning alternative for your kids; are willing to put some time into creating kid profiles and seeking out high-quality skills; and can commit to periodically reviewing and deleting data in your account profile.
Read our full evaluation of Amazon Echo Dot Kids' Edition
The HomePod has the best privacy protections of all the smart speakers we tested, but it's expensive and geared toward families who want a hub for smart home products. Siri plays a major role on the HomePod (as on all Apple products) to play music, answer questions, make recommendations, and control smart devices. HomePod only works with Apple-approved apps, not third-party ones like Echo and Home, so expect to tack on an Apple Music subscription price to get the most out of the device.
Privacy snapshot: Apple is the only smart speaker company that uses a technology called "unique identifiers" for Siri searches and other requests. This privacy-protecting feature restricts the data the company can collect on you. (Other companies tie your searches to your account.)
Choose this product if: You already have an iPhone, you're cool with paying an extra $100 or more a year for an Apple Music subscription, and you really care about privacy.
Read our full evaluation of Apple HomePod
Google Home is the most accurate of all the smart speakers we tested, but it sure helps itself to your data. Like the Amazon Echo, Google Home offers a wide range of entertainment "apps" and works with most music services. Like Echo, it also offers parental controls so you can teach the device to recognize your kid's voice so it returns kid-friendly results. Unlike on the Echo, you can't change Google's "wake word" (you're stuck with "OK" or "Hey, Google"), and that phrase applies to every activatable device -- even your mobile phone or laptop -- so don't be surprised if everything responds to one command.
Privacy snapshot: Google uses searches, your personal info, and even your families' voices to target advertisements and track you online.
Choose this product if: You have other Google products such as an Android phone or a Chromecast streaming device; you have no patience for crappy voice recognition; and you understand how much data it collects.
Read our full evaluation of Google Home
Portal is a little bit different from other smart speakers. For starters, it looks more like a TV with its giant camera screen, and though it offers some kids' content, it's designed more for video calling than helping around the house. Portal lets you share content and conversation with friends and family, see photos, enable augmented-reality effects, listen to music, and watch videos. All of this is done through its on-board apps, which include all the Facebook products, including the Portal app, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
Privacy snapshot: Facebook collects your data for ad-targeting purposes on the Facebook app, Messenger app, and Alexa app and on WhatsApp -- all mandatory apps if you want the best experience with the device. What's more, Facebook Portal allows for the use of third-party apps, which may not meet minimum requirements for privacy or security. That could put your child's personal information at risk.
Choose this product only if: You really need an easy-to-use video-calling device to stay in touch with other Facebook users and are already an avid Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp user.
Read our full evaluation of Facebook Portal
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