Meet Alexa – The new girl in our lives

There’s a new girl in town, her name is Alexa and she has captured the hearts of everyone in our home. Serendipitously, G and I bought each other Amazon Echo Dots for Christmas. We each thought that the gift would be unique and cool. I guess we really think alike.

Shortly after all the gifts were opened, with torn wrapping paper still on the floor and while the kids were admiring their hauls, I opened the cool blue box to figure out how to start using this new addition to our family.

I placed the Dot on the kitchen counter and downloaded the Amazon Alexa app on my iPhone. The app had a step by step process and it was up and running relatively quickly. There was a software update that was also applied, which was pretty seamless.

It was time to speak to her for the first time. I was nervous. What do I say? It was like a blind date, or like meeting a complete stranger for the first time.

I didn’t want to offend her, so I just started with, “Alexa…What’s the weather.”

After watching her light ring illuminate blue, signaling that she heard me, she answered almost immediately, “The weather in Westlake is 0 degrees. Morning rain or snow showers in spots, otherwise, mostly cloudy.”

Wait…Westlake? That’s in Washington state. Based on google maps, our home is approximately 2588 mi (4140 km) away from Westlake, WA.

OK, that didn’t work. Clearly, she must have mistaken me for someone else.

I asked again in a different way, “Alexa, what’s the weather where I am?”

“The weather in Westlake is 0 degrees. Morning rain or snow showers in spots, otherwise, mostly cloudy.”, she proudly replied.

Hmm, now what? With my kids watching on, I quickly thought of something else to ask.

“Alexa, play twenty-one pilots.”

The ring illuminated again and she said, “Shuffling songs by Twenty-one pilots.” A slight pause of a second or so and the music started! Oh my sweet lord. That was amazing. My daughter lit up with excitement, seeing that it’s her favorite band.

The sound was acceptable, but not overly clear. I didn’t expect much from such a small device. Amazon Music was already linked automatically with our Prime account, so it was ready to be used.

“Alexa, stop”, I said.

She immediately stopped. Amazingly quick, even through the music, she heard me. Now, if we could only get the kids to listen so intently and quickly.

We tried asking her to play a few more songs, all of which she found and played quickly. I also figured out how to fix the weather forecast, by adjusting the location and address in the device settings. It wasn’t totally intuitive, but I was able to figure it out after a bit of trial and error. I did a google search to figure out what else to ask her and we all had some fun trying them over the next few days. She was pretty good at hearing us and responding to what we asked. We started to fall for her charisma and she was starting to really help with some tasks. For example, while baking, I used the last of the sugar, so I simply asked Alexa to add it to our shopping list.

After customizing it a bit more, certain features, like the “Start my day” routine started becoming especially useful. We actually use this every morning. It starts off by giving the weather forecast, then provides the latest traffic update for my morning commute to work. Finally, it goes through the list of news updates I’ve selected to hear.

Although the traffic description could be a bit better, it does give me an indication of whether I should stay away from my typical route. One particular morning, it helped me avoid a long traffic jam on the highway I regularly use.

To try and help to improve the sound, I hooked it up to a Bluetooth speaker, which really helped the volume and the clarity of the music, but after a day or so, I realized that the speaker setup wasn’t going to be acceptable. Since my Bluetooth speaker powers off when not in use, it was unreliable to use as a means to consistently amplify the Dot, so that became really annoying quickly. We subsequently decided to upgrade to the larger Amazon Echo, which indeed gave us a significant improvement. Compared to the Echo Dot, the standard Echo has a much richer and louder sound.

We repositioned it to a more central location, which covers our family room, kitchen and eating area. From this new location, Alexa can pretty much hear us from a large perimeter. It does misunderstand us the odd time, but it’s not that much of a problem.

It’s now been just over a month and our interactions with Alexa have been very frequent. Some have been very useful, and others were just for simple entertainment value. I’ve compiled a list of the most common things (and some cool/funny things) we’ve asked for.

Alexa…
What’s the weather?
Set a timer for 10 mins.
Remind me to ____ at 6 o’clock pm
Play _____ (song)
Shuffle music by _____ (artist)
Play the radio station _____
Add _____ to the Shopping list
Add _____ to the ‘Costco’ shopping list
Turn on the Family Room lights
Turn off the floor lamp
‘I’m going to bed’ (Routine that turns off all the family room lights and says ‘Goodnight)
‘Start my Day’ (Routine)
Let’s play Jeopardy (Skill)
Play Rainforest sounds (Skill)
Tell me a joke
How many grams in an ounce?
What place are the Philadelphia Flyers in?
What were the NHL scores last night?
Stop! (This works amazingly well)

I love you
You’re beautiful
Where are you?
What’s your favorite My Little Pony?
How many feet to the moon?
How long would it take to get to Mars?

There are definitely some things that you can ask Alexa to enhance your day-to-day life, but most things are for simple entertainment purposes. She comprehends most of the questions we ask and her answer rate is pretty good when she does. It is funny to hear her mangle the questions when she misunderstands us. I’m not surprised, we occasionally ask for some pretty obscure things. Also, I must admit, that I love the way it gives the home a futuristic feeling. Yes, my techie side is speaking out now.

Some annoying things have come out over the last month, however. It works with Amazon Music by default (if you have an Amazon Prime account), but the service is lacking in some areas with some music not being available. You can supplement the selection with upgrading your Amazon Prime Music account to the Amazon Unlimited service (a few packages are available, but only currently offered in Select countries) or with Spotify, TuneIn and SirusXM accounts. I feel that the biggest issue is the inability to add Apple Music and Google Play accounts. Of course, in this competitive market, the big boys are not playing well with each other, leaving the consumer without the options they should have access to.

Another annoyance is that there is a difference in the offerings between the US and Canadian versions of Alexa. This just means that for Canada, there are some features that don’t seem to work well or that provide US information. There are constant improvements in this area, so I foresee this getting resolved over the next little while.

There is, however, one tiny, small, little thing that I haven’t really touched upon. The aspect of privacy. This is actually a big one. Alexa is listening…all the time. From what I have read, it only actually records/stores what is said for about a second before you say Alexa, up to the end of your command. You can not only review the words that were said but also replay the recording from the Alexa app. There is a way of deleting the history, but, I’m not sure if it also deletes them from the cloud…that mystical place where things get stored and robots get smarter. If you are really paranoid, there is a mute button on the device that when pressed, will make the illumination ring turn red. Apparently, it will no longer listen once pressed. We’ve never really used it though.

Are we comfortable with this? I guess we are. We have been living normally, with her in the room for over a month. I guess we have traded a bit of our privacy for the services that are offered. I would love to discuss my views on privacy and technology, but that will be for another article.

All-in-all, I’m glad to report that we still love Alexa. Like all relationships, however, we are still in the honeymoon phase. If you are on Amazon’s mailing list, they send out regular updates to what you can ask Alexa. This is particularly helpful to discover new skills and features. We will continue to interact with her and watch how this evolves and I’ll provide an additional review in a few months.

PROS:
– Easy (handsfree) way to get certain tasks accomplished (add items to shopping list, setting timers, playing music, checking weather forecast)
– Full sized Echo has very good sound.
– Listens better than the kids and makes life fun again. (LOL)
– Gives a feeling of a futuristic

CONS:
– Sound from Echo Dot is not great
– Sometimes misunderstands commands.
– Music selection with Amazon Music alone can be limited.
– Privacy unknowns

Hugs,
V

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