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Amazon Echo and Alexa in-depth Featured

Amazon’s voice-controlled Alexa assistant and range of Echo devices are now here in Australia, offering information services, alarms, music, home automation and so much more. iTWire took a look.

Alexa

Alexa is the personal name of Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant, operated via voice interaction. Alexa is capable of setting to-do lists, setting alarms, playing music, streaming podcasts, ordering products, providing real-time information such as news and weather, controlling smart devices on your network such as light globes and security cameras, and so much more via endless extensions programmed by third-parties, known as “skills”.

Alexa doesn’t simply exist as a disembodied voice; “she” lives within the Amazon Echo devices, small Internet-connected units that sit elegantly in locations convenient for yourself with the only requirements being access to power and Wi-Fi, constantly monitoring for the wake word ‘Alexa’ to do your bidding.

Alexa and the Echo were announced in November 2014, and were initially only available to Amazon Prime and for invited members. It was generally available in the US from mid-2015, then progressively other countries, including, as of February 2018, Australia.

It’s no small feat to localise a voice-controlled assistant, with work going into recognising different accents, slang, semantics, and regional information, and into making the voice outputs.

Now the Amazon Echo range spans several devices, with three available in Australia - the second generation Amazon Echo, the second-generation smaller Echo Dot, and the brand new larger Echo Plus which includes a built-in home automation hub.

EchoDevices

Overseas, the Echo range includes the battery-powered Echo Tap, the camera-wielding Echo Look, the 7” LCD display Echo Show and the hemispherical Echo Spot.

It’s also important to download the Alexa app for your smartphone or tablet to let you easily set up and manage your Echo devices on-the-go. There is an Alexa web portal which can set up your devices though offers less functionality such as being able to “drop-in” on your equipment.

Echo hardware

The Amazon Echo is a 148x88x88mm, 821g cylindrical unit with a seven-piece far-field beam-forming microphone array to help detect speaker’s voices no matter where they may be in the room, and a Dolby-powered downward-firing 2.5” subwoofer and upward-firing 0.6” tweeter. It retails for $149.

Echo

The Amazon Echo Dot is an 84x84x32mm hockey-puck-sized device, weighing in at a tiny 163g. It has a 0.6” tweeter and does not include the same room-filling sound as its big brother, though has the same seven microphone voice pick-up, and, of course, the exact same Alexa intelligence without any diminishment of the voice control experience. It retails for $79.

The taller Amazon Echo Plus is the largest measuring 235x84x84mm and weighing 954g. The extra space allows it to include a 0.8” tweeter along with the 2.5” woofer, delivering higher-quality audio with an enhanced higher range over the Echo. More significantly, the extra space in the Plus houses a home automation hub. It retails for $229 and, for now, ships with a free $49-valued Philips Hue white globe.

To use the Philips Hue lighting range with competing home assistants — let alone the Echo or Echo Dot by themselves — you need to buy Philips’ hub, which manages the lights, and the home assistant communicates with it. With the Echo Plus, the hub is built-in and you can instruct Alexa to go and find all your controllable devices — light globes in the case of Philips — without extra hardware necessary. The hub also controls other, non-Philips, devices, but light globes are something everyone can understand and use from day one, and if the Echo Plus is your first foray into home automation it provides an extremely simple, low-barrier entry.

Which device suits you best depends on your needs. Without a doubt, you will be able to instruct Alexa to set reminders, play music, tell you the news and other things equally well on any one of the Echo devices in the range.

However, you should take into account how you manage, or plan to manage, streaming music or home devices, as these are the two factors which will mostly influence your selection.

You’re not constrained to choose just one. In a larger household you might have, for example, an Echo Plus in your lounge room, an Echo in the kitchen, and an Echo Plus on your bedside table, or any other combination of devices and locations that makes sense to you.

