Review: Mycroft Mark II Virtual Assistant
The new Mycroft Mark II smart speaker prioritizes privacy and in this review I will try to help you decide if it has a place in your home.
You probably already have access to a virtual assistant on your smartphone or smart speaker device like an Echo or Nest Hub. But those assistants come with some pretty hefty privacy concerns. The new Mycroft Mark II smart speaker prioritizes privacy and in this review I will try to help you decide if it has a place in your home.
The price of privacy
The first thing you’ll notice is that the Mycroft Mark II is significantly more expensive than all of the mainstream competitors. Most Nest Hub, Meta Portal, and Echo Show devices (which look similar to the Mycroft Mark II) cost less than $100, while the Mycroft Mark II’s current price is $499.
The Mycroft Mark II does contain more expensive hardware than the competition, that isn’t the real reason for the price difference. The reason that companies like Amazon and Google charge so little for their devices is because your data is the real value.
For legal reasons, I can’t make claims about how mainstream smart devices collect your data. But with a bit of searching, you can find find plenty of theories and many evidence-based conclusions. I can, however, tell you that the data they collect about their users has significant value as it ultimately leads to better targeted advertising.
You can purchase an Amazon Echo Show 5 (2ndGen, 2021 release) right now for $35 and you get quite a lot of hardware for the price. Amazon can sell the device at that price because they’ll make so much more with the data they collect about you.
The Mycroft Mark II device doesn’t give the company a similar revenue stream, because their entire ethos revolves around a respect for privacy. They do not collect user data at all, much less perform targeted advertising. They perform as much work as possible on the hardware itself and only access the outside internet when necessary.
For proof of their dedication to privacy, consider the Mark II’s camera and microphone. The camera has a physical shutter that users can slide into place to ensure they aren’t being watched. The microphone has a physical disconnect switch so users can control when the device can hear them.
The user experience
Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. The Mycroft Mark II isn’t nearly as user-friendly or streamlined as its competitors. While initial setup and general usage are both straightforward, the overall experience will likely only appeal to the tech-savvy who enjoy tinkering.
Spotify is a great example of this. Every other device works with Spotify streaming right out of the box. But Mycroft does not and it requires work to enable. To use Spotify on the Mycroft Mark II, a user must create a (free) developer app ID for the Spotify API and plug that into the corresponding skill.
That said, Mycroft’s open source ecosystem ultimately provides far more flexibility than the competition. You’re free to use and modify both the device and service however you like. You can even access the internal Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins to control other devices.
That power and customization, along with the privacy features, are the big draws for consumers that like to tinker. Alexa’s Skills allow for some of this, but not nearly to the extent that Mycroft does.
My experience with the Mycroft Mark II
I will begin by saying that my device broke. It was working fine for weeks, then suddenly shut off and wouldn’t turn back on just the night before I planned to write this review. I don’t know why that happened and haven’t yet found a fix — though I’m sure the Mycroft team will replace the device if it is bricked. That is also why I don’t have any photos or videos of the device operating.
Before that happened, my feelings about the device and service were mixed. The display and sound quality were both good, but it often failed to understand my commands — especially if there was any background noise. And when it did understand my commands, the results were sometimes less helpful than those from Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant.
Mycroft can pull information from a variety of services and users can connect the service to additional service APIs. But by default, it pulls information from DuckDuckGo, Wikipedia, and Wolfram Alpha. Those are all solid services and the results are usually good, but sometimes they fail to find relevant information. If that is your primary use case, you might be disappointed.
Where the Mark II excels is in home automation and internet of things control. It comes with Home Assistant pre-installed, which is a very popular open source ecosystem for smart homes. With that, you can control any compatible smart devices. And as mentioned before, you can use the exposed Raspberry Pi GPIO pins to gain direct control over hardware.
While Spotify may be a pain to setup, music fans will be happy to know that they can store and play local music. That should be a big point in the Mycroft Mark II’s favor for those of you who maintain music libraries. You can play your local music without relying on internet streaming. For people who just want some background music, Mycroft Radio has many “stations” to choose from.
Despite my unit failing, I still like the Mycroft Mark II quite a lot. I like the aesthetic design of the device and the flexibility of the hardware. I like the dedicated privacy features and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that I don’t have a massive corporation listening to my every word. And I like the open source nature of the service, which allows for a flourishing community of contributors that will improve the product over time.
If you’ve read all of the above and are still considering the Mycroft Mark II, then you are probably the ideal buyer.
This isn’t a device for the average consumer that just wants to plug something in and then move on. It is for tinkerers and hackers. It is for people who care about their privacy and what corporations do with their data. For those people, the Mycroft Mark II is really the only choice and I think anyone who fits that description will be happy with the device.