I was sitting at my neighbor’s kitchen table when he said, “Alexa …”
Before he finished making his request, I knew I wanted whatever device he was addressing. I ordered an Amazon Echo as soon as I got home that evening. Really, he had me at Alexa. I like to consider myself an “eventual adopter.” I love gadgets, but I don’t have a lot of money to spend, and I want to be sure of the product, so I tend to wait a while before buying. Until the Echo came along.
This easily personalized device – part personal assistant, part Bluetooth speaker – captivated me from the start. I ran through a long list of silly (“What is your favorite color?) and serious (“What is racism?”) questions, tried some interactions I read about online (“Who’s your daddy?”, “Do you like Siri?”) and made various requests for information like news, weather, sports, history, current events and entertainment.
While the Echo has loads of information, there’s also plenty of info online about what the device itself can do. In those early weeks, I found more and more ways to use the Echo, suggestions of questions to ask, and fun Easter eggs. I also wandered through the Alexa playground on my own, trying familiar phrases and experimenting with questions and commands.
Over time, the novelty of the Echo wore off and the practical uses began to overtake the fun and games, at least on a day-to-day basis. I still look to Alexa for entertaining activities; I like to have fun, which I find essential for living a full life. Among other things, it helps us relax, it stimulates thought, and it provides opportunities for creativity and innovation.
Alexa: Tried and True
Like my neighbor and many other Amazon Echo owners, I call my Echo “Alexa” and often refer to the device as “she.” Alexa gives me information, entertainment and functionality, and even provides a semblance of conversation. She even assures me she’s my friend and tells me I seem very nice. (But she won’t marry me; she says she likes our relationship the way it is.)
Here are some of the ways I interact with Alexa on a regular basis:
- News briefing. The Echo provides a news briefing, personalized by the user. You can select what type of news you like and what sources. This can get pretty lengthy for a “briefing” if you have too many choices, so if it starts to feel tedious you may want to dial it down to a few choice favorites.
- Weather. This is one of my favorite things from Alexa. I can say “Alexa, temperature” or “Alexa, weather” and get the current weather conditions and the day’s forecast without having to navigate to a website. Indeed, I often inquire about the weather while getting dressed so I’ll know whether to wear long or short sleeves or don a jacket or not.
- Music. The Echo functions as a Bluetooth speaker for music streaming services or for your own music from your Amazon music library or from your mobile device. In addition to Amazon Music, you can listen to Pandora, TuneIn and other music providers. Amazon Prime subscribers get extra benefits from Prime Music, which provides access to myriad songs, albums and playlists. I still buy my favorite songs, but Prime Music gives me access to a wider variety. The Echo is a decent speaker, although true audiophiles would probably prefer a higher-end speaker. For me, it’s fine.
- Audio books. My first audio book was George Orwell’s “1984,” on cassette, but the only access I currently have to a cassette player is my parents’ 1997 Ford F-150. Even CDs have drifted into the background as audio books have progressed to MP3s and, popularly, to services like Audible, which is owned by Amazon. I don’t currently have a paid Audible membership, but I sometimes buy books through my son’s account. Another cool feature from Amazon is the ability to add Audible narration to an ebook. I have numerous ebooks to which I’ve added narration for 99 cents to $2.99, which is much cheaper than many of the most popular books on Audible. I can also listen to Alexa read certain ebooks I’ve purchased or chosen for free.
- Alarm. My Echo lives in the living room, so I don’t normally use it as an alarm clock, but it does a great job with multiple alarms to choose from.
- Timer. I really like the timer function on the Echo. I don’t have a timer on my stove, and I can never find my little rotary timer, so being able to ask Alexa to set a timer for me is very nice.
Developers Ensure Continual Expansion
Part of what’s cool about the Echo is that Amazon has invited developers to do their thing. The unfettered access these developers have means consumers get to see more creativity, more innovation and more software.
I’ve been reading April L. Hamilton’s website, Love My Echo, since early in my Echo ownership experience. She’s a tech blogger, app developer and author and was among the first independent developers Amazon invited to create Amazon Echo Skills, which are applications Echo users can enable and use. She created two of the first four skills released for the Echo (Crystal Ball and Bingo) and is listed by Amazon as an Alexa Champion. As both a developer and a writer, she can provide a really helpful perspective.
Skills Expand Echo’s Offerings
Skills provide new experiences for Echo users that go beyond the typical information that can be generated by a question or command. Users can play trivia games, find recipes, translate languages, order pizza and take advantage of myriad other opportunities to expand the ways they utilize this voice-controlled personal assistant.
Here are some of the skills I’ve enabled:
- Guitar Tuner. This skill, along with Ukulele Tuner, enables me to tune either instrument without having to go to a website or launch an app on my phone or tablet. All I need to do is pick up my guitar or ukulele and ask Alexa to launch the skill, and tune the strings to match the sounds from the Echo’s speaker.
