Your smart speaker is getting smarter—and part of that involves taking over what’s on the big TV screen sat in the corner of your living room. You can buy Google Homes and Amazon Echos with screens built-in, but here’s how to use them with a separate display, whether you want to watch movies or see the weather forecast.
These speakers can’t magically take over your television set by themselves of course: In the case of Google Home, you’re going to need a connected Chromecast for the speaker to communicate with. For an Amazon Echo, you need an Amazon Fire TV device of some description plugged into your TV.
With all that hardware setup taken care of, and all your devices hooked up to the same Google or Amazon accounts and the same Wi-Fi network, here’s what to do next.
Before you start beaming content to your television from your Google Home via your Chromecast, open up the Google Home app. Open the app menu, tap Devices, and make sure your Chromecast has a name that’s easy to say (like “bedroom”)—if not, tap the three dots, then Settings, and give it one.
If you go into More settings then Music and Videos and Photos, you can connect your Google Home to your Spotify, Netflix, and Google Photos accounts. YouTube works automatically, no setup required; Google Play Movies & TV isn’t yet enabled.
With all that done, you’re ready to start some casting. YouTube is a simple place to start: Try “OK Google, play R.E.M. on YouTube on bedroom”, replacing the Athens band with whoever you want to hear and “bedroom” with whatever your Chromecast is called.
You can’t really be all that specific—we repeatedly tried and failed to get our own YouTube videos to show up—but just say any kind of search term and you’ll see a mix of clips. Bands, pets, places in the world, celebrities... Google Home can understand all these as search terms and will pick a selection of YouTube clips for you.
If you’ve got Netflix connected, you can say the name of a show. So, “OK Google, play House of Cards on Netflix on bedroom” will bring up the political thriller on your television, carrying on from wherever you left off. You do need to specify a show or a movie—you can’t just open up Netflix and have a browse.
Commands like “OK Google, next episode”, “OK Google, previous episode”, “OK Google, fast forward”, and “OK Google, rewind” will work with Netflix. Back in YouTube, you can say “next clip” and “previous clip” to move through a mix, as well as “fast forward” and “rewind” to navigate through a video, always using the “OK Google” call first.
Then there’s music: You can call up playlists, bands, songs, even genres on either Spotify or Google Play Music. A typical command might be “OK Google, play the Smashing Pumpkins on Spotify on bedroom”, though you can of course adapt that in multiple ways—just make sure you pick an app and a Chromecast.
Spotify is better when you want to be less specific: “OK Google, play recommended music” works on Spotify but not on Google Play Music. In both apps, you can say “OK Google, next song” and “OK Google, previous song” to move around a playlist, while the same fast forward and rewind commands that work for video work for songs too. In all of these video and music apps, “OK Google, pause” and “OK Google, play” work as well.
As for Google Photos, you can use “OK Google, show my photos on bedroom” to get your pictures up on the big screen. The same command works if you add in the name of an album, or a place you’ve been to, or even a person in your photos, with a simple slideshow cycling through all the matches.
More functionality is rolling out, but Google hasn’t made it official yet, and it isn’t available everywhere: Try “OK Google, show me the weather on my TV” and see if you’re in luck. If you are, you’ll see a forecast appear on the big screen. More options, like casting calendars and search results to the big screen, are apparently on the way, but Google hasn’t flicked whatever switch it needs to yet to enable the functionality.
Over on the Amazon side of the fence, any Fire TV stick or box with a voice control button on its remote has Alexa on board itself, so you can simply hold the remote up and speak into it. However, you can also send commands from any Amazon Echo, saving you the trouble of lifting a finger.
If everything is connected to the same Wi-Fi network and the same Amazon account, your devices should sync automatically. If you’ve got more than one Fire TV in the house, you need to tell your Echo which one to work with through the Alexa mobile app on your phone: Choose Music & Books from the menu, then your Fire TV, then Manage devices to complete the link.
Now you’re ready to go. The choice of Echo commands isn’t as wide as the choice on Google Home—you can’t play music on a Fire TV through your Echo, for instance—but there’s still plenty you can do.
Try “hey Alexa, play The Man in the High Castle on Fire TV”—it opens right up from where you left off inside the Amazon Prime Video app. You can pick out any individual show or movie in this way, though it doesn’t work quite as well for Netflix, and Amazon and Google are having a private squabble over YouTube, so that’s out too.
You can say “hey Alexa, play Stranger Things on Netflix on Fire TV”, but you only get the title loaded up and ready to play—playback doesn’t start immediately, so you still need to hit play on your remote or say “hey Alexa, play”, which to us seems to be a rather unnecessary extra step.
Search is a bit more comprehensive: You can say “hey Alexa, show me movies with Tom Hanks” or “show me comedy films”, though you only get Prime Video and digital purchase options—the search doesn’t extend into your other apps. You can get your Echo to open any app on your Fire TV (“hey Alexa, open Hulu”) but that’s as far as it goes.
Some commands work in every app, whether you’re launched them via the Echo or not. Saying “hey Alexa, pause” or “hey Alexa, play” works in all the music and video apps we tried, as do fast forward and rewind commands. Meanwhile other commands, including “hey Alexa, watch from beginning” and “hey Alexa, go to the next episode” only work in Prime Video.
As with much on the Amazon Echo, it’s all very handy if you spend a lot of time in Amazon’s own apps, but less useful for anything else — whether that’s Amazon’s fault or the third-party app makers is hard to say. Still, you can always control the basics of search and playback on whatever app you’re using.
The Alexa control is more comprehensive if you have an Alexa-enabled remote with your Fire TV: Holding down the Alexa button on the remote and saying “play music from the Smashing Pumpkins” will open up a mix of tunes on your Fire TV, for example (in Amazon Music Unlimited, of course). If you say the same command to an Echo, playback is limited to the Echo itself.
With more speakers appearing from Google and Amazon, with and without integrated screens, it’s likely this kind of functionality will get extended in the future—but the more third-party apps and services that can be integrated, the better, otherwise it’s often just easier to reach for the remote.