If you use a smartphone and laptop, you already have access to Bixby, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri. These artificial intelligence-driven virtual assistants are designed to provide weather forecasts, keep a tab on your calendar appointments, initiate voice calls, type messages, search the web, and more; all via simple voice commands—in natural accents—to get the job done.
But this is just the beginning. Already, there are a new set of AI-driven devices that look like simple Bluetooth speakers: Google has its Google Home and Apple, its HomePod; both of which should be coming to these shores next year. But you don’t have to wait till then. You can already get your hands on Amazon’s Echo devices; complete with its smart assistant ‘Alexa’.
Like all AI assistants, Alexa responds to voice commands, but Amazon has ensured that ‘she’ speaks back to you in an accent that’s distinctly Indian. The service needs an internet connection to work, and this also means that Alexa has access to cloud data and media repositories…
With Alexa on Echo, you can play music from streaming services such as Saavn, TuneIN and Amazon Prime Music.Saavn, as of now, is provided as a free trial. Amazon Prime Music is not available in India as yet, but it comes with Echo devices as a free add-on in the country. Playing music on the Echo is as simple as saying ‘Alexa, play songs by Kishore Kumar’, or ‘Alexa, play slow rock music’. You can even increase the volume by saying ‘Alexa, turn it up’, or stop what’s playing by saying ‘Alexa, stop’. If a song comes up and you don’t know who the artist is, you can ask ‘Alexa, which song is this?’ and you will be provided with the names of the artist, song and album.
Alexa can read the news to you from the The Times of India, Reuters and ESPNcricinfo, among others. All you have to do is say ‘Alexa, what’s the news?’ or ‘Alexa, read my flash briefing’.
She can provide you with local, national, and international weather forecasts. Just ask: ‘Alexa, will it rain tomorrow?’, or ‘Alexa, what’s the weather in Mumbai?’, or ‘Alexa, what’s the weather in New York this weekend?’ Alexa can reply to all kinds of questions about famous people, historical dates and places. She can perform mathematical calculations, tell you a joke, read out books from your Kindle app, as well as narrate stories from the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales. Sports fans can expect on-demand game scores and match schedules.
To set an alarm, just say ‘Alexa, wake me up at 7am tomorrow’, or ‘Alexa, set an alarm for an hour’, or ‘Alexa, set an alarm for 5pm everyday’. You can connect your Google Calendar to the service and add events to it, or query Alexa for your appointments on any day.
She even lets you create a shopping and To-Do list: ‘Alexa, add toothpaste to my shopping list’, or ‘Alexa, put ‘collect laundry on my To-Do list’. Alexa even connects to your Amazon account, so you can order products to be delivered to your doorstep. You can, of course, add a secret PIN to protect against ordering products by accident. Alexa will then prompt you for the code before placing the order.
You can even create Routines for Alexa. For instance, ‘Alexa, Good Morning’ can trigger the Echo to give you a weather update and read out the latest news headlines. Alternatively, you could specify a scheduled time when the routine should run.
In almost every task listed above, Alexa performs flawlessly to deliver the desired result. The AI is smart enough to understand questions in natural language, so you don’t have to remember specific commands.
You can even add extra ‘Skills’ to Alexa. These Skills are essentially apps in categories such as Business, Education, Food, Health, Lifestyle, News, Productivity, Humour, Shopping and Sports. For instance, you will find an app for Ola that allows you to book a cab with a voice command; and even one for recipes from Tarla Dalal. But the user experience with some of these apps is a hit-and-miss affair, especially since it depends on the level of integration with the ecosystem and quality of programming. This can only get better with time, as developers add more features to their offerings, along with regular updates.
Notably, you cannot initiate a phone call, or send messages via your smartphone using Alexa. These features are not available for this region yet.
THE ECHO AND HOME AUTOMATION
The Echo devices let you control electrical fixtures like smart plugs and lights with voice commands. Currently, they connect seamlessly and wirelessly with certified smart plugs and light fixtures from Philips Hue, Syska, Oakter, Pert and TP-Link.
The Plus, in particular, lets you connect directly to compatible devices in its vicinity. You just have to ask Alexa to “discover my devices” or use the Amazon Alexa app (tap on the Home sidebar, select Smart Home and choose Add Device under the Devices tab) to search and set it up. Depending on the location and number of devices you have in your network, the Plus takes a few minutes to find and guide you through the set up process.
Smart home devices can also be controlled with the Echo and Echo Dot. However, the set-up is different and the procedure depends on the smart gadget you want to control. For example, the Philips Hue light bulb requires a physical hub (the Hue Bridge) to link with the Echo/Echo Dot. The Syska LED light, on the other hand, requires its mobile app to be installed. In both scenarios, you first have to head to the Skills page in the Amazon Alexa app, search for the gadget you want to connect and tap the Enable button. Detailed instructions about the skill, including set up, are given here itself. Subsequent steps require you to log-in to the smart gadget’s cloud service, give Alexa permission to connect to it and enable the Skill.
The Amazon Alexa app lets you set up multiple smart lights and switches in your home – group them together by room – so that they can be all controlled with a simple command like ‘Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights’.
At present, you cannot link the Amazon Fire TV to an Echo device due to region restrictions. This will be a bit of a dampener for those who have purchased the streaming device. Hopefully, this function will be rolled out via an update, and allow owners to use the ‘Alexa, watch Fire TV’ command.
The Amazon Alexa app not only helps you setup your Echo, and connect it to your Wi-Fi network, it also works as a dashboard for the device. It serves as a link between your Amazon account, and all its subscriptions, including Prime. It is because of these links, you can ask Alexa to read to you from your Kindle, or order a product from the Amazon online store with a voice command. All your shopping and To-Do lists also appear on the app for quick reference. You will also need to use the app to add Skills to Alexa. Amazon Alexa has an entire section dedicated to new Skills.
It should be noted that each and every voice command that you send to Alexa, appears on the Homescreen. You can use this interface to browse through these commands, and provide feedback if Alexa did your bidding for each individual request. This should help improve Alexa’s performance over time with regular use.
The app also provides you with tips on what you can try with the Echo devices. And finally, you can even use the app to configure your Echo as a smart home hub (see The Echo and Home Automation). If you find the Echo’s speaker inadequate—especially in the case of the Dot—you can connect a Bluetooth speaker to it via the app.
SO, WHICH ECHO IS FOR YOU
All three devices – the Echo Dot (₹3,149), Echo (₹6,999) and the Echo Plus (₹10,499) – need to be plugged to a power source; they come with seven microphones and noise-cancellation tech for 360-degree voice pickup; you get dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity options, as well as a 3.5mm aux-out port for external speakers. They also sport a multi-colour LED ring at the top to provide users with visual signals. It glows orange when it is ready for set up; blue implies it has heard the ‘Alexa’ wake word, while red means the microphone array has been muted.
The Echo has all the features of the Echo Dot. Only here, you get a 0.6-inch tweeter and a 2.5-inch down-firing woofer. This means you won’t need external speakers to enjoy streamed music.
The Echo Plus is the largest of the three. It comes with two buttons, one to enable/disable the microphone and the ‘action’ button for setup, etc. Here, the volume control buttons are replaced with a rotatable ring at the top of the device. For sound, you get a 0.8-inch tweeter and a 2.5-inch woofer, which work well for a medium to a large-sized room.