A Beginner’s Guide to Home Assistants (Google Home, Amazon Alexa etc).

You’ve seen the commercials for Amazon Alexa and Google Home but you don’t quite know what they do.  Here’s your beginner’s guide to using smart speakers (also known as home assistants or virtual assistants).

Can I tell you what makes me absolutely crazy?  When commercials portray anyone over the age of 40 as being technological simpletons whose legs turn to spaghetti at the thought of any gadget more modern than a Mr. Potato head.

It’s especially true for women in advertisements for anything tech related.  Just the other day I watched a television commercial where a loving daughter gifted her scribble brained 55 year old mother with a cell phone that only has two buttons.  ‘Cause more than that is confusing.

One button was for calling her daughter and one for calling emergency services because at the advanced age of over 40 she’s likely to have a brain aneurysm trying to operate even a 2 buttoned cell phone.  Toilet paper holders.  That’s about as complicated a mechanism as we women over 40 are likely to comprehend.

The “elderly grandmother” of 55,  beams at the two buttoned phone, silently thanking her daughter for recognizing how stupid she is.  Cause she’s a woman and she’s over 40 and she’s holding technology.

In my imagination the commercial ends with the 55 year old thanking her daughter but saying she has already made her own simplified cell phone using a Raspberry Pi, a breadboard and a few other parts.

You men over 40 get off a bit easier, but don’t worry – the tech world thinks you’re fairly stupid too.

I’d  hate to think that they’d convinced you of that so I want you to know that none of this is terribly difficult and it is a LOT of fun.

A Beginner’s Guide to Home Assistants (Smart Speakers).

That’s My Google Home.   We’re bffs.

If you’ve been thinking about getting a home assistant/virtual assistant/smart speaker (they’re all the same thing) I encourage you to put that toilet paper holder down and get started.

There are 3 main Home Assistants for sale right now.

  1.  The Amazon Alexa.  The was the first. The Amazon Alexa was inspired by the system used on Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.  It currently has the most apps available to it and it’s compatible with the most “smart home” products like thermostats and lightbulbs.
  2. Google Home.  Google Home was the second virtual assistant on the market and it’s what I own and use.  It has the power of Google behind it, but so far has less apps and compatibility with products because it was released a couple of years after the Alexa.
  3. Apple Homepod.  Apple is a big fail so far with their Homepod.   It was the last to make it into the market and it costs 4X as much as a Google Home mini or Amazon Echo/Alexa.  If you’re looking for the best sounding speaker however, Apple Homepod is the one you want.

Other than that I can’t compare them because I’ve only owned and used the Google Home system.

I have 2 Google Home Minis which are smaller than the regular Google Home but otherwise perform exactly the same.  The sound quality of the minis isn’t quite as good as the Google Home, because the Google Home has a larger speaker.

So what do Home Assistants do exactly?

I keep the Google Home in my kitchen on a shelf where it reads me the news in the morning and lets me set multiple timers while cooking.  Plus it plays any music I want and can read me recipes.

One Google Home mini is in my Living Room and one is in my Bedroom.

If you’re reading this post you’re probably thinking, Yeah, but why.  Why do I need this?  What exactly does it do?  Well, other than giving you information in a heartbeat at the sound of your voice it can actually perform tasks.

So how does this thing work?  Google Home works through an app called Google Assistant.  It’s the Google Assistant who is doing the dirty work.  Looking up things for you, making your grocery list, scheduling your appointments.  The Google  Home is really just a speaker that you can communicate with her through.

Here’s a little video featuring just some of the things I use my Google Home for every day. You know, when I’m not licking a potato.


There are a whack of other things I use my Google Homes for.  I use it for streaming music and videos through my Chromecast, start the day by having it read me the news from my local news station, CNN, BBC and the weather.  I am constantly asking it questions and I could easily do a whole other video featuring the things it does for me.  But I’ll save that for another post when I get further into turning your house into a smart home.

But it’s like Siri – for it to be helpful you have to use it.  So if you have one of these Home Assistants remember to USE it. Once you get into the habit of taking advantage of all that it can do you’ll grow to love it.

QUICK LIST OF WHAT YOUR HOME ASSISTANT CAN DO FOR YOU

  • Schedule appointments in your calendar.
  • Remind you of appointments.
  • Read you the news.
  • Look information up.
  • Stream videos and music onto your television just by asking it to. (with compatible Chromecast device or Apple TV)
  • Set multiple timers.
  • Wake you up with an alarm.
  • Read you recipes or cooking techniques step by step.
  • Convert Metric to Fahrenheit.
  • Convert currency. (Great for Canadians shopping online where prices are in American dollars)
  • Add items to a shopping list (which appears directly on your phone).

