A Week With Alexa

I bought an Echo

So I bought an Echo. 

I haven’t ever before to my knowledge bought a device on it’s first day of release (or to be more accurate, pre-ordered two weeks before something was available).

I was still reeling from the announcement that Jibo wouldn’t be shipping outside of the US and Canada.

  • Then out of the blue Amazon said that after close to two years of envying the people in North America who were raving online about Alexa, I could join the club.

Working as a one-man band, I’m really keen on automating my actions with the internet, so Alexa appealed to me.

I’m already a Prime member (I work from home, so free next-day deliveries are a big deal to me), so it would cost me £99.

Even if the Echo is out of date in two years, I’d only need to save £1 a week for it to be worth it. Plus I can get a few articles out of it.

  • You can’t run a blog called Robot Watch without buying a few robots to watch.
Voice and privacy

My only concern was voice.

  • I process visual information really quickly, but I’m not great at hearing things.

Some of this could be practice – I spend most days sitting alone at my dining-room table and don’t speak to anyone other than my cats for twelve hours each weekday.

  • We shall see.

And now that I think about it, I don’t really like voicing my thoughts out loud.

  • I’d much rather write them down.

Most people worry about the privacy aspect, but that doesn’t bother me much.

  • There are no conspiracies being cooked up in my sitting room, and even if Jeff is listening 24/7, he won’t hear me breaking any laws.

The worst that could happen is they hear the crap I spout when I’m down the pub.

  • I already tell Google everything, so now I’ll just be telling Amazon as well.
Day one

So I went for it.

The Echo arrived as promised on Wednesday afternoon.

  • This article is a diary-style account of my first week with her.

I won’t be putting aside special time to learn how to be excellent with Alexa, I’ll just be learning as I go, and sharing with you.

And there won’t be any unboxing videos.

  • Off we go.

There isn’t much in the box – just the Echo and a power plug, plus a couple of “get started” cards.

I didn’t know what colour I would be getting, as they didn’t ask for a preference, but it was black, as I expected.

  • It looks pretty cool.

You need to put it eight inches away from a wall.

  • It looks like a (pretty) bluetooth speaker (which I think it is, amongst other things), so I thought it would look best in the hif-fi stack.

I put it at the front of a twelve inch shelf above my turntable.

  • Yes, I can still play vinyl – not that I ever do.

There’s a ring on the top of the box which turns orange when you boot it up.

Setup and the app

The next step is to install the Alexa app on your phone.

This phone app is a dog.

  • I have an old Android phone (more than three years) but it once was a flagship model, and I never have any problems with it.

The Alexa app installed fine, but never successfully loaded.

  • Sort it out, Jeff. [1]Some people have suggested that this was a Day One overload problem, but I doubt that I will go back to the phone app when the web interface works so well.

Luckily there is a web interface, so I used that instead.

  • You sign into your Amazon account, link the device and then connect your PC to a wifi signal from the Echo.
  • Somehow that links the Echo to the internet, and then you are away.
Things to try

The unit comes with a tiny card of helpful things that you can ask Alexa.

The first thing to remember is that this is like Simon Says – if you don’t start your instruction / question with “Alexa”, then she won’t hear you (I’m not being sexist here, the AI has a girl’s name and a woman’s voice).

So I started with “Alexa, what time is it?”. Followed by “Alexa, what’s the weather like?

Easy stuff, but the speed of processing and response, plus the accuracy, is impressive.

  • Not to mention that I have a thirty-foot sitting room and a Northern accent.
  • Alexa coped with both easily, and I don’t have to “approach the bench” to get Echo to work.

And the voice is lovely.

  • Calming, and just this side of sexy.
  • They should use Alexa on the tube and the TV.
  • The UK’s Channel 4 should particularly take note.

Next up was a trickier one. “Alexa, what was the score in Chelsea’s last match?

It was a heavy defeat as it happens, but the answer was amazing (to me).

  • Alexa even threw in the date and time of our next match.

She doesn’t know anything about Rochdale’s games, though.

  • Apparently just the Premier League teams are covered.

Alexa, play Radio 4.” No problem. “Alexa, stop.

Alexa, what’s the news?” So far, so good.

  • The news is Sky rather than the BBC, but that’s not the end of the world.

Alexa, what’s the traffic like?” didn’t work.

  • She asked me to set up my commute in the app.

