What are virtual assistants?

A smart, or virtual, assistant is a device that understands voice commands and can perform tasks for you, giving you hands-free control. You can wake yours up by saying ‘Okay Google’, ‘Alexa’ or ‘Hey, Siri’ depending on which one you’re using. Alexa is the voice behind Amazon’s Echo smart speaker while Google Home is a smart speaker powered by Google Assistant. Siri is found on Apple devices.


In order to perform searches online or communicate with other devices, your virtual assistant must be connected to the internet, so having good broadband is key.

Alexa is built into Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and it’s also found in some other devices such as Sonos speakers. Google Assistant is available on many Android phones as well as the Google Home smart speaker and other brands such as JBL speakers. You can also set it up on an iPhone as well as smartwatches, laptops and TVs.

What do virtual assistants do?

A smart, or virtual, assistant is a device that understands voice commands and can perform tasks for you, giving you hands-free control… They are available on most smartphones and tablets, as well as devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, virtual assistants listen for specific spoken words in order to answer back or perform certain functions. Use them to answer questions, play music, provide a weather forecast, tell jokes, suggest recipes and even control lights and other compatible smart home devices. They can send texts, make calls and organise reminders, too. They also learn over time, using artificial intelligence (AI) to recognise your preferences.

Are virtual assistants always listening?

Yes, as they’re waiting to hear your ‘wake’ word. You can use the mute button to turn the microphone off and you can also disable the camera.

What about my privacy?

While they listen for their ‘wake’ word, these devices can be recording. To help protect your privacy, Amazon suggests that you delete your Alexa recordings. Open the Alexa app, find Review Voice History and delete everything. You can also mute the microphone (though this will prevent use of the voice command) and make sure your wi-fi network is secure and password protected.

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How do you use virtual assistants?

When using Alexa or Google Assistant, ask your question as soon as you’ve said your ‘wake’ word. With smartphone-based assistants such as Siri, hold the home button down then type in or speak your request.

Is there a subscription charge?

There’s no monthly fee to use them; you simply pay for the smart device. If you wanted a subscription service however, such as Amazon Prime, then that does cost extra.

How can I make the most of a virtual assistant?

Consider synching up your virtual assistant with other smart home devices so you can control the heating, lights and security cameras or doorbells all via voice command. It’s so much easier and you can save energy and money while also making your home more secure when you’re not there.


Which is the best voice assistant speaker?

Currently, the most popular options are the Amazon Echo, Echo Show 10 and Echo Dot, JBL Link Portable, Apple HomePod Mini and Google Nest Hub. Before you buy, make sure it offers what you need in terms of sound, screen, connectivity, functions and price.


Hayley Gilbert is an award-winning interiors journalist with 25 years' experience writing about everything from blissful bathrooms to the coolest kitchens. Publications she has written for include Good Homes, Country Homes and Interiors, House Beautiful and The English Home.