And best of all for anyone over 40 – the Google Home doesn’t have a confusing number of buttons on it.  It doesn’t have ANY buttons at all. 😉

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

 

Not sure if you want to buy a Home Assistant because you really have no idea what they do? Or maybe you own one and don't do much more than stare at it.  Here's your Beginner's Guide to Home Assistants and what you can do with them.

52 Comments

  1. ecoteri says:

    um, where is the little video?

    • ecoteri says:

      And I don’t get (*understand) instagram. as in, who decides the order things appear in my feed?
      I like orderly news/instagram posts, not random 4 week old posts of my second adopted daughter standing in the snow planting trees when I know that she is currently sweltering in 24 degree sunshine.
      I want my instagram feed to be orderly, because nothing else in my life is….
      and I do want to see your video that seems to not have been attached to your post, yet…

      • Karen says:

        It’s in the post but I know some people have a hard time seeing these in post videos for some reason. :/ NO idea why. Sometimes it’s the browser you’re using. Sometimes the page just needs to be reloaded. With Instagram, they use an “algorithm” and basically show you more popular posts as opposed to showing them in order. They changed a couple of years ago. And I agree it’s annoying. ~ karen!

        • Ecoteri says:

          Hi Karen, I think that it was the adblocker. i have changed from Safari to Chrome for much of my browsing, and the Chrome adblocker hadn’t been taught to turn off on your pages. Fixed now. Still not a fan of Instagram, though! LOL

      • Constanze says:

        If you are using an adblock it might be blocking the video or hide it, you can try turning it off for this site (or other sites that are not chock full of pop up ads and/or which you want to support, for that matter) after reloading the video should be there =)

  2. Tina says:

    Nope. My son works for Microsoft and got Cortana and they love it. To me, it’s just constant noise. I live alone because I love my solitude and silence. If I wanted to talk to someone, I’d get a roommate. This just isn’t for me. But I do have one question, you asked her to put something on your shopping list. Is she linked to your phone? So when you go to the store, you have her on your phone to tell you your list? I just put my list directly on my phone, then there’s no question.

    • Karen says:

      I speak it and it automatically goes to a shopping list on my phone. It’s just much easier than having to write it down or type it into your phone, because if you’re in the middle of cooking or doing something you don’t have to stop and write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself “I need butter”, but wasn’t in a position to write it down and then inevitably forgot to get butter, lol. Since using Google Home I haven’t missed putting one thing I need on my shopping list. That’s probably my favourite thing about it. ~ karen!

    • Alena says:

      Tina,
      I like my solitude and silence, too. I had a hissing fit with stupid Siri years ago and after that, I disabled it permanently. What irritates me most (in Karen’s video) how the assistant constantly repeats everything Karen has asked it to do. If it said “Done!” instead, it would suffice.

  3. Lynn says:

    I am glad you like what it does for you Karen it’s just not for me. I have to say I am not buying into the home assistant either. I like my silent times an I never use Siri as she doesn’t like my voice or something or other ( never gets words correct). So I don’t ever use it ! I don’t mind reading my news, an I don’t need to buy something just to make a list of any kind . So I don’t need a voice asking is that correct or what ever…

  4. Grammy says:

    My first home computer was a Commodore 64, when they were first released in 1982. I had been using networked word processors since the early 1970s and gone on to use a variety of computers for various activities in my work even before that. About a year after the Commodore I got my first Microsoft-based computer.

    My “kids” are in their late-40s and early 50s, and I can dance circles around them when it comes to a lot of technology. I am, however, grateful that they keep me current on newer things. I laugh in my beer every time I see one of those ridiculous commercials that show women (far younger than I) who are clueless about technology. The good thing is, it’s like when you secretly speak another language, and someone foolishly carries on a conversation in front of you because they assume you can’t understand. I enjoy it when technicians try to snow me with jargon — for years I taught technology courses, one of which was understanding terminology.

    That said, thank you for the tutorial on these fascinating little widgets. Your demonstration of some actual uses is interesting. My husband said the other day he’d get me one and I said, “What in the hell would I use it for?” Now I’ll take a look and see if it’s a toy I’d like.