When I did that, I got a time to destination – 31 minutes, since you asked – and a list of road numbers.

  • There’s no map online, nor a link sent to your phone, so this won’t be replacing Google Maps just at the moment.

But she doesn’t know anything about the UK stock market. [2]In my other life, I run a personal finance blog – 7 Circles

And she won’t play ShareRadioUK.

More research required.


Everything you ask Alexa, and everything she replies with, appears on your app home page in the form of cards, like the ones that Google Now uses.

  • This lets you go through your history, but it also let’s you check that Alexa is hearing your instructions correctly.
Music

Playing music was also difficult at first.

  • As I said before, I have Prime – I think only Prime members got to pre-order – but Alexa didn’t agree, and kept telling me to sign up.

So I downloaded and installed the Amazon music software to a PC.

  • The software seemed to think that I had a US music account (which was empty) rather than a UK one.

Worse, the option inside the app to transfer to a UK version wasn’t working.  

  • After a bit of Googling, I found the part of my Amazon account that allowed me to switch from the US to the UK.

Now Alexa would play music. “Alexa, play some Prime Music.” “Alexa, play some classic rock.

  • But no AC-DC, and no Adele. [3]For the girl, obviously

There’s apparently an option to load in my own music, so I’ll look into that later in the week.


The Echo is also a bluetooth speaker, so I can pair it with my phone or laptop and play music from there.

  • This would allow me to access my Google Play music, but without the voice control (apart from the start / stop / skip playback controls), which is kind of defeating the whole object.

I understand that once you’ve paired a device, you can reconnect (after leaving the house) just by saying “Alexa, connect to my phone.

Another one for the to-do list later in the week.


It should also be possible to use Alexa as a speakerphone for my mobile or laptop.

  • The consensus appears to be that Skype is the best way to do this.
  • More on that later, I hope.

And it would make a good alarm clock, if it were in  my bedroom.

One last thing – I need to look into linking Alexa to my Google Calendar.

The family reaction

My mother-in-law came around for a takeaway that evening, and she and the girl were suitably impressed with the weather, the news and Radio 4.

We watched a travel programme about Western Scotland, and my 83-year-old MIL wondered how old the actress presenting the show was by now.

Alexa, how old is Penelope Keith?” is not a question I ever expected to ask.

But Alexa knew.

  • She’s seventy-six, by the way.

A good way to end Day One of The Experiment.

Day two – skills

Day two was all about research.

  • I headed over to reddit to see what everybody else was thinking.

The big complaint was about skills.

  • These are apps that you load onto your Echo to give it additional functionality.

The general consensus was that the Echo had been launched too early in the UK.

  • None of the skills from the US store were available in the UK store.

Those who had been using imported US models in the UK (technically against the rules) were worst affected, as they lost functions that they already had.

  • Others were stuck linking to their .com account and couldn’t transfer over

For us newbies, it was just a tumbleweed problem, with little of use to install.


Here are some of the skills that people were missing the most:

Anymote  – some kind of smart home aggregator.

  • Yonomo was another smart home app that did seem to be working.
  • Hive, Honeywell, Netamo and Phillips (light bulbs) are other smart home apps

IFTTT (If this, then that – the one I was looking forward to the most)

Tesco

JustEat (I don’t use them, but I can see that people would be keen – that skill has arrived now).

  • There’s also a Jamie Oliver recipe skill

Pandora (a music streaming service that has licensing issues in the UK – this one won’t be coming soon)

  • Spotify (the other big music streaming service – annoyingly, it seems that only the paid subscription works with with Echo)

The Wayne Investigation – a Batman “adventure” game (!)


Another complaint was about how the UK voice for Alexa wasn’t as chirpy  as the US one.

  • One user called it Grumpy.

I really like it, and I’m not even going to try the US version – then it really would sound like I was talking to Hal.

The Name

There was also a healthy debate online about where the name Alexa comes from.

Here are some of the most popular theories:

  • A homage to the ancient Library of Alexandria.
  • The name of internet pioneer Brewster Kahle’s Web data firm, which Amazon acquired in 1999.
  • Because it has a hard X in it, making it a good wake word.
    • Alexa is one of the few female names beginning with A (Jeff likes to be at the start of the alphabet) that have an X in them, so it’s not commonly used in speech.
  • Short for “lexical parser”

If you ask Alexa herself, she plumps for the Library of Alexandria.

