If you’ve seen Alec Baldwin order (what I assume are very expensive) socks by yelling across the room, then you’ve seen Amazon Alexa in action. That doesn’t mean you’ve really understood what it is and I have to say that up to this point Amazon has not done a good job of explaining what it is and how it could help you. Enter Tech for Luddites. 🙂
What Is Amazon Alexa?
Alexa is voice-activated software. Think of it as Amazon’s version of Apple Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana.
The big difference between Alexa and the other three services, which is where the confusion lies, is that Alexa wasn’t introduced to the world as a feature that comes with a smartphone, something a lot of people already have and so could start using and seeing the value of right away.
Instead Alexa first hit the scene as a feature of the Amazon Echo, a new style of bluetooth speaker the company introduced in November 2014. It’s the Echo that you see Alec Baldwin yelling at in those commercials. As long as it’s plugged in, it’s in listening mode, so you can issue commands or ask questions of it at any time from across the room.
Amazon’s smartphone flop was the best thing that happened to Alexa (The Verge, 03/03/16)
Since then, Amazon has added Alexa’s capabilities to additional devices. The second generation of the Amazon Fire TV streaming media player, released in the fall of 2015, was the first of these. First it was added to the box model and shortly thereafter it became available for new Fire TV sticks.
In February 2016, Amazon released a software update for first generation versions of the Fire TV (box and stick) that includes support for Alexa.
And in its biggest expansion to date, on March 3, 2016, Amazon announced two new Alexa-enabled products: The Echo Dot and the Echo Tap. And in November 2016, Alexa was also added to their Fire, Fire HD 8, and Fire HD 10 tablets.
The Echo Dot
The Echo Dot looks like the top fourth of the full Echo device. It doesn’t have its own speaker, but you can connect it to any audio speakers you already own through a cable or Bluetooth. (At launch, only people who already own an Echo or Fire TV and who are Amazon Prime members could order the Dot. I’ve ordered mine. 🙂 )
The Amazon Tap
The Amazon Tap is a slightly smaller version of the Echo, does include a speaker, and has one major advantage over the original: the Tap is battery powered so you can move it around without having to unplug it. However, unlike the Echo and the Echo Dot, it is not always listening so you have to tap the microphone button on the device to talk to it.
What Can You Do with Alexa?
There are two basic things you can do with an Alexa—issue commands and ask questions—providing all sorts of actual applications. Here are a few of the most common ones and Amazon is constantly adding new ones to Alexa.
Note: Not all capabilities are available for all devices. In general, Alexa provides more options for the Echo than for the Fire TV (e.g. setting a timer).
- Pair with a Bluetooth device
- Control playback and volume
- Set a timer
- Add items to calendars, shopping and to-do lists
- Deliver news headlines
- Control compatible SmartHome devices (e.g. light bulbs, thermostats)
- Play games
- Run supported apps (called Skills)
- Time, weather, and traffic conditions
- Local movie times
- Sports schedules and results
- Currency conversions
- General Facts (who, when, where, how many, etc.)
- To use Alexa with any of the Fire TV models, you need a voice remote or the Alexa mobile app. The remote has a microphone button on it that you press and hold down while you’re talking to Alexa. The app is available for Kindle Fire, Android, and iOS devices.
- The Echo devices don’t require a remote. Instead, you just say “Alexa” to activate it (you can change the activation word to “Amazon” if there happens to be someone named Alexa in your home). You can, however, purchase a remote, which can be helpful if you want to talk to Alexa outside its listening zone (basically the same room). You can also use the mobile app from anywhere.
- Alexa can be hit or miss on understanding what you’re saying but you can use the app to help it learn so it should become more reliable the more you use it. It’s also hit or miss when it comes to being able to answer general questions but each new upgrade brings new capabilities./li>
- All Alexa interactions are recorded in the app and recordings of your voice commands/questions are sent to the Amazon Cloud servers, so you may want to review the history regularly and delete anything you don’t want just hanging out there.
Ready to Buy?
Click the product(s) you’re interested in to add them directly to your Amazon cart (US) in a new tab.
You may also be interested in:
To receive future blog posts in your Inbox, please fill out the form below.