Living with Alexa

Voice-controlled boxes are quickly becoming de rigeur in every tech lover's home. Jamie decided to put Amazon's Alexa through her paces.

Amazon Echo Dot, photo by Guillermo Fernandes released under Creative Commons.

Jamie Riddell

Jamie Riddell

Friday 17 March

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Have you met Alexa? Maybe you know her friends, Siri, Cortana or Google.

Alexa is the voice behind Amazon’s massively successful Echo, the cylinder shaped object that plays music, orders  your shopping or dims the lights by the power of your voice.

You are probably more familiar with Apple’s Siri, the voice activated assistant on your iPhone. Alexa, Siri, Google and Cortana from Microsoft are all battling it out to be the voice controlled technology at the centre of your universe. Billed as Artificial Intelligence or ‘AI’, these tools are designed to respond to natural language commands, interpret and deliver what you need.

In December, The Echo was Amazon’s biggest seller. In January at the Consumer Electronics Show, which showcases the tech that will be in your house by Christmas, Alexa was THE gadget on everyone’s lips. We can expect to see her appear in all future Amazon products from the so so Fire tablet to the awesome Fire TV stick plugged into your telly.

The Echo itself comes in two sizes – the standard size and the dot. Amazon’s goal is for you to have more than one Echo in the house. Maybe a standard in the kitchen and dots around the house so you can have voice control everywhere.

Before the Echo, I had to plug my iPhone into the back of the small stereo in the kitchen. With the Echo I have replaced iPhone + Wire + Stereo with the Echo. As it is connected my Spotify account, I don’t need to fire up the app on my phone, leaving me free to play Candy Crush all afternoon.

The sound quality of the standard Echo is very good for such a small piece of kit. I would say the clarity and volume is comparable to a Bose Wave or similar level of speaker. I am sure it wouldn’t match a full hifi set up right now but for my every day listening in the kitchen, the combination of convenience, size and quality works for me.

I believe the dots don’t make such great standalone speakers but could be plugged into a proper hifi if you wanted to use it for music, but I can expect a time where I have a few of the Echo dots strategically placed around the house to help turn on lights, or change something.

As a gadget lover, I had never been a fan of Siri. Simply put, Siri doesn’t like me. When I say ‘Hey Siri’ it ignores me. When I ask it a question it brings back search results, not answers. The problem  is that Siri was billed as your artificially intelligent partner whereas Alexa doesn’t claim to be artificially intelligent instead asking you to frame questions around certain phrases. With Siri you should be able to ask it a question or give it a command but the options are too broad or the language too difficult. Ask it set to the timer for four minutes and watch it struggle.

With Alexa, you are encouraged to use pre defined phrases. You start with hailing Alexa, “Hey Alexa” which sees the Echo top change colour to indicate it is listening, then in quick succession you can ask your question. For example, to play a song, you have to phrase the question, “Alexa play me The End by The Doors.’ To play an album you ask, “Alexa, play the album Hotel California by The Eagles.”  Some questions can be broader, “Alexa what is the weather tomorrow?” or simply, “Alexa, Weather”.

Possibly due to the pre defined nature of the requests, Alexa is quicker to respond and deliver than Siri and about as quick as a Google voice search.

Another major difference between Alexa and Siri is that Alexa is not bound to use just Amazon products. If you ask Siri to play Whitesnake it will search your Apple Music catalogue. If you don’t have that Eighties gem in your collection, or you haven’t wasted money on the Apple Music subscription, you won’t be hearing any poodle haired rock.

Alexa on the other hand will currently play music from Amazon Prime Music or Spotify, if you have an account. After a brief setup, Alexa will play just music from Spotify without you having to state which library to use.

This connection to third party apps is one of the Echo, and Alexa’s key features. By using a set of ‘skills’ Anyone can create a skill which can be added to your Alexa. Do you want a daily history fact? Add the History Channel skill to your account and you can ask Alexa for a daily fact. Want to search for local movie times? Get the skill for that. Want to order an Uber from your Echo? There’s a skill for that.

Alexa works by an activation word, “Hey Alexa” wakes the machine to listen for your command. It is actually the ‘ex’ element of the phrase that it responds to, so don’t be surprised if it chirps in during your conversation about Brexit. For the nerds, you can change the ‘wake’ word from Alexa to Amazon or Echo. Treckies can rejoice by changing the word to ‘Computer’.  The voice is a gentle ‘Mid Atlantic’ which is inoffensive to most, but there are no plans for additional voices. Sadly Morgan Freeman won’t be speaking in your kitchen any time soon.

With a growing list of Skills, you can customize the key functions of your Alexa to work for you. As you would expect with any US based technology, the options here in the UK are often less than our US counterparts but I hear this will be fixed soon, so we can have many more options to play with.

My argument against Siri, and this is not an attempt to keep bashing Siri, was that in the time it took for me to engage Siri, ask the question and get the result I could have done the action manually. It is still quicker for me to set the timer manually on the iPhone than it does to ask Siri. That said, I can also do that with a quick voice command on the Echo, although I haven’t worked out how to silence the alarm once the time is up!

Alexa is far from perfect, this is pretty much first generation technology so it may look pretty basic in years to come. Sometimes it doesn’t understand what you want or can’t find that obscure song in your Spotify collection even though you know full well it exists. I have learnt that you need to be clear with your pronunciation to make sure it understands you – not a bad thing to practice in this day and age! You also need to know the request before you make it. Hail Alexa, ask it to play….. And it won’t wait for you to make your mind up but instead start playing a selection of ‘music you might like’ – which can be hit and miss. “Hey Alexa, I did NOT want to listen to Bucks Fizz.”

However, there is a companion app that logs every request you make. If Alexa doesn’t understand or work correctly, you can open the app and provide feedback, enabling it to learn and improve.

As a music fan it sometimes plays the right song, but the wrong version. Ask for your favourite track and it may play the live version. By strict definition it is not wrong but it is not my preference. I am hoping in time that the ‘intelligence’ part of Artificial Intelligence will learn my musical preferences and choose accordingly.

I have often been disappointed with first generation technology that proclaims more than it delivers. My first drone could barely fly above my head, my first MP3 song could only play 12 songs, or 6 long ones. With the Echo, and Alexa we have a very accomplished piece of kit. With good build quality, I expect the Echo to be in my house for a few years, and with Alexa’s growing set of skills I expect she will be a part of my life for many years to come.

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