  • But  I suspect that it helps that it makes such a good wake word.
Music #2

Some people were also complaining about the radio app – TuneIn.

  • Apparently it often confuses which stations you want .
  • I tried the examples that the unhappy customers gave, and my Echo worked fine, so I’m ignoring this for now.
  • If you do have trouble, the workaround is to add “on Tunein Radio” to the end of your command, so Alexa knows where to look.
  • If you say “Alexa, play TuneIn Radio” then you should get the last station you played, which saves time if you have a big favourite.

The other complaint was that song requests often returned cover versions rather than the original artist (in Prime Music, and also in Spotify).

  • The workaround here seems to be to make up playlists of music that you can access using a distinctive name.

And Alexa doesn’t like names that begin with numbers, so avoid those.

Adding some skills

After the surprising negativity, I headed over to the Alexa web app to see which skills were available, and to try a few of them.

RadioPlayer was mentioned as a good alternative / complement to TuneIn.

  • This is skill that you need to add – it’s not pre-installed.

Then you need to “pass through” instructions, like “Alexa, ask Radioplayer to play Jazz FM.

  • The first time you try to use it, you get the voice of RadioPlayer rather than a radio station, and you have to tell the app where you live.
  • After that, RadioPlayer worked fine for me.

The Guardian is not my favourite UK newspaper (that would be the FT), but beggars can’t be choosers.

  • Alexa, ask The Guardian to give me the headlines” works well.
  • You get three headlines to start with, and can choose which story you’d like to hear, or ask for more headlines.

When she’s reading a story, Alexa sounds much more robotic than in normal conversational use.

Other options include:

  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to tell me the football headlines
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian for the latest opinions on US Elections
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to give me latest film reviews
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to read me book reviews
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to tell me the latest restaurant reviews
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to give me the latest podcasts
  • Alexa, ask the Guardian to give me the latest Football Weekly

There’s also a Telegraph skill, with very different headlines, and different instructions:

  • Alexa, open The Telegraph.
  • Alexa, ask The Telegraph about music.
  • Alexa, ask The Telegraph to tell me about sport.

There’s the Daily Mail, too, but I didn’t try that one.


That’s it for Day Two.

My main impression is that there’s plenty that’s not ready yet.

  • And I’m still just listening to the news & weather, and to music.

IFTTT was the app I was really looking forward to experimenting with, and it isn’t here.

Birthday Interlude

Days Three, Four and Five were taken up with Birthday celebrations (mine).

  • Very pleasant in themselves, but of no value to a diary of my early experiences with Alexa.
  • Still, we’re keeping it real.

Revealingly, I didn’t miss Alexa at all.


On Day Six, real life intervened to an even greater extent – an elderly relative fell over in the street, breaking her arm and bashing up her head.

  • We spent six hours in casualty with her before they decided she had to stay in overnight. [4] For anyone unfamiliar with the UK medical system, everything is free, but this sometime means that you spend a lot of time sitting and waiting. By the time we left, the relative had been there for seven hours, during which time she’d been seen by a doctor, X-rayed, had her arm set, and been X-rayed again. An hour of treatment and six hours of waiting.
Google Home

Also on Day Six came the Google Home announcement.

  • The box won’t be available in UK until next year (2017) so it’s not really a direct rival at the moment, but I have high hopes for it.

I use Google for pretty much everything: Chrome, Gmail, Calendar, Android, Search, Docs and Drive, Google Play Music, ChromeCast and ChromeCast Audio.

  • It would be great to integrate the Home box into my workflow.

Home comes with IFTTT (in the US for now), Google’s contextual search (Echo uses Microsoft Bing) and also with ChromeCast integration.

  • Plus Google Music, which is where all my music is stored at the moment.

If Google can link Netflix and YouTube to Home / ChromeCast (I’m assuming that Amazon will block Prime Video) then they have a killer app.

  • Those who have Fire TV rather than ChromeCast will see things differently.

On the downside, Home looks pretty ugly compared to the Echo.

  • And it doesn’t have bluetooth, I understand.

And Google have a track record of abandoning software and hardware than doesn’t help them to sell more ads.


At the moment it all feels a bit VHS / BetaMax, or for younger readers, BluRay vs Hd-DVD.

  • Let’s be optimistic, and assume that the competition from Google will spur Amazon to improve the Echo.

I would also swear that Microsoft know that I have an Echo – Cortana is really trying to engage with me at the moment.