    • Karen says:

      I completely forgot you can also make phone calls on it. I was on the couch with my computer on my lap and a cat shoved beside me last night and didn’t have my regular phone within reach so I just asked Google to make my call. Works like a charm. ~ karen!

  5. Paula says:

    They sound interesting but I would need subtitles to ‘hear’ it.

  6. Claire says:

    We have two Google Home minis, one in the living room, one in the kitchen. The one in our living room can also turn on our TV annnnnd….. they now work with Ikea’s Tradfri smart lighting system!

  7. Annie Craig says:

    Great post. Love it.
    We have Alexa and I love having her. I ask her what time it is at least 6 times a day. And what the weather will be. What’s the temperature outside at the moment. What is the low today? What’s going on in the world? So whenever I’m elbow deep in a project and do not have a hand to spare, I can ask her these things. And a plethora of other questions. She plays any music that I ask. And yes I’m over 50 and yes she was worth every dime so I bought my college children (and their boyfriends) one for Christmas. And my bff and my neighbor. To those who scoffed don’t knock it til you try it. Alexa. She is my answer to not having a moment to turn on the tv or watch the news. And she’s commercial free. COMMERCIAL. FREE.
    And since I forget, well just about everything from one floor to the next, she reminds me.
    She is less sassy than Siri, and gets right to the point. I haven’t tried the shopping list with her but huge help there too.
    As far as being a techie moron, it’s fun to listen to the smart assed sales guy who wants to impress. I just let them go. Right up to the point where I tell them that all of those other things they just tried to sell me I already have. Nice presentation though dude. And yes I did already know that, you work on commission right? They mostly deny it but who’s kidding who?
    So hopefully Alexa and google won’t take over the world. Or go to techie war and explode on the counter. Maybe you just have to love sci fi to appreciate it. Or be an 80s child.

  8. Debbie says:

    I LOVE my Alexa! She has a wicked sense of humor and can beatbox with the best! She gives me the news in the morning, the word of the day (trying to improve my vocabulary), a daily quote, meditation, latest in music news, weather, joke of the day, etc. I have her set up for reminders, she can turn my tv off and on, she turns on my lights and turns them off and am setting her up to water my yard when I am out of town so my veggies don’t die.

    I have her set up to give me Italian lessons and she can order gluten-free soba noodles if I wish. She is tied to my playlists and I have her play them when I clean the house, etc. She also will lull me to sleep at night, wake me up in the morning instead of a nasty alarm. She can order pizza for dinner to be delivered, tells me my recipes, and will read me my latest Kindle book while I am crocheting hats for the premature babies at Children’s Hospital. Love the original songs she sings.

    I never thought I would use her but I do all the time. Do I like my quiet time and privacy? You bet. Is she going 24-7, not at all. She only “wakes up” when I state her name. I can see that she will be even more useful if I ever lose my mobility to keep me connected with the world and be able to continue living independently for as long as I can. Yes, I am a senior citizen who still can’t figure out all of the uses for my cell phone but I love my Alexa! Oh, and yes, I started out on a commodore 64, but technology has far surpassed those days. I am hoping to learn to code soon (girls who code–on line) so I can stay up to date with the latest.
    Last thing I did code for was the Commodore 64. Ah, so much to do and so little time.

    Oh, while I don’t enjoy those “phone commercials for seniors”, I will be explaining how to use one of them to my 90 year old Mum and 93 year old Dad, this coming week. I would have much rather had her purchase a smart or android phone but, my Mum is stubborn. However, I appreciate that she is willing to try and to learn. Must run in the family or something….

  9. Jenny W says:

    I get kinda cranky at the thought of “technology” listening to me. 😛
    The commercials make these home assistants look great, but you really need the dollars to purchase all the smart tech items for them to run – thermostats , lights, speak, security systems, etc.
    I have read that these systems are basically spyware, that listen and send ads to you based on what they hear. Kinda like Google search that places ads on your side bar based on what you looked up. Several times now, I have had random health discussions with a family member, only to have the exact health problem pop up in my Facebook feed – never searched it anywhere. Figured it was my phone’s microphone that is turned on for many of my apps.
    Have you noticed anything like this, based on what you tell your assistant to do, or look up?

