2016 Holiday gift guide: Smart speakers

From Amazon to Google, a virtual assistant is ready for your home or office this holiday season.
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Smart Speakers

If you're looking for a really cool gift for someone special, consider a smart speaker. Most of them cost a pretty penny, but after seeing the smile they'll leave on the faces of whoever gets them, you won't be sorry. With a smart speaker, you can do everything from use your voice to get a readout of the daily news or weather or queue up Netflix videos on your TV. These devices provide a wide range of capabilities and integrations -- to the point where you can link them all up to play simultaneously or even control all the Internet of Things devices in your home. Here are seven of the best ones out there and what they can do for you (I mean, your loved ones...).

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Amazon Echo

First released in 2015 in the US, this $179 always-listening speaker takes the shape of a 9.25-inch-tall cylinder. It features a 7-piece mic array, responds to the wake word "Alexa", and is capable of voice interaction. It can even control compatible Internet of Things devices, such as smart thermostats, and music playback from mobile devices over Bluetooth. The Alexa assistant will also help you make to-do lists, set alarms, play songs, read PDFs, provide weather forecasts, and more. It'll play trivia and games with you, too, including Jeopardy. Echo requires a Wi-Fi connection in order for Alexa to work, and it must remain plugged in for power.

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Amazon Tap

Released in 2016 in the US, this $129 cylindrical speaker looks a lot like its older sibling, Echo -- only it's mobile (comes with a charging cradle) and not always-listening. It still offers sound, thanks to dual 1.5-inch drivers and dual passive radiators, but because it's not always-on, you can't say "Alexa" to wake it. In order to access Amazon's Alexa assistant, you must touch the mic button. Tap is 6.2-inches tall and is capable of streaming up to nine hours of audio on a full charge -- or it can last up to three weeks in standby mode. Other than that, it can do all the same tricks as Echo (but, again, you must be connected to Wi-Fi to use Alexa).

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Echo Dot

Released this past fall in the US, Dot is like a hockey puck-shaped version of Echo and Tap. It plugs into a wall outlet, is always-on, and is designed to be connected to external speakers in order to provide voice feedback. It's a 1.6-inch-tall cylinder with one tiny speaker. It supports always-on Alexa, connects to the cloud to stream tunes, controls your Internet of Things devices, and does all the same stuff as Echo. The main difference between the $49 Dot and original Echo is that the full-size speaker is gone. The idea is you'll hook Dot up to your own speaker setup, so you can use Alexa -- which, again, requires Wi-Fi -- with your existing audio equipment. Dot is also available to buy in a six-pack or 12-pack configuration.

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Invoxia Triby

The $199 Invoxia Triby is among the first third-party products to feature Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, which debuted on the Amazon Echo but now exists in the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot as well. This Bluetooth speaker can do all the familiar "always-on" smart speaker things, such as listen for your command to play music, pull info from Wikipedia, control your Internet of Things devices, read the news, set alarms, request an Uber, etc. It's designed for use in the kitchen, or is marketed as such, because it can stick to the fridge with its magnetized back. Plus, it lets you draw doodles on your phone and share them to its display. However, it's more expensive than the Echo, so it's hard to justify getting Triby over Amazon's own speakers.

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Alexa on Fire TV

Although Fire TV devices probably don't count as speakers, they do hook up to your TV, which likely emits sound by itself or from your speaker setup, so we're including it. Alexa on these devices can perform specific actions and help you discover all the content available to watch or listen to on your Fire TV box or stick. Just press and hold the Voice button on your Alexa Voice Remote or the Fire TV Remote app and then say what you want Alexa to do. You can ask for information, search for movies and TV series, play back music, get news and weather, launch apps, etc. Alexa answers directly through your Fire TV, though some features open in a separate display on your TV, allowing you to both see and hear Amazon's voice assistant in action.

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Google Home

Home is Google's $129 take on the Amazon Echo. But it's loaded with its very own always-on assistant, which you can activate by saying "OK Google," followed by whatever command you have in mind. Like Alexa, you can ask Google Assistant basic questions, at which point it'll draw upon Google's 20 years of search experience, or you can use Assistant to control Internet of Things devices with your voice, though the selection of compatible devices is slim at launch (the speaker launched in late 2016). You can also ask it to play YouTube or Netflix videos on your TV, so long as you have a Google Chromecast plugged into said TV. Although it doesn't offer as many integrations as Echo right now, in a year from now, Home might be the speaker to beat.

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Sonos' speakers don't have a voice assistant (yet), but they are still plenty smart. They come in different shapes and sizes and prices -- and they all connect to your Wi-Fi network to play music from local or cloud services. They uniquely connect together through a wireless mesh network, allowing the different components to communicate with each other directly. You can listen to tunes on one individually, or you can link them all up to play simultaneously. To control them, simply use the apps for iOS, Android, PC, or Mac.

Sonos announced earlier this year Alexa support will come to its speaker line in 2017.

"These new voice capabilities will be delivered in a software update that will work with new and previously purchased Sonos and Alexa-enabled devices such as Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and Amazon Fire TV. The companies will begin rolling out the experience through an invite-only beta test later this year, with general availability in 2017," Sonos wrote at the time.

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