Can you use Alexa (or Google Home) without buying a smart speaker?

Can you use Alexa (or Google Home) without buying a smart speaker?
Can you use Alexa (or Google Home) without buying a smart speaker?

When people ask me which smart home device they should buy first, I usually suggest a smart speaker. Its convenience is undeniable, especially for setting timers, listening to music, and making quick measurement conversions on the go. cocinaYou can also find smart speakers for any budget.

But the main feature is the vast ecosystem of compatible devices that work easily with Alexa and Google. Smart speakers are excellent smart hubs. Or is there something else going on?

Alexa and Google Home go beyond smart speakers

Smart speakers are just a small part of the smart home equation.

John Carlsen/CNET

Smart speakers are the public face of Alexa, Google Home, and Apple Home, but they are surprisingly minor parts of their respective smart home ecosystems. They may look like smart hubs, but they are input devices for voice commands, more akin to keyboards than CPUs.

In reality, many of the major smart home platforms rely heavily on the cloud, aside from some local integrations like Bluetooth, Matter, Thread, Zigbee, and Z-Wave, including smart hubs like SmartThings and Ezlo. It all comes down to the popularity and ease of use of Wi-Fi.

If a smart device uses Wi-Fi, there’s a high chance that almost all actions, schedules, routines, notifications, and settings depend on a central server instead of your phone.

Vocal proponents of the local smart home, for example the Home Assistant group, would rightly point out that cloud-based smart home integrations are useless without an internet connection. However, the ubiquity of the internet means that the cloud can be used to create a smart home without smart speakers or hubs.

That explanation aside, here’s the recipe for smart homes without speakers:

  • Smart home devices with access to an Internet connection (directly via Wi-Fi or indirectly via a smart hub)
  • Login credentials for two compatible smart home platforms
  • An app that acts as a virtual smart hub: Alexa, Apple Home, Google Home, SmartThings, IFTTT, etc.

Access Alexa without an Echo, thanks to online account linking

I connected my Govee smart light strips to Alexa without an Echo device in sight.

John Carlsen/CNET

I’ll limit my examples to Alexa, but you can use a similar process for other smart home platforms.

  1. Download the Amazon Alexa app and sign in with your Amazon account.
  2. Answer “no” when asked if you want to set up a device.
  3. Follow the instructions to finish setting up the app.
  4. Set up the smart home device you want to link to Alexa if you haven’t already.
  5. You can link accounts from the Alexa app or the other device’s app. (If you use Alexa, you’ll look for the brand of the device, such as Govee or Hubspace. If you use the other app, there’s often an “integrations” or “smart home” menu where you can select Alexa from the list.)
  6. Sometimes the account linking screen will ask a few questions before moving on to the linking authorization. You won’t have to enter any login information as long as you log in to Alexa and the target app beforehand, but it may ask you for a password anyway.
  7. After authorization, linked products appear in the Alexa devices tab, where you can set up groups, rooms, and automation routines on your smart home system.
  8. Repeat steps 4-7 for additional smart home accounts.

Regardless of whether you use a smart speaker, you shouldn’t expect the full functionality of the other device’s app to carry over to Alexa. This depends on how deep the Alexa integration the manufacturer chooses.

For example, when I link my Hubspace light strip to Alexa, I get simple control over colors and brightness, but I can’t access any scenes or lighting modes. In contrast, Alexa supports almost all of my Hubspace light strip’s features and modes. govee light stripWhile there isn’t an option to create custom lighting scenes with Alexa, you can view the custom scenes I made with the Govee app.

In any case, you can now control your linked devices from the Alexa app instead of jumping between multiple apps.

What do you lose by skipping a smart speaker?

Not much if I’m honest. Still, a smart home without speakers isn’t that convenient to use.

John Carlsen/CNET

The obvious downside to relying on a server to link smart home devices is that you lose mobile app controls and automation when the internet goes down. While it’s true that a smart speaker (or smart hub) also has this weakness, it can provide more functionality than a mobile app. Likewise, if a brand stops supporting your smart home app, you may need to revert to their app.

At first glance, a smart speaker may seem like the only way to use voice controls in your smart home, but it’s easy to install Alexa and Google Assistant on modern smartphones to make up for that. (Apple is an exception because Siri and Apple Home are exclusive to Apple devices.) Still, using a voice assistant on your phone isn’t as convenient as a dedicated smart speaker.

The other benefit you give up is the ability for a smart speaker to automatically detect new devices. An Echo Dot or Nest Mini can search for compatible devices on the same Wi-Fi network and suggest adding them to your smart home system. This cuts down on setup time and makes building your smart home simpler.

Smart speakers with built-in Smart Hub technology still have their place

The grass is not always greener on the other side.

John Carlsen/CNET

Despite the elective nature of smart speakers for controlling a smart home, models with built-in smart home radios are still practical. The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) supports Zigbee and Thread devices that would otherwise require a smart hub. The same applies to the latest Apple HomePod and Google Nest Hub models, which use Thread technology to connect to compatible devices.

The built-in Thread radios also mean these speakers can function as both Thread border routers and Matter controllers. In theory, Matter and Thread don’t require an internet connection, so you could control your smart home over a local Wi-Fi connection if your hub supports it. In practice, this functionality isn’t quite ready for prime time, but I’m glad it’s on the horizon.

Ultimately, you need to decide whether the Alexa or Google Home app is sufficient for your smart home needs. While a smart home app can be a good way to test out an ecosystem before purchasing an additional device, the convenience and affordability of smart speakers make them useful tools.

 
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