If you’ve seen Alec Baldwin order (what I assume are very expensive) socks by yelling across the room or watched a Mr. Robot character have deep philosophical discussions with no one else in 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 great 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.
Since the Echo’s launch, 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. Then in February 2016, Amazon released a software update for first generation versions of the Fire TV (box and stick) that added support for Alexa.
Next up, in March 2016, Amazon announced two brand new Alexa-enabled products that are variations on the original Echo: The Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap.
The Echo Dot
The Echo Dot looks like the top fourth of the full Echo device. It has a very basic built-in speaker for responding to questions, but it’s not really up to snuff for playing music. Instead, you can connect the Dot to proper speakers using Bluetooth or with a standard A/V cable. In September 2016, Amazon released a second-generation model of the Dot, primarily with better performance specs.
The Amazon Tap
The Amazon Tap is a smaller and lighter version of the Echo, does have a music-capable built-in speaker, and has one major advantage over the original device: 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 press the microphone button on the player to talk to it. In 2017, Amazon announced that Taps would now have a hands-free option as well. If you already own a Tap, your device will get this feature with your next software-update (automatic, rolling out over a few weeks). Then you can turn it on in the Alexa app.
So basically, Alexa is a thing. 🙂 In fact, a number of news reports came out of the 2017 Computer Electronics Show in January declaring Alexa the big winner of the event.
Alexa Just Conquered CES. The World Is Next (Wired, 01/06/17)
What can you do with Alexa?
You can do a lot of things with an Alexa, but fundamentally it comes down to two basic capabilities—issue commands and ask questions—that powers all sorts of different applications. Here are a few of the most common uses but note that the number continues to grow every day.
Note: Not all capabilities are available for all devices. In general, Alexa provides more options for the Echo, Dot, and Tap than for the Fire TV players and Fire tablets.
- Pair with a Bluetooth device
- Control music playback and volume
- Set a timer
- Add items to calendars, shopping and to-do lists
- Deliver news headlines
- Order items from Amazon
- Control compatible Smart Home and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices (e.g. outlets, light bulbs, thermostats, appliances, cars…)
- Play games
- Interact with hundreds of compatible apps called Skills (order a pizza, find your phone, log health info, perform calculations…)
- Time, weather, and traffic conditions
- Local movie times
- Sports schedules and results
- Currency conversions
- General facts (who, when, where, how many, etc.)
- To activate Alexa with an Echo or Echo Dot, just say “Alexa” within its listening zone—basically the same room. You can change the wake word to “Amazon,” “Echo”, or “Computer” if there happens to be someone named Alexa in your home or you want to sound like you live on the USS Enterprise :). You can also purchase a remote for these devices, which can be helpful if you want to talk to Alexa from another room. As mentioned earlier, with the Tap you need to press the microphone button to activate it. And you can use the mobile app that is available for Fire, Android, and iOS devices for any of them.
- To use Alexa with the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, you need to press and hold the microphone button on the remote or use the mobile app. First-gen Fire TV Sticks with a standard remote won’t work with Alexa, but you can buy a voice remote separately.
- For the compatible Fire tablets, you need to press and hold the Home button to activate Alexa.
- If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get discounts on select items at Amazon by ordering them through Alexa. Find the current list of Alexa deals. >>
- Alexa can be hit or miss on understanding what you’re saying but you can use the app to help it recognize your voice 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 (it uses the Bing search engine instead of Google—’nuff said).
- 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.
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