Remember this scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? They’ve gone back in time, Scotty tries to work a computer by talking to it? Funny stuff. Science fiction then, science fact now thanks to major advances in voice recognition technology.
For legacy users like myself, it requires a bit of a mental reset. I’m someone who is so used to opening a new tab in a browser and typing a few words and looking at the result. It’s just in the past year that I started getting into using Siri on my i-devices.
I’ve been very curious about Amazon’s line of Alexa-enabled devices since the first reviews started coming out – was it a year ago? I wasn’t sure how useful it would be to me in Manila or Hong Kong – a lot of it seems to be tied into being an Amazon Prime member, which I’m not. I was also very curious about the sound quality if I was going to use the Echo as a bluetooth speaker for music.
(Amazon Echo 2nd generation)
Over the course of the past year I came across dozens of reviews and articles about how Alexa had the most “skills” and the best voice recognition, and was also intrigued by the fact that Amazon was licensing it out to other hardware manufacturers, rather than keeping it within their own walled garden.
I’m in Dallas at the moment, as you’re probably aware. I’m quite certain that if I end up staying in the U.S. for an extended period of time that I will sign up for Amazon Prime. But I haven’t done it yet.
One morning, I woke up to find an email from Amazon in my inbox about an Amazon pop-up store in a shopping mall in Dallas. Having not much else to do that day, I hopped in an Uber and went to that mall.
The guy working the booth was able to answer most of my questions, including how I might get an Alexa device to function if I did head back to Manila or Hong Kong. He let me connect my iPhone to an Echo to listen to my own music on it.
The result was that I didn’t buy the Echo. I didn’t think the music sounded that great on it and figured that I already have a few bluetooth speakers. If I want an Alexa-enabled bluetooth speaker, I’ll likely go for the Sonos One – which is very tempting if only because the little $25 Anker bluetooth speaker I brought with me isn’t really doing it for me.
The Sonos One has the Alexa software and an array of microphones but at the moment its functionality appears to be limited – not able to play Spotify, for example, though they say that will get updated soon.
So I did buy the Amazon Echo Dot. Given its small size and relatively small price ($50), I figured it would be worth it.
I was able to get it set up in my hotel room but the Internet there was so unstable that it was practically useless. I had to reconnect my laptop and phone to the hotel WiFi 4 or 5 times a day. The Echo Dot kept losing the connection so anything I’d ask it, the response would almost always be, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble connecting to the Internet right now.” Argh.
Then I switched hotels. The new place is nicer in almost every way. The Internet connection is much more stable here, albeit quite slow (generally under 2 Mbps). It’s one of those WiFi connections where you connect to their WiFi and then another screen opens up for you to input a pin code. And the Echo Dot application on my phone couldn’t handle this at all. “The page failed to load.”
Sending emails to Amazon customer support got me nowhere. I guess they’re using AI to respond with canned responses, none of which addressed my situation.
Then I gave the okay for Amazon support to call me. This was an interesting fail as well. I gave them the hotel number, figuring that they would call and ask the hotel operator to connect them to me. But what I discovered was that they make a robo-call. A computer dials the phone and once the call is answered a recording lists several options including, “If you want to speak to a service representative, press 1.” Of course the hotel operator hung up on that right away.
So I gave them my mobile number and this time it all worked out. I was talking to this lady on the phone, I was listening to her accent, and … yes, she was calling me from the Philippines, from the Amazon call center in Clark. I asked her, “Kamusta ka?” and that seemed to throw her off her game for a bit. (At the end of the call I said “Maraming salamat po” and she responded with “You’re very welcome.”)
It took about an hour to get things working properly. What finally worked was to enable the personal hotspot on my phone, disconnect my phone from WiFi and rely on 4G, disconnect my laptop from the hotel WiFi and connect it to my phone, and then use the browser on my laptop (go to alexa.amazon.com to access a browser-based version of the Alexa app) to set up the device rather than the Alexa app on my phone.
Does it occur to anyone that this is too damned hard? I think so.
Given the small size of the Echo Dot, am I the only person in the world traveling with it and trying to use it in hotel rooms? I think not.
Now that I’ve got it working, I’m starting to love it. I’m realizing that it’s a lot easier to just say “Alexa, how’s the weather?” instead of opening a new tab in my browser, going to weather.com, typing in the zip code of my location, and so on.
Unlike Siri, which just “knows” stuff, for most of what you want to do with Alexa, you need to enable a “skill”. And there are thousands of skills to scroll through, either via a browser or the Alexa app on the phone.
Alexa will make suggestions though. “Alexa, what’s on HBO right now?” “Do you want me to enable the TV Time skill?” “Okay.” “Zoolander 2 at 8 PM, Real Time With Bill Maher at 9:30 PM.” Sweet. “Alexa, will I need an umbrella today?” “In Dallas, there’s a 54% chance of rain today.”
I also enabled the “Any Pod” skill to play podcasts. But Alexa is particular. “Alexa, play Marc Maron What the Fuck.” “I don’t know what that is.” I looked around for a bit.” “Alexa, ask Any Pod to play Marc Maron What the Fuck.” “I don’t know that podcast, would you like to choose another?” “Alexa, ask Any Pod to play WTF With Marc Maron.” “Playing WTF with Marc Maron, would you like to hear the latest episode?” “Yes.” And boom, there it was. No downloading, no searching through the browser or the iTunes store, it just started playing.
I’ve now seen firsthand how good Alexa is at listening. I was sitting there, stretched out in a recliner watching a movie, the volume was up loud, and without pausing the film or cutting the volume, I asked “Alexa, what’s the temperature now” and it answered me immediately.
Last night I was in bed, about 20 feet away from the device, I asked, without raising my voice, “Alexa, what time is it now,” and it answered me immediately.
Now I need to figure out what other skills are useful to have on it. I’ve got a “daily flash briefing” that includes news from NPR, the New York Times and the Daily Show. I can play Jeopardy on it (I can’t play Double Jeopardy if I’m not an Amazon Prime Member). I’ve got a world clock and a currency converter.
I’ll be playing with this a lot in the coming days. If you’ve got an Echo or some other device with Alexa, what skills do you recommend?
alexa what’s on hbo
alexa hears me with tv on loud
from across the room