Star Trek and science fiction prepared me as a child for computers with voice activation. Who wouldn’t like to get information my asking a question? How about manage a connected home with just a few phrases? Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa and its hardware sidekick are inching closer to that reality.
I installed Dot only five days ago, but have already experienced the highs of the coolness factor as well as the lows of limitations. There is a lot to like about it, but it definitely is a work in progress.
The Echo Dot is hockey-puck sized and comes packaged with a usb cable and plugin for power and a cable to connect it to speakers. I placed it on a side table next to where we sit in the living room. After plugging it into power you will need to download the Alexa mobile app. Setup via the app is a simple step-by-step process. It took about half an hour total for me from the time I opened the box through integrating my Philips Hue lights, Google Calendar and Amazon Prime Account.
The packaging includes a booklet with commands to try such as “Alexa, why is the sky blue?”, “Alexa, how many ounces are in a cup?”, and “Alexa, what is on my calendar tomorrow?”. Trying these out serves as a sort of training or tutorial session.
Besides my Philips Hue lights, I also connected my Harmony Élite remote. It was thrilling to say “Alexa, turn on the living room lights” and have the lights go on! Even better was “Alexa, watch Netflix” and “Alexa, turn off TV”. I also connected my setup to IFTTT to create additional commands such as “Alexa, we are going to bed” which turns off the TV and living room lights and turns on the bedroom lights.
Ease of use is the main thing Echo Dot and Alexa have going for it. My husband got the hang of it right away and in a matter of hours it became natural to ask Alexa to do things. Our favorite commands center around music: “Alexa, play Green Day’s new album”, “Alexa, play Handel’s Water Music”.
While the Dot’s speaker is not the best, it is really easy to connect to bluetooth. My soundbar has a bluetooth in feature, so I just turn the source to “BT” and say “Alexa, connect to speaker” and it connects up. When finished I can say “Alexa, disconnect from speaker” and the bluetooth is terminated. We have a Bose bluetooth speaker somewhere which I am going to set up so that the Dot is always connected to it, rather than changing my soundbar source all the time.
Another cool feature is Alexa’s (limited, see below) integration with Amazon sources such as Kindle and Audible. While I haven’t tried the Kindle feature, saying “Alexa, play Audible” will start up my current audio book and play it. “Alexa, pause” and “Alexa, stop” are handy when I’m knitting and don’t have hands free. Listening to music and you don’t like the current song? Just say “Alexa, skip”.
The timer and alarm features are also handy (“Alexa, set alarm for 7am” or “Alexa, set timer for 30 minutes”) as is “Alexa, add milk to grocery list” which adds the item to my ToDoist grocery list. The timer and grocery features are reasons in themselves to have an Echo Dot in the kitchen, but there are skills you can add to look up recipes.
Another feature is the Flash Briefing. Using the mobile app you set up what kind of information (news, weather, etc) you want included in your briefing. I have NPR selected which plays the actual NPR headlines.
Finally, getting your calendar and adding things to your calendar are super easy: “Alexa, what is on my calendar tomorrow?” “Add family brunch to my calendar for Sunday at 10AM.” I include my husband’s Google calendar on my calendar (we use Google Apps), so appointments for both of us are included, which I like. There is a way to have multiple accounts on Alexa – you just have to remember to switch between them.
The biggest problem is with Alexa – she is dumb, even when asking questions about Amazon products. “Alexa, how much is a Kindle Fire” gets a response of “I don’t know that”, which is just stupid. You would think tight integration with the Amazon store would be a given.
Alexa says she uses the Bing search engine, but does terribly at searching. “Alexa, what time is the Seahawks game” and “Alexa, what is the Seahawks game score” worked, but “Alexa, what channel is the Seahawks game on” did not work. My android phone’s Google assistant answered it in a heartbeat. Other requests that didn’t work included:
- “What is three quarters of a tablespoon plus two thirds of a tablespoon?” (I was increasing a recipe)
- “Are the frets on a guitar based on the square root of two?”
- “Who does Gene Belcher’s voice on Bob’s Burgers?”
- “Who are the members of Green Day?”
- “Who played Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven?”
However, questions that worked included:
- “When does daylight savings time end?”
- “What is two cups in litres?”
- “Where is Buenos Aires?”
- “How old is Donald Trump?”
- “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?”
Keep in mind there are skills which you can add to Alexa. Skills are little programs that add functionality. I just added the Cinemate skill and asked “Alexa, ask movie guide who played Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven” which gave me a list of the cast members of Ocean’s Eleven. Two skills, WatchAid and TV Shows, adds some TV guide features. Both knew when the next episode of Big Bang Theory is on, but only TV Shows knew when Expedition Unknown (on Travel channel) airs next.
The problem with using skills is that you need to remember a specific way to ask. You can’t just ask “Alexa, when is Expedition Unknown on?” Instead you have to use the skill’s special terminology:
- TV Shows skill: “Alexa, ask tv show when Expedition Unknown is on”
- WatchAid skill: “Alexa, ask watchaid when Expedition Unknow is on”
- Cinemate skill: “Alexa, ask movie guide who played Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven.”
The cons are more annoyances than anything else and I suspect that they will go away at some point. As a voice controller for home automation, the Echo Dot is currently more than adequate and I look forward to further integration as we add more smart home devices such as a thermostat, light switches, etc. At $50, give or take, it is worthwhile to pick one up just to play with it. I plan on adding one in the bedroom next month.