In a scenario like this you are best advised to rename your devices to suit the location. Out of the box when you set up an Echo device it will be named simply “David’s Echo Dot” and “David’s Second Echo Dot” and so on. Instead, if you use the companion Alexa smartphone app (or web portal) you can rename them to, for example, “Lounge Room Echo” and “Bedroom Echo Dot”. This means you can issue instructions through one Echo device for another, such as “Set an alarm on the bedroom echo dot for 6am.”

Commands

You can, and should, speak to Alexa in regular conversational English. Gone are the days of eight-bit text adventures which necessitated contrived “verb noun” commands such as “look mailbox.” Instead, you can simply talk to Alexa as you might to a real person. Amazon provides a range of examples to illustrate Alexa’s personality and services:

  • Alexa, good morning.
  • Alexa, how are you?
  • Alexa, who inspires you?
  • Alexa, what’s your favourite film?
  • Alexa, give me a cricket sledge.
  • Alexa, why is the sky blue?
  • Alexa, what are Newton’s three laws of motion?
  • Alexa, what is 100 divided by 16?
  • Alexa, what is the population of Australia?
  • Alexa, play music from the 90s.
  • Alexa, turn up the volume.
  • Alexa, rewind 15 seconds.
  • Alexa, repeat this song.
  • Alexa, what is the name of this song?
  • Alexa, stop playing.
  • Alexa, tell me a joke.
  • Alexa, play ABC radio.
  • Alexa, flip a coin.
  • Alexa, tell me a limerick.
  • Alexa, what’s the weather?
  • Alexa, what’s the weather in Melbourne this weekend?
  • Alexa, will it rain tomorrow?
  • Alexa, read my Kindle book.
  • Alexa, add milk to my shopping list.

  • Alexa, set an alarm for 6 am.
  • Alexa, set an egg timer for thee minutes.

… and on and on.

There is no shortage of things you can ask Alexa, and there really is a lot of fun in experimenting and finding out.

Years ago, voice control was almost a gimmick with early attempts requiring you to literally speak out step-by-step instructions like “File menu, Save As, C drive” but today’s voice control with home assistants like Alexa is fluid and natural. Sure, you will hit limitations and recognition problems, but on the whole it is pretty magical to recognise you you can be elbow-deep in flour or grease and can play whatever music you like, set timers, note down reminders, communicate with friends and family, turn lights on, and so much more without having to touch a single thing. Even if you are simply sitting on the lounge there is so much convenience to be had. You don’t need to fumble your way to the bedroom in the dark, simply leaving lights on and issuing a final “Alexa, turn off all the lights” as you lie down.

Here is a list of funny easter eggs discovered by others.

Music

As you might expect, Alexa integrates perfectly with Amazon Music Unlimited, boasting 45 million songs on-demand. At this time, you can sign up for a free trial.

After the trial Amazon Music comes in plans varying from $4.99/month for use with a single device, $11.99/month for use on all your devices, and $17.99/month for a family plan that supports up to six people. While the family plan offers the best value if you have even just two people, the single-device plan is a welcome offering that is not seen with competing music services.

If you don’t want to pay for Amazon Music, Alexa still has your back. You can link a premium Spotify account and an iHeartRadio account, as well as play TuneIn radio, with full voice control for each.

Alexa music sources

Beyond that, you can use your Echo devices as Bluetooth speakers, and you can also plug in a 3.5mm cable on the Echo Dot. The Echo and Echo Plus will connect to other speakers via 3.5mm out.

Purists will undoubtedly say a device of this size can’t deliver the booming audio of an expensive high-fidelity speaker. I’m sure this is true. However, for listening to music in your living room — as opposed to a large outdoors event — it’s surprisingly powerful.

Here is a sample of the Echo Plus playing Lindsey Stirling’s Crystallize, containing soaring violin arpeggios playing over a stuttering dubstep beat:

To me, it sounds impressive, but even the purist high-fi aficionados would surely concede $229 (or $149 for the Echo) for voice-controlled wireless speakers is a great price.

We may as well put it out there: the Apple HomePod has noticeably richer audio and was engineered to be an amazing wireless speaker. However, it comes in at $499. For the same money, you can buy three Amazon Echos and still have change.

