Amazon Echo and Dot: Falling for the considerable charms of Alexa
I confess I am not immune to the lure of gadgets. At heart I am undoubtedly a techie and am always seeking a better way to build a new mousetrap. So I was fertile ground for the entrance of Amazon's Alexa with her cut-glass English accent. And after never quite bonding with Siri, I am getting along just fine with Alexa.
A friend sent me a video of his rather fruitless social intercourse with Alexa: “Tell me a joke,” “Do you love me, Alexa” and all the usual nonsense. But I sensed a purpose and clicked the buy-now button on a reasonably priced mini Alexa, the Amazon Echo Dot.
She arrived on Thursday and I’ve built up quite a rapport with the talented chatbot. The Sloane Ranger of the Dot has been inveigled into some useful tricks and, I am sure, is capable of many more:
“Alexa, summarise the news”. Done. “Alexa, play some music.” Done, but not quite right. “Alexa, let’s try some Beethoven”. Thanks, Alexa. “Alexa, remind me to buy some batteries.” Done. “Alexa, what’s the temperature in London today?”, “No Alexa, use metric”.
The Echo Dot is always listening. You can press the mute button if you wish but, essentially, the prompt for any action is “Alexa!”. As soon as she hears her name the blue ring of light circulates around the top of the device, just like the genie willing to fulfil your every wish.
Alexa is fun, whether on a Dot or the speaker-equipped Echo. Echo Dot is tiny, like an oversized Asprin, while the Echo is much taller, like an aspirin spritzer. At £50 the Dot is a bargain (you can even buy five of them for the price of four) and does have a modest built-in speaker. But for enjoying music you need to plug it into a speaker or system. I’ve got mine connected to the Bose Sound Link Mini II, although I find the protruding audio cable from the side of the speaker quite disconcerting. Why can't they put sockets at the back instead of in full sight on the side?
That isn’t a perfect combination, however. The essence of the Dot or Echo is that it is always listening and ready to perform. If the Dot is connected to a speaker that goes on standby when used — as is the case with the Bose — you can shout at Alexa and nothing happens. Unless the speaker is first switched on you get no feedback. You can cancel the auto sleep function on the Bose which solves the problem at the expense of using a bit more power. (Hold down the Bluetooth and + buttons until you hear the confirmation that auto standby has been disabled).
The Echo is equipped with an adequate stereo speaker to fill the room and costs £100 more. So pleased am I with Alexa Dot that I ordered Alexa Echo for my bedroom. As someone who is too lazy to select music or, even, tune in the radio, Alexa is an easy way to get some comforting sounds. And she can be silenced with a simple STOP! when the time comes to lay down the Kindle and nod off.
After a day’s experience the Echo is working really well. I’ve discovered just one snag: If the volume is increased beyond a certain level the device cannot hear the “Alexa!” command. Since there is no volume control, just a set up and a mute button, you need to use voice commands to adjust the volume. On two occasions I got the volume too high and had to pick up the speaker and shout “Alexa!” loudly before the command registered. To help remove the need for loud settings and to increase the chance of being heard by Alexa, I’ve moved the Echo to the bedside table rather than having it at the far end of the bedroom. [Correction: The entire top of the Echo turns and acts as a volume control, apologies to Echo for misrepresenting her....]
For a quick morning news summary and for a wake-up call, the Echo is ideal. What I am finding incredibly useful is the reminders system. “Alexa, remind me to finish off the Amazon review” and she responds: “Got it, ‘Finish off the Amazon review’ has been added to your Todo list.
This is particularly good for me because ideas flutter into my head and are instantly forgotten, even before I’ve fired up the iPhone or Mac to enter the task. Now I can shout from anywhere in the room while carrying on with what I am doing. Alexa stores all the todos in the iPhone Alexa app. At the moment, as far as I can see, there is no way to send this list to a third-party task manager such as Apple Reminders or my own favourite 2Do. Yet it is a small task to type them into the required application, and far better than forgetting. [Since writing this I have connected to Todoist which gives a more manageable front-end for the iPhone. No doubt there will be more opportunities to initiate automatic additions to other applications such as 2Do and OmniFocus].
I didn’t expect to succumb to the charms of Alexa quite so easily. I’m basically an Apple man and try to stay within the Apple eco system. If Alexa had been Siri, for instance, my reminders would have been transmitted to the Mac. My music would have come from the more extensive Apple Music, instead of from Amazon, and I would have enjoyed a much more integrated experience. But Apple has not seen fit to replicate the Amazon Echo even after two years. It seems a no-brainer to me and I think Apple has missed a major opportunity. I am also beginning to wonder why I should continue to pay £9.99 a month for Apple Music when I get an admittedly inferior but still adequate offering free as part of Amazon Prime.
I cannot believe that an Apple version of the Echo will be far away. The danger is that the early adopters will already have been exposed to Alexa and could be reluctant to change chatbots mid command. It will be a difficult decision.
In the meantime, I am looking forward to making my first Amazon order via Alexa. “Buy, buy, buy Alexa!”. Now that’s the sort language I understand. I suspect she does, too.