Star Trek fans of any age will remember the ubiquitous voice-controlled computers on Federation starships. “Computer!” someone would say, followed by a question or a command. Memorably voiced in every series by the creator’s wife, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the computer would calmly respond with the answer to the question or acknowledgement that the command had been carried out.
Even a decade ago this kind of technology seemed futuristic and far in the future. But no more. Now you can have your own voice controlled computer. Meet a mystical figure that lives in the cloud…Alexa!
Alexa is a service provided by Amazon that performs tasks or provides information to the user. Alexa devices listen for the wake word and then perform the commands that are given. By default the wake word is just “Alexa”, though it can be modified to either “Amazon” or “Echo.”
A slight pause is necessary to allow your device to respond to the wake word and activate the microphone. A simple Alexa conversation would go like this:
“Alexa…what time is it?”
“The time is 7:03 PM.”
The Alexa service relies on an Internet connection back to Amazon’s servers to process what you are saying and carry out the command. Presently all Alexa devices require a WiFi connection to do anything. If not connected to WiFi the device will politely inform you it is not able to process commands right now.
The Alexa family is headed by Amazon’s three flagship smart speakers: the Echo, the Tap, and the Echo Dot. You can connect your mobile device via Bluetooth to play content with any of these devices. While all three have excellent microphone pickup and support the Alexa universe of skills each device fills a different niche.
The Echo is the original Alexa device. It has a built in 360 degree omnidirectional speaker for room filling sound. Due to the built in speaker the Echo is the most expensive of the three devices. It is a good choice for users who enjoy streaming music and don’t want to bother with other devices.
The Tap is a mobile friendly Alexa device. It includes a nine-hour battery that allows the user to take it with them on the go. In addition to Bluetooth you can also connect a mobile device to the Tap via 3.5mm audio cable.
There are a few shortcomings to the Tap. To conserve battery life rather than a wake word the user must tap the microphone button to wake the device. Even when it is plugged in. Like the other devices the Tap still requires a WiFi connection. With ubiquitous WiFi and mobile data connections this is less and less of an issue. But it may still be a deal breaker for some.
The Echo Dot is the newest entry into the Alexa universe and is clearly aimed at new users. It is essentially the original Echo without the omnidirectional speaker for one-third the price. The built-in speaker provides surprisingly clear, room filling sound for a device only slightly larger than a hockey puck. It also has the option to connect to external speakers via a 3.5mm audio cable or Bluetooth. If you would like to add Alexa functionality to your home audio system or simply put a device on your desk to try it out, the Echo Dot is the device for you.
The list of Alexa features is almost endless. With more being added every day. This section is a small sampling of the feature available to your device.
Alexa includes a lot of basic intuitive features. All of these questions yield exactly the answer you would expect…
“What time is it?”
“What is the temperature?”
“What is two plus two?”
“What is five kilometers in miles?”
“Who is Abraham Lincoln?”
There are a variety of streaming music services that are compatible with Alexa. Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio can all be added to your account. The excellent Audible audiobook service is integrated automatically. At any time you can start or stop your content, adjust the volume, ask what’s playing, or rate the song.
Alexa can also make your daily life easier. Integrating it with your Google Calendar allows you to add events and be informed when an event is coming up. You can add items to your Shopping and To-do lists and then view them later on your smart phone. With one command you can easily start a timer or set an alarm as a reminder.
One of the areas where Alexa really stands out from the competition right now is home automation. Alexa devices currently support WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Nest, and ecobee smart home devices. These devices allow you to turn on lights, unlock doors, turn on your crock pot, or adjust your thermostat. Combined with the ability to schedule things using Alexa and devices like key fobs that detect your proximity to your house the things you can do to make your home smarter are almost limitless.
The miscellaneous category of Alexa features is one of the most amusing. You can use Alexa to order products off Amazon. You can get the updates on your favorites sports team, find a nearby restaurant, or see what movies are playing. You can even order an Uber ride or a pizza from Dominoes!
COME ON IN, THE WATER IS FINE!
Alexa has an almost limitless array of features, with more being added today. Whether you like productivity, music, odd facts, home automation, or just cool tech toys there is something for you. With the Echo Dot priced at only $49.99 there has never been a better time to try the water. Check out the Echo Dot and the whole Alexa universe today!