  • I don’t have any Apple kit, so I don’t know what Siri thinks about all this.
Day Seven

So here I am on Day Seven, feeling jetlagged on not enough sleep, and wondering what else to try on my one remaining day.

I installed Uber, but I use the service as a backup to London’s public transport and the small car I share with my partner.

  • I don’t need to call an Uber every week, and I haven’t needed to this week, so I have no idea how the skill functions.

I also installed Tube Status.

  • Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern line” works well.

I tried to upload my music to Prime Music, but the problem with Amazon thinking that I have a US account had returned.

  • Through the grey-out screen I could see in any case that I only have space in my cloud library for 250 songs.

Presumably more space is available at a price.

  • I checked, I can have 250K songs for £22 per year.

I reset my account to the UK and uploaded my 250 tracks.

  • At least Alexa can play my Led Zepplin tracks now.

Pro-tip: don’t turn the volume up to 10 when playing Zeppelin, or Alexa won’t be able to hear your subsequent instructions.

  • You get around this by physically pressing a mute button on top of the Echo.

This limited song capacity is another big fail compared to Google Play Music, where I have thousands of songs stored for free.

  • And I mean free – remember I’m already paying Amazon £79 a year for Prime (basically, free next day delivery and lots of free content on Amazon Prime Video), before any Amazon Music charges.

I have some more thoughts on Skills.

  • At present I only have a few installed, but as the list grows, it will become more difficult to remember them all, and how they are activated (Alexa, ask / tell X to do Y).
  • This is obviously not a problem so long as UK users have no skills that they want to install.

Alexa needs shortcuts and macros.

  • At a pinch these could be entered via the web interface, but ideally you would add them through voice.

So when I say “Alexa, how’s the market doing?” she knows to ask the FT for the FTSE-100 price, £/$, Oil and Gold prices (for example).

  • Default skills for categories where you have more than one (eg. Radio players) would be a half-way house towards this.

Going even further, the macros could call other macros.

  • Then you could easily “program” the device.
  • IFFTT support will allow me to do something similar, but in a more directly programmatic way.
Conclusions

My reaction to Echo is hugely conditioned by the lack of IFTTT integration.

I’ve never pre-ordered a product before, and I’ve learned the downside.

  • I didn’t know that IFTTT wouldn’t work until the day after my box arrived.

More annoyingly, the IFTTT website didn’t specify that IFTTT support was US only until after my box had arrived.

  • Either they didn‘t know, or they didn’t want to hurt pre-sales.

On the plus side, the hardware is great  – it looks good, and the microphone and speaker work well.

  • Build quality seems good and the voice recognition is excellent (I’ve been experimenting with this for more than 20 years and had almost given up hope).

It also feels as if the interface has been designed around the limitation that the Echo has no screen.

  • This has been done so well that it often doesn’t feel like a limitation.
  • And Echo is always on.

But without the online integrations, it’s just a voice-operated radio and bluetooth speaker, with a novelty sideline in answering trivia questions and telling me about the weather and the traffic.

  • And a funnel into the Amazon warehouse.

Even with my Prime discount, I feel that as things stand I overpaid at £100.

  • The Google Home announcement has only intensified the feeling of buyer’s regret.

I’m tired and annoyed today, and unable to end on a positive note.

  • It’s a real anti-climax after the anticipation of the previous couple of weeks.

But I know this is temporary, and hope than the IFTTT integration and many more will be in place in the near future.

  • I’ll write a follow-up article if / when they are.

In the meantime, Echo (in the UK) is for early adopters only.

Until next time.

 

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Some people have suggested that this was a Day One overload problem, but I doubt that I will go back to the phone app when the web interface works so well.
2. In my other life, I run a personal finance blog – 7 Circles
3. For the girl, obviously
4. For anyone unfamiliar with the UK medical system, everything is free, but this sometime means that you spend a lot of time sitting and waiting. By the time we left, the relative had been there for seven hours, during which time she’d been seen by a doctor, X-rayed, had her arm set, and been X-rayed again. An hour of treatment and six hours of waiting.

Mike Rawson

Mike Rawson has recently re-awoken a long-standing interest in robots and our automated future. He lives in London with a single android - a temperamental vacuum cleaner - but is looking forward to getting more cyborgs soon.

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A Week With Alexa

by Mike Rawson time to read: 14 min
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