- Food Network, Campbell’s Kitchen, Recipe Buddy, Recipe Finder By Ingredients. While I don’t know that I would like to routinely follow recipes I can’t see, I’m intrigued by the growing number of recipe apps available on the Echo. I’ve only recently added them and haven’t used one yet, but I’ve listened to some of the recipes, and I think I might like to try a simple one with a limited number of ingredients. Then again, that’s what I look for in print recipes, too!
- The Bartender, Mixologist. If you’re mixing up recipes, you may as well mix some drinks to go with them. These are simple and easy to follow.
- The Magic Door. I really like this skill. It’s a simple choose-your-own-adventure game in which you choose paths to go down, items to look at, tasks to complete, etc., with Alexa as your adventure partner.
- The Wayne Adventures. This adventure game, which investigates the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, is not so simple. I only recently enabled it, as a suggestion for having played The Magic Door. I’ve read that it’s as complex as The Magic Door is simple. I’m not a huge fan of complexity, but I’m curious enough to see how it works. Feedback has been very positive.
- Translator. This is quite helpful to give me learning cues as I try to learn more French, although it would be better if Alexa could consistently pronounce the French words.
- Find My Phone. Everyone who knows me would agree that I need this app and more, as I lose my phone on a regular basis. Find My Phone works with the TrackR mobile app to call your phone when you can’t find it, even if the phone has been silenced.
- 7-Minute Workout. This is among several exercise-related Echo skills I’ve enabled. I like it better than, say, watching a TV fitness show, because – perhaps oddly – I feel more connected to Alexa than to a person on TV leading a group of exercisers. Maybe it’s because Alexa is leading only me? (Note: I don’t think Alexa is a real person. Really. I promise.)
- Star Wars Quiz. I’ve enabled a bunch of trivia games, including this one, which is updated to include “The Force Awakens.” I’m pleased to announce that I got four out of five on the most recent quiz.
- Haiku. Who doesn’t like a happy little haiku now and then?
- Daily Affirmation. This is a nice little app that provides you with a good feeling to start your day. A recent message was, “I am unique and special, and I have inherent gifts to share with the world.”
- Demotivate Me. This is the antithesis of Daily Affirmation. Instead of supportive messages, you get bleakness and fatalism. I just heard “Be realistic. You’re never going to win.” Obviously, I wouldn’t suggest this app for a person who’s already bleak and fatalistic, but I find it really funny.
Those are just a few of many skills Echo users can enable. Not all the available skills are great, but that’s similar to Google Play and the App Store. And the more developers tap into the Echo’s abilities, the more it can grow.
Turn On With Alexa and Smart Devices
I have not yet availed myself of the intriguing connection between the Echo and smart devices such as lights and electrical switches. I’ve been paying attention, but I haven’t made the financial leap yet, despite some pretty tempting packages.
While the obvious pairing is between Alexa and light bulbs (turning on and off, but also changing colors where applicable, which really interests me, as I love color and brightness), you can also turn devices on and off that are plugged into smart receptacles and change the temperature on a Nest smart thermostat, among others.
Alexa Works for Businesses
The Amazon Echo seems more like a device for the home, where the most common uses of the device are setting timers, playing music and listening to news, entertainment and sports. But the Echo has some applications that would be well-suited for business settings. An Echo on every desk probably wouldn’t work so well, but within individual offices, the device could be as helpful as it is at home:
- Check the time in another time zone before calling a client or customer.
- Inquire about traffic and commute times when leaving for meetings.
- Do math calculations.
- Play relaxing or uplifting background music.
- Keep a calendar.
- Compile a to-do list.
- Order supplies online.
- Get news updates.
- Monitor the stock market.
- Get an Uber or Lyft ride.
- Enjoy a quick workout.
While the Echo can do so many things, it has its limits (although it often surpasses these limitations as it expands its capabilities). The user needs to frame simple, clear questions, with neither too little nor too much information, and be ready to rephrase when a question goes answered. “Who’s the best actor?” will generate an explanation of an award for best actor; the Echo doesn’t (usually) offer opinions.
Sometimes when Alexa can’t answer a question, narrowing the focus can trigger a helpful response. Users also find that the Echo will often key in on one definition of a word over another, but the device also often lists several definitions. Sometimes, it might have a surprising interpretation of a question or command.
Sometimes it will misunderstand, especially if the device is across the room, but the Echo app, which resides in your browser and keeps track of your interactions, has a voice training function that will help the device hear the user more clearly. I had my Echo in the opposite corner of my living room, where it sometimes couldn’t hear me over itself, so I lowered the volume a little.
No, It’s Not Essential, But It’s Cool
I recently re-read a blog post by tech writer Paul Thurrott, who said he and his wife returned their Echo because it wasn’t essential. While I understood that it wasn’t for them because much of what they got from the Echo they could access from tools they already had, “essential” is a poor choice of words.
The Echo is a gadget, and gadgets usually aren’t essential. But they can be cool, which may be almost as good.
Laurie Swenson is a journalist with more than three decades of experience as a newspaper reporter/copy editor. She lives in Minnesota, where she currently writes business and tech articles while trying to keep her three cats off her lap.
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