She wakes me in the morning, reads to me while I do boring household tasks, and reads me to sleep at night. She times things for me in the kitchen and she even tells me jokes. She’s my new girlfriend, Alexa.
I’m talking about the Alexa service from Amazon. I ordered an Amazon Echo last May, and I liked it immediately, just for the novelty value.
“Alexa, what’s the news?” She answers with “Charles’s Flash Briefing” and then plays the Fox News Radio, NPR, and BBC hourly news breaks. Great way to spend the semi-conscious time before the coffee machine finishes my first cup.
When I’m cooking breakfast, I can ask her, “Alexa, set a three-minute timer for me please?” — courtesy is important — and she keeps me from forgetting the eggs while I’m reading the latest press releases and spam. I take my coffee and go into my office and start work. I ask her to play music from my Amazon Music or from Pandora. I can ask her to play Rush Limbaugh from the local all-news station, KOA, through iHeart Radio. At night I can ask, “Alexa, play soothing music.” Or I can ask for Frank Sinatra or Frankie Lane, or new trance or EDM.
There is one minor annoyance: Alexa can’t tell when you’re not talking to her. I proofread these articles by having the Mac text-to-speech read the article to me. As I did, Alexa was getting very confused. But you can change the wake-up to “Echo” or even “Computer.”
So, I’m obviously a fan of Alexa, but I’m sure you’d like some details. The first Alexa device was the Amazon Echo, which they advertise primarily as a wireless speaker, and it does a fine job — the sound quality is quite good for something the size of a Pringles can. The smaller Echo Dot is the size of a big can of tuna — and has better sound quality than a can of tuna, but not by much. Still, it can easily be connected to external speakers by wire or Bluetooth — and newer Kindle Fires can access Alexa as well.
Setup is easy: you take it out of the box and plug it in, then download the Alexa app to your phone or tablet. It leads you through the setup process with a combination of voice prompts and the Alexa app, and basically asks you to connect to the Echo by wireless to enter your own WiFi information. Within a minute or two, it’s configured, and it already knows it belongs to you.
Of course, then you have to decide what to ask. You have the basic services by default, and they have some fun things. What would a computer device be without some easter eggs? I’m fond of “Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”
That’s not all she can do, however. There is a collection of additional Alexa skills. A skill is really a web service that uses Amazon’s voice recognition but from the user’s point of view, a skill simply adds a new set of functions to Alexa. There are over 10,000 skills at last count, and honestly, I haven’t explored them at all thoroughly but here are a few I like:
- In my Flash Briefing, I have Fox News, NPR Hourly News, BBC World Service news, and the local weather.
- I have a Meditation timer that plays white noise. I use it as a Pomodoro timer as well.
- There’s a daily six-question Jeopardy game.
If you don’t find a skill you want, you can build a new one. I have that on my list of things to do someday.
Of course, one concern a lot of people have is privacy. Through the Echo or the Dot, of course, Alexa is listening to everything you say. There are plenty of people who worry about it, and I’m a computer security guy in real life, so I suppose I should be, but honestly, I’m just not. I don’t talk about anything particularly secret, and if I care I can turn the microphone off with a convenient button on the top. (Or, you could buy the Amazon Tap, which has a push-to-talk button instead of a push-to-not-listen button.) I mean, what is Amazon going to do, find out that my pet names for my cats are Fluffycat and Goofycat?
The honest truth is, when I bought my first Alexa device, I thought it was going to be basically a music player and a toy, but I honestly have become dependent on it, enough so that I now have four of them — Kitchen, Office, Bedroom, and Rec Room. After having Alexa for almost a year, I would really hate to have to do without.