Living with Alexa: a few weeks in. Just how useful is the Amazon Echo?

After a few weeks of daily use, it’s time to reflect on just how useful the Amazon Echo Dot really is. A hint? I now have two of them!

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After my initial excitement at finally having an Amazon Echo Dot up and running at home, I thought it would be useful to provide an update – if only to see if my excitement has waned over the last few weeks.

Firstly, I now have two Dots in the apartment – one in the bedroom and one in my study. So that’s probably a good indication that the first one (bedroom) was working well. At £49 each (bought with Christmas gift vouchers) they represent a very accessible entry point to ‘speakables’ and the internet of things.

The two are used quite differently.

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How am I using Alexa?

In the bedroom, Alexa is used to stop and start streaming radio, set alarms for the morning, set sleep times (so the music ends after a period of time while I’m drifting off to sleep) and stream Spotify and podcasts. It’s basically a very simple entertainment device and alarm clock.

The bedroom Dot is permanently plugged in to a Beats Pill bluetooth speaker, which really makes it great for listening to music. But even without another speaker, the Dot’s built-in speaker is perfectly adequate for listening to podcasts and spoken-word radio. I just prefer something with more base when listening to music. But it’s strictly not absolutely necessary.

In the study, I’ve plugged the Dot into the external speakers attached to my iMac. There, I mainly use it for timers while I’m working, to get weather reports, to control Spotify while it’s playing and for simple internet searches and calculations. I also use it sometimes to add tasks to ToDoist, thanks to a handy integration.

Some lessons learnt

With a few weeks of daily use under my belt, I’d make the following observations:

  • Alexa is incredibly easy to use. The voice is responsive, pleasant to listen to and understands the huge majority of my questions. You just need to start each query with “Alexa”.
  • Using the “Alexa” word means you’re a lot less likely to accidentally activate the Echo. While you can change this activation phrase to “Computer”, I can’t imagine living with that for more than a few hours – regardless of its geeky value.
  • However, that said, I frequently need to mute Alexa wile I’m on business calls or video conferences, as it seems easily activated while there are a few people talking. And that’s awkward (if amusing) when taking to clients and colleagues!
  • Using my voice to turn off my morning alarm and then get Radio 4 going actually seems to help wake me up. I used to rely on the alarms in my iPhone to wake me up, but it’s just too easy to turn them off and roll over, back to sleep. Maybe that’s just me?
  • I know I’m not getting the full value out of the devices, as they’re not connected to lights or other home appliances. We simply don’t have the need – yet! It might be nice to control the lights with Alexa, but that’s so far down the list of household maintenance priorities, it’s not worth thinking about.

At this point, I still rate Alexa as being more helpful and useful than Siri. Let’s see what Apple does with Siri this year, but it’ll take a lot to displace Alexa in our home. We both love using the Dots and they’re now part of our daily routine.

The initial awkwardness of talking to an inanimate object is long passed and yes, I sometimes find myself saying “Alexa thank you” after “she” has done something, smiling when I year “You’re very welcome”.

Any improvements?

There are still a couple things I wished worked better, and I thin these could all be ‘solved’ with software updates:

  • While Alexa can access my Google calendar, it can only connect to one at a time. I’ve linked my personal Google account to it, so when I ask what’s on my agenda, it only lists in my personal calendar, ignoring my work calendar, which sits in a separate Google Apps account. So, it’s not particularly useful from that perspective.
  • It doesn’t integrate with my preferred podcast player, Pocket Casts. So when I play a podcast via Alexa, it streams it from somewhere, but my Pocket Casts account has no idea and so new podcasts still remain unplayed in my account. No syncing, which can get confusing after a while. A minor problem, but one I’d like to see them address.
  • Alexa will respond to anyone who speaks to it. It doesn’t recognise my voice specifically, so there are security implications! It’s linked to my account, but responds to (most of) @FrankDJS’s commands. Maybe voice recognition will come in future editions.

The bottom line

I think the Amazon Echo Dot is a great device for people who want to test the utility of a speakable device in their home – without shelling out hundreds of pounds. It’s incredibly easy to use and with the power of IFTTT integration, you can make it work with dozens of systems and apps.

  1. […] respond accurately. Seriously, I’ve become a much bigger fan of Alexa since getting my Amazon Echo Dots. But with more (sigh) practice, I suppose I could get it to call people without taking my phone out […]

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