I’m cheating on Siri with Alexa. Alexa is Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant. The newest Alexa, packaged in a speaker called Echo, just arrived in Canada last month.
Siri is Apple’s digital assistant. I use it on my phone and mostly in the car to get directions. Ask where Sparkie’s Tires is and it gives turn by turn directions. The operation is hands free, and you don’t need to look at a map.
The difference with Alexa is, she lives in your home, plugged in, sitting on a counter, glowing blue when asked a question.
Like many of these devices, the obvious challenge is figuring out why you need it. First you will ask Alexa for the weather forecast, it will quickly oblige with the 7-day forecast for whatever place you choose. Need a few facts about Abe Lincoln? Alexa will instantly read a few sentences from Wikipedia.
I received the Amazon Echo to review just before Christmas. So it got installed on a kitchen counter and became a virtual sous chef. Alexa set timers, converted ounces to grams and told me the internal temperature a turkey needs to reach so that guests will not be poisoned. Normally I use the iPhone or iPad in the kitchen to answer such questions. Usually I have butter, or dough on my hands, and there is often flour drifting like snow over the portable devices. So Alex is handy because it sits in another part of the kitchen, away from particulate matter.
Alexa is $99 and out of the box and once connected to Wifi will get to work right away. However it’s capabilities are vastly expanded when the Alexa app is downloaded to a phone and you can starting adding services and skills. Then life in Alexa-land will truly be complete when paired with an Amazon Prime ($99 a year) account. In order to test Alexa I signed up for the Prime 30-day free trial and the free trial of Amazon Music.
Paired with Amazon’s music catalog you can ask Alexa to play Yo Yo Ma, or Kendrick Lamar for instance, and immediately the Echo speaker starts pumping out the tunes. The speaker quality is adequate, but no where near the sound of a Sonos Play 1. The ability to ask Sonos to play music is not yet available in Canada, but reportedly coming in 2018. You can enable Alexa to play music through Sonos but the execution is a bit foggy. At one point I had different music streaming through Echo and Sonos. No doubt it will get better.
In the Smart Home category, Alexa will manage devices such as Wemo, Nest and Phillips Hue and various smart locks. And if you don’t happen to have any of those devices, than Alexa is happy to take your order and buy products through Amazon. Shopping makes Alexa very happy.
If you are worried about privacy, and Alexa’s ability to listen and record conversations, than I suggest you read extensively about how Amazon mines such data for their own uses. In the Alexa app, there is a history of all the requests made and the ability to delete them, one by one. There is no bulk delete. For that option you need to go to your Amazon account on a computer and delete recordings through the Manage Voice Recordings associated with your device.
Like so many things, what you get out of Amazon Echo relates to what you put into it. If you don’t explore beyond the weather, traffic and music then you miss a universe of other options. Much like apps, Alexa offers “skills” ranging from news, to food, to education, lifestyle and much more. It will read top stories from the New York Times, or list what’s on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some people will just decide that Alexa is serving up a big pile of overwhelming info, others will tune it to suit their lifestyle. But Alexa and Siri and all the digital assistants are here to stay and they are listening to what you say.