Christmas quite literally came early this year. I was Skyping my Grandma and she asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I answered, half joking, half serious, that I wanted an Amazon Echo Dot. A few days later and what should arrive at my doorstep? You guessed it – My Grandma had ordered me an Echo Dot, and even bought it early in case they all sold out by Christmas. I was so excited to find out what my new assistant could do. I’ve spent nearly three weeks with Alexa now, and whilst I don’t know absolutely everything she can do I have pretty good understanding of what she’s capable of.
It took a few days to get used to talking to Alexa; I couldn’t quite get used to the phrases she recognised and had to really think about what I was going to say. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far to say that it comes naturally to me now, I’m certainly not stumbling over my words like I did at the start.
As well as getting used to speaking to Alexa, I’ve also got used to the fact that I don’t actually need to face my Echo Dot to ask Alexa something. It feels more natural this way, and the option of playing a sound after she hears ‘Alexa,’ is also helpful for making sure she heard me and that I’m not just talking to myself. There’s only been one time that she’s ever got confused and thought the TV had said Alexa. – She also got very confused when I forgot to press mute whilst proof reading this out loud to myself!
They don’t lie when they say she learns either. Within a week I was already noticing a significant difference in how much she understood and was finding that she made less mistakes. By no means is Alexa perfect, but she does do a pretty exceptional job.
The seven strong microphone arrangement isn’t the only good thing about the Echo, the speaker is also surprisingly good. One of the few differences between an Echo Dot and an Echo itself is the speaker quality. A key feature of the Echo Dot is the ability to connect it to an external speaker via an AUX cable or Bluetooth, which implies the built-in speaker isn’t too great. When my Echo Dot first arrived I was expecting to have to plug it into my Bluetooth speaker to listen to music, however I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality and find I don’t need to use a different one at all. Which is good because I don’t need to constantly have another speaker turned on and worry about keeping it charged.
I can’t imagine a life without music, or a day when I don’t listen to any songs at all. Alexa’s musical capabilities are therefore very important to me. I have been an active user of Amazon Prime Music for quite some time now and always wanted the ability to control my music playback with my voice. Alexa provides this feature along with the ability to ask her to choose some random music for you or tell you what song is currently playing.
Often, I find it difficult to get to sleep without music because my mind is just so full of random things that it won’t shut down! The only thing that seems to settle me quicker than usual on these nights is my ‘sleep’ playlist. However, I didn’t actually like this solution as it drained my phone battery overnight. Alexa solves this problem by allowing you to set a sleep timer. I can ask Alexa to play my music for however long I want her too and not have to worry about anything else.
Another exciting thing with regards to music and Alexa is the launch of Amazon Unlimited Music. As it’s not been available in the UK very long I can’t give an in depth opinion of it but so far all the artists I haven’t been able to listen to on Amazon Prime Music have been available on Unlimited Music. You can purchase Unlimited Music for just your Echo, but for only a few pounds more it seems like a better option to get Unlimited for all your devices, rather than just one. I also like that you can choose whether to continue using Unlimited after your 30 day free trial with just one click of a button, rather than having to remember to cancel it before the trial runs out, like you have to with most other services (although that’s not usually a problem for me because I’m so organised) – a trivial point maybe, but I thought it just made things a lot easier and was a nice touch by Amazon to not be so pushy.
Like I said, I’m an organised person. I take satisfaction in everything (currently excluding my bedroom floor) being organised. So the ability to very quickly ask Alexa to add something to my to-do list or to tell me the tasks I should currently be doing is really handy. You can link your Echo to another to-do app if you want more features such as multiple lists, but I tried it and found it easier to just use the built in one.
Other than the built in skills, I haven’t really made much use of those available on the Skill Store in the app yet. So far I’ve not really found any need to as I’m still exploring what Alexa can do, but there does seem to be some good skills for recipes or news and if you have smart home devices then skills definitely come in handy. I do plan to at some point learn how to create my own skills. I noticed a tutorial for some Chemistry flashcards the other day and might use it to make my own flashcards to help with exam revision in the future. (Much to the delight of my family who are always finding themselves reading out my flashcards).
The Alexa companion app isn’t just a place for skills though, it allows you to view and edit shopping lists/to-do lists, change settings and more. I like the app, my favourite parts being the ability to give Alexa feedback on whether she understood you, and the built in music player.
However… it doesn’t work. It is really frustrating having a good product that is undermined by a poor addition to the whole user experience. The app really struggles to load and I’m constantly staring a blank page. Sometimes force stopping the app helps, but not always. As you know (because I moan about it in nearly every post) my WiFi is just a joke really, so whilst this may be contributing to it’s failure, all of my other apps seem to work so it’s not a solid excuse.
With Alexa relying on my WiFi you can see why that may be a problem. However, I have been really surprised by how well Alexa has coped. Sometimes she struggles to finish her sentence or it takes a while for my music to load. It’s slightly annoying at the time but honestly, for all the times she does work it’s worth the odd hiccup.
Now a couple of people have mentioned Google Home to me on twitter. I don’t own a Google Home so I can’t make an accurate statement on which one is best but I can tell you what I do know. Having been around for longer, the Echo will undoubtedly have a head start with regards to features, but it probably won’t take all that long for Google Home to catch up. With Alexa, you must start every command with the wake word. It’s been said that Google Home will have a more conversational style of AI and that you can ask follow up commands without using the wake word. Personally, I think that the Echo looks better and the varying price ranges of the Echo, Echo Dot and Tap are good way to make Alexa available to a wide range of users. And of course there is the fact that there has been no mention of a UK Google Home release date. Google Home does sound like it has the ability to really shake up the competition, but this will probably encourage Amazon to get some upgrades out to Alexa. Basically, there’s really no telling what could happen! If you’re a committed Google user and can wait for if/when it becomes available in the UK then go for it, but for now I’m more than happy with my Echo Dot and would highly recommend it to all tech geeks out there.
What conclusion can we make from all this? Alexa is pretty awesome. And I don’t know how to finish this post without it being abrupt… so, that’s all from me – have a lovely day!
Planning on getting an Echo? Already have one? Let me know what you think of yours in the comments below.