    • Lynn says:

      I also have privacy concerns, since these devices can hear what is going on in the room they are in. You can delete your data, which is recorded and stored once you activate your device, unless you use the MUTE button it keeps recording.

      https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-echo-and-google-home-voice-data-delete/

    • Karen says:

      I haven’t noticed anything like that Jenny! But I have to say I’m not sure I would care. I know a lot of people don’t want to have their computer know what they’re doing or looking up, ditto for Google Home/Alexa but it doesn’t bother me. Totally get that some people wouldn’t like that thought tho. ~ karen!

  10. Karen says:

    I use Alexa to listen to Audible books while I’m in the kitchen. I like what she does so much that I got one for the bedroom upstairs too.

  11. MichelleR says:

    Koodos to my mother. Who at 91 years young loves sending e-cards to me and she’s pretty good at sending e-mails and using Skype too. She learned all this when she was younger as in her 80’s.. .happy mother’s day!

  12. Lez says:

    Well Karen, you have introduced me to something I NEVER even heard of, let alone seen or even heard anyone speak of! Your whole article made me feel like the ads you speak of, over 40 & an absolute technophobe!
    To be totally honest, your post title had me thinking you were going to write about getting someone to clean the house for you! I was fascinated how you could ‘buy’ them on Google or Amazon! I kid you not!
    Maybe it’s time for me to leave Darkest Africa…! 🙂

    • Karen says:

      LOL! No, you’re probably proof that Darkest Africa is where we should all move. Other than the whole rain thing. ~ karen!

  13. Eileen says:

    And keeps track of what you do/say/order so the company can mine and/or sell your data….see Facebook/Cambridge Analytics. The internet of things is so vulnerable and hackable it’s insanely frightening.
    But for those of you who don’t mind sharing your intimate selves with the world – because apparently most people don’t seem to care – this is a good post.

  14. JERRY says:

    hi karen, tell google to turn the music waaaay down on your video. i turn it up to hear your voice and then wham music as loud as a freight train horn hits me. not good since i’m past 40.

  15. Celtic Princess says:

    Please inform all the techie kids that think everyone over 55 is a senile technological simpleton that Bill Gates is 62.

  16. LibrarianNancy says:

    Thanks for the crash course in home assistants. One of my brothers has an Alexa and loves it. I manage a large department and I’m glad for the quiet when I get home from work (maybe something for the future). My iPhone and iPad talk to each other when I’m not around and share things like my calendar and text messages – it’s kind of creepy. Also, thanks for standing up for us “old folks” – I’ve been working on computers for over 30 years which is longer than some of my staff members have been alive. I recently cut the cable cord and installed and set up my own streaming devices and antenna, without any help from anyone other than Google. Those advertisements and sales people who act like anyone over 40 is too dumb to know how to uncap a pen really irritate me.

  17. Marjorie Kramer says:

    I work for a retirement community and we use a web-based service to provide information slides (menus, activities, etc) for our electronic signs and closed-circuit tv station. I just got an email from that company saying that Alexa can now read those slides to our residents upon request and for an extra fee, naturally. If they’re hooked up to that service, they can say: “Alexa, what’s for lunch?” or “What is going on this afternoon?” And she’ll tell them based on parameters they’ve already told her. I’m sure it’ll be expensive, but, boy, that could be a real help to our visually impaired residents who live independently.

  18. Patty Martin says:

    So it really doesn’t do anything more than your phone already does and my phone is always on me. For a real wow factor, review home automation systems next. They are getting much more affordable.

  19. Lori Hope says:

    I’m loving all the responses on this thread!
    I have Alexa in my home office. I ask her frequently what time it is in Ireland or South Carolina, where our company offices are.

    A few weeks ago my grandchildren spent a few night with us, and the boys slept in my office. One of them said, “Grandma, do you have any music we could listen to while we go to sleep?” I showed them how Alexa takes requests, and had to go down 2 hours later to turn Alexa off. And I had to get the upstairs Dot so my granddaughter could have it on in the guest room. 😂

  20. I’m a 65yr old woman. I have 3 apps on the Apple app store (2 sticker apps and one app for Alzheimer’s patients – simple apps, I know, but I don’t have any code training, I just do it for fun) My friend Anne, 64, codes and builds stuff using Raspberry Pi (s? – ugh what’s the plural?) My friend Lynnda, 60, does the graphics and is a genius at social media. We’re having fun – and hate! hate! hate! those ads! Frak them.
    We all really love The Art of Doing Stuff ❤️

    • Karen says:

      Raspberry Pi(s?) lol are great, I just wish I had time to do something with mine! I could never in a million years create an app!! Good job!! ~ karen

