Smart Speakers Can Go Beyond Music

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Music is far and away the most common use for the smart and internet-connected speakers infiltrating our homes in recent years — an estimated 144.3 million of them were shipped globally in 2019, according to the data analysis company IDC. That doesn’t mean these speakers should be used only to play music. Here are some new and clever ways to integrate a smart speaker — from Google, Sonos, Apple, Amazon and others — into your daily routine and to take full advantage of the features the speakers are capable of.

Having a subscription to a music streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music will provide a connected speaker with the most to listen to, but it isn’t required. You can still listen to broadcast radio, podcasts, and news through your smart speaker — all for free.

Apple HomePod, Google Home and Amazon Echo devices will all play local radio stations — most via partnerships with, iHeartMedia, or TuneIn.

[Try saying the speaker’s trigger word, followed by “Play 97.3 FM.”]

Reciting news and weather are also common tasks people ask their speakers to perform, just behind playing music, according to NPR and Edison Reach’s Smart Audio Report. But you can also get your information fix from a daily podcast, like The New York Times’s “The Daily,” or NPR’s “Up First.”

You don’t need a subscription or an app to listen to a podcast on your connected speaker.

[Try saying the speaker’s trigger word, followed by “Listen to the Revisionist History podcast.”]

All the major smart speakers can connect to your phone and be used as a speakerphone. Even in the most well-wired offices, it’s often hard to be heard and understood on conference calls, and your smart speaker may be able to help.

Using a HomePod, Google Home speaker, or Echo device as a speakerphone has two main advantages: It likely has a louder speaker than your smartphone and, often, an array of multiple microphones designed to pick up hard-to-hear speech from different angles of a room.

Each manufacturer has instructions on how to turn its smart speaker into a speakerphone (here they are for Apple’s HomePod, Google Home and Amazon’s Echo devices).

Each device has its own way of connecting to your phone and contacts. Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers connect through their apps, while Apple iPhones can connect to HomePods over AirPlay or automatically just by holding it near the top of the speaker.

This might not be ideal in a large corporate setting, but for smaller offices or remote settings, having a multipurpose speaker that can be used for music and other tasks, as well as a conference call speakerphone other times might be just the ticket to beat the bad call quality that comes with other speakerphones.

Use your internet-connected speaker to help kids cut back on screen time. Instead of them watching a show, you can play a soundtrack from a show or movie to facilitate playtime. Having them listen to music or sounds from a familiar show or movie rather than watching it is one way to help grease the wheels to get playtime or offline time started.

In my personal experience, putting on songs from the PBS show “Peg + Cat,” Netflix’s “StoryBots,” or “The Lego Batman Movie,” would get my kids focused on building a Lego set, playing with Hot Wheels, or using other various toys as they sang or danced along.

Playing movie soundtracks throughout the house can also be handy when you’ve just seen a movie in theaters and you want to hang on to that magic.

For parents who don’t have a great grasp of “new math” or who weren’t confident in their school skills the first time around, smart speakers make for wonderful homework helpers.

Small disclaimer: Let kids know these assistants are tools, in the same way a calculator is a tool, and should be used as such. Your smart speaker shouldn’t become a cheating machine.

Smart speakers can help children spell and define words, and solve math problems.

Lately, my family uses our smart speaker as a timer for fluency reading. Before it was possible to ask a smart speaker for a 60-second timer, reading for a minute required several minutes of work to figure out how to mark the time. It’s also useful to set reminders or appointments, for example “remind me to start homework at 4 p.m.”

Playing white noise sounds is a great way to stay focused while you work. You can also use your speaker to help you sleep at night. In either situation, buying a dedicated sound machine may not sound as good as using even an inexpensive Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot.

The static sound of white noise may sound passable on any speaker, but calming nature sounds of rain, wind or a fire need a device with decent sound quality.

For sleep, use a smart speaker at night to play calming noise or nature sounds. There is plenty to choose from on Spotify or Apple Music; if you don’t have a subscription, just ask your speaker to play something.

For example, asking Alexa on an Echo device to play nature sounds will trigger an Alexa Skill and pull in some of the sounds.

Not all, but several speakers — including the Sonos Play:5 and the Google Home Max — have audio input connectors that let you play sound from other devices. If your speaker has this function, you can use it to spread the sound of vinyl records, for example, to other rooms in the house.

Your record player may require a preamp, or other equipment to get its cables connected to the smart speaker’s 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, but once it is, any sound playing through the input can be piped around to other speakers in your home over Wi-Fi.

With Sonos, for example, whatever is playing out of one speaker can be grouped with other Sonos speakers within your home system.

Check your smart speaker’s documentation or the manufacturer’s website to see if it supports connecting external audio sources.