Kindle

As indicated earlier, the Amazon Echo devices will read your Kindle ebooks to you! You don’t even need a Kindle device; so long as you have an Amazon account you can buy ebooks. You don’t even need money; you can find many free Kindle ebook deals on OzBargain and Reddit.

Not all ebooks are compatible, but you can easily see inside the Alexa app which books in your library can be read, then it’s simply a matter of instructing Alexa to read it to you. Maybe now I can finally catch up on my reading by letting Alexa do it for me.

Messaging / drop-in

Amazon has introduced free messaging between Echo devices. This means you can instruct Alexa to send a message to your Echo-owning friends and family, and it will play for them where they are. You can check your own messages by asking Alexa, play messages.

US-based Echo devices offer voice dialling, and this ought to reach Australia but for now, Alexa reports she can’t dial phone numbers.

However, Alexa will let me “drop in” to see what’s happening. On my drive home I can use the Alexa app on my phone to drop in on the lounge room Echo, talking to the family, joining in, and very importantly, checking what’s for dinner.

The drop in features connects instantly, so be sure to review your settings in the Alexa app to control who you allow to drop in on you.

Home control

I’ve already touched on the fact Alexa will control your home or office’s smart devices. In fact, the major advantage of the Echo Plus (besides the enhanced audio) is the inclusion of a built-in home automation hub.

There is a massive range of smart home devices, and the list is growing daily. The Philips Hue range of lights is an obvious starting point, and the Echo Plus includes a normally $49 white dimmable globe in the box, with your choice of either Edison or Bayonet screw.

However, other devices include competing smart lights, power switches to let you turn non-smart devices on and off at the powerpoint, thermostats, door locks, cameras, televisions, home theatres and much more. You will find many familiar brands have smart devices available — Honeywell, ring, Schlage, D-Link, Sonos, GE — and many more.

Ordinarily, you require a smart hub and typically one per vendor. For example, Philips ships its own Philips Hue hub and if you had a competing home assistant (or the non-Plus Echo devices) you would need this hub to manage your lights, and your assistant would interact with the hub.

As good as the Philips Hue hub is, it won’t manage your non-Hue devices, so that means more hubs. Or, you can use the Amazon Echo Plus with its built-in hub to work with your devices directly.

Whichever you choose, so long as the box for your proposed smart devices says “Amazon Alexa”, you’re good to go.

Like all else with Alexa, you issue commands in fluent English, saying such things as

  • Alexa, turn on the lounge room lights.
  • Alexa, dim the lights.
  • Alexa, change the deck lights to blue.
  • Alea, turn off all the lights.

Skills

Alexa does a lot of stuff! It can do more, so much more, with full support to third-party developers to add more functionality, known as “skills".

Skills exist to deliver news and information, to control your devices, to play games, to simply be amusing and many other things. You can think of Alexa’s skills as the voice app store of the future.

You will find available skills inside the Alexa app, letting you search category after category, as well as a history of skills you have already added to your Echo device’s repertoire.

Alexa skills

While the app provides a convenient way to search and discover skills, you don’t need to use it. You can also discover skills by simply asking Alexa to let you know what’s available, for example, “Alexa, what are your games skills?” or “Alexa, help me relax.”

Simply instruction Alexa to open or launch a skill, or ask the skill to do something, will automatically imbue your Echo devices with these smarts.

For example,

  • Alexa, play Jeopardy
  • Alexa, open rain sounds
  • Alexa, ask question of the day
  • Alexa, ask SBS news for a briefing
  • Alexa, open the magic door

There are many more, so many more, and Australian businesses have been keen to get onboard, allowing you to ask about your personal AGL bill, or to inquire about your Qantas flight, to give just two examples.

If you’re a developer you can find documentation and APIs and toolkits on Amazon’s developer site, providing all you need to get started.

That's the Amazon Alexa and range of Echo devices! The only thing to do now is to explore them for yourself. All three devices — the Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Plus — are available now from Amazon.com.au and major retailers.

Further reading

Check out our other home assistant coverage:

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

 

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