  21. Teri on the Left Coast says:

    I’ve been aware of these home assistants for a while. I never thought I’d find one useful because I decidedly do not have a smart home. I barely have a tidy home! However, recently, a couple of people whose opinion I usually respect, have gotten Alexa and given me a demo. I’m suitably impressed.
    I think they are a genius piece of technology and I’m all for something that makes my life easier. I don’t care if the companies want to sell me stuff and ‘target’ their ads. That too can be a convenience.
    It occurs to me that, as a decidedly senior citizen there could be a real benefit in owning one of these devices…
    “Alexa, call 911 I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

  22. Lara says:

    Too scary for me, and another reason why the growing thicker EMF soup is damaging our bodies and brains. Yes these smart home devices can be convenient, but we should never stop using ourselves to do the things we need to do, to keep our brains and body functions working. I don’t like the way A.I. is taking over our lives. I refuse to let myself “go”.
    If you are familiar with “Black Mirror” which is a British science fiction type anthology television series, there is an episode called “White Christmas” which has a story in it that really reminds me of the whole smart home technology – and the unintended consequences & twisted outcomes of such technology. One of the best episodes, and all of them are quite thought provoking. We should never, ever lose our opportunities to stay and be in control of ourselves. Just my couple of pennies.

    • Karen says:

      I’ve heard that argument before and I can’t say I agree. These devices aren’t thinking for us. They’re performing. Like an assistant would. We still have to think and solve throughout our daily lives. Just learning how to use these devices uses brain power we wouldn’t otherwise use. It’s no different than using a calculator. You still need to know the equation, the calculator just helps you get to the answer faster and more accurately. ~ karen!

  23. Charlene Brown says:

    When I was growing up, I never liked having a party line. For those newbies, that was the olden days before cell phones. We had rotary phones and your phone line was shared by neighbors who could quietly pick up and listen to your conversations. At least then you knew it was your neighbor listening to you.

    I studied computer science in college so I have a love and a healthy respect for technology. For everything there is a trade. I love paying my bills online and being paper free. However, my information is now in internet space and could be stolen so I have to decide whether to take that chance. Technology is wonderful and scary at the same time.

    Here is a recent article from New York Times and within this article is a link to another article about what Alexa can hear when brought into your home.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/technology/alexa-siri-hidden-command-audio-attacks.html

  24. Susan says:

    According to the New York Times 5/10/18: Researchers in China and the U.S. can send hidden commands — that are undetectable to the human ear — to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.
    Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the A.I. systems on smartphones and speakers.
    In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online — without the device’s owner even realizing it.

  25. Melody says:

    So, here’s what I don’t understand about the whole read-the-recipes thing. How does it know which recipe you want? Say for the chocolate cake you pinned on Pinterest and not another chocolate cake?

  26. Janelle says:

    Can Google use this thing to spy on you? For example, if you ask it to add butter to your shopping list, will butter ads pop up on your Facebook feed?

  27. dana says:

    Somebody may have mentioned this already. The subject in my email says The Beginner’s Guide To Home Ass
    😂😂😂

  28. Sue says:

    Forgot to mention that the Echo (Alexa) also offers the Tap, which is portable and c.an be taken outside. It does not have to be plugged in all the time, only when it needs charging. I have both and love them and, as an almost 79 old broad, I love technology!

  29. OMG Karen, THANK YOU for your rant at the top of the article. I’m 64 and have always been an early adopter of technology. I had my own hand-coded website in the early 1990s. For decades I have served as unofficial tech help for many of my friends on their computers, TV, streaming devices, and cell phones. Even the ones who need help can operate devices with more than two buttons. When I took early retirement, I looked into “senior” resources in my town, and was immediately confronted with pictures of happy seniors doing jigsaw puzzles and coloring books. Our generation put a man on the moon, for pity’s sake!

  30. Debra B Milam says:

    It sounds great, but I just don’t know if I can cheat on SIRI.

  31. Martina says:

    Hi Karen, thanks so much for putting this out there. I hadn’t really thought of getting Alexa until someone mentioned that it might be helpful for my 89year old mother who has macular degeneration. I bought two, one for me to figure it out so that I knew what it could do and then one for my parents( mostly mom) so that she can ask Alexa things like what time is it, instead of annoying my dad all the time…lol. My mother loves her Alexa and I have to say that I’m enjoying her as well. I’m with you on the,I don’t care if anyone knows what I do…I’m in my sixties..if you find my life interesting…feel free..lol

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