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!

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.

A happy Spotify discovery

Have I told you lately how much I love Spotify?

This afternoon, my ‘Release Radar’ playlist was on in the background, when a live track came on and I thought to myself “I recognise that voice…”. I gave it a few more seconds, but couldn’t place it exactly. I picked up my iPhone to check the track and turns out it was the Tony Bennett 90th birthday concert.

Score one: I didn’t know they’d recorded an album of the concert! It was quickly added to my Spotify library.

Score two: the track in question was actually Kevin Spacey. Yes, That Kevin Spacey. And what a voice he has. I’ve embedded the track in question below – it’s a medley of ‘The Very Thought of You’ and ‘If I ruled the World’.

Score three: the album isn’t half bad! It includes tracks from K.D. Lang and Diana Krall, as well as some excellent renditions from Mr. Bennett himself. I’m so glad he’s getting the appreciation he deserves while he’s still with us. His back catalogue is superb and I’m happy to say I’ve seen him live here in London.

Though the concert was cut short by an electrical fire. in the Albert Hall of all places!

Still, 30 minutes of Tony Bennett live is better than no minutes of Tony Bennett live. Right?

The Hot Sardines – love it!

Spotify flagged up The Hot Sardines in my ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist a few weeks ago and it was love at first sight. Or listen… you know what I mean.

Here’s my fave so far – a super-upbeat version of ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen’. A lifetime away from the more mushy and shmatzly versions you may have heard in the past. And the video? Gets me wanting to jump up and dance.

Spotify has been bang on with great recommendations over the last month. I’ve discovered fantastic new artists from around the world and even a brand new album from my old favourites, Pink Martini.

Bravo, Spotify. Bravo.

RIP, Apple Music.

iOS 10: Lots to learn

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After a less than satisfactory upgrade to iOS 10 earlier this week, I’ve been learning about its bits and bobs through day to day usage. What follows is a far-from-detailed review of the update, which is no way been approaches the thoroughness of some of the excellent reviews (e.g. iMore, MacStories).

So, in no particular order…

I like the widget-type functionality on the new search screen. You can get here by swiping right when on your home screen. It’s editable, so you can see the key information and updates that are more interesting and useful to you. I have it set up with a widget from ToDoist (of course!), a summary of my Activity

, the weather and headlines from the Guardian. I’ll be interested to see what other apps add widgets in the coming weeks. But for now, it gives me a nice, brief summary of key information that interesting to me, without too many clicks or swipes.

The new expanded notifications are also a big improvement. You can act of notifications from within another app (e.g. respond to a text message) and the new design of the notifications leaves me feeling less harassed by them as they pop up on the screen. You may feel differently about them, of course.

I’m torn when it comes to the app store for Messages. While it’s fun to be able to send GIFs more easily (@FrankDJS is enjoying this in particular 🙄) some of the noisier message settings are just plain annoying. Lasers. Confetti. Invisible ink. To me, it all smacks of gimmicks and makes it harder to read the messages. But I’m obviously turning into an old fart. so let’s move on to something more positive.

As an OS, it’s running faster on my iPhone 6s Plus. Noticeably faster. I like the changes to the interface for the most part and the fact that the screen comes to life when to pick it up is a piece of common sense functionality that is both simple and incredibly helpful.

I haven’t really explored what’s new in Photos or Music, especially as I’ve become quite the fan of Spotify in recent months. It was my main source of music when using Android and it’s recommendations engine is second to none. I’ve discovered more great music with Spotify this year than I ever have before. So I’m loathe to move back to Apple Music and deal with its tendencies to recommend pure unadulterated shit. Pardon my French.

I’ve not been as impressed with Siri as I’d hoped. Yes, it now works with a series of external, non-Apple services, but this is limited right now. So while you can control Spotify with it, I still can’t use it to control ToDoist. Being able to verbally add tasks to my inbox via Siri would be magical and a big timesaver. Hopefully it won’t be too long before there’s an integration.

If you have the time, and the inclination, I can recommend Federico Viticci’s in-depth review of iOS 10 over at MacStories. It’s epic. Truly. Otherwise, you can do what I’ve also been doing: just get stuck in and use it, googling the answers to challenges when you encounter them.

Here come the shiny new Apple gadgets!

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By this time tomorrow, I’ll have gorged myself on all the juicy details from Apple’s event, pored over the blog posts, zoomed in on all the photos and decided if any of it is of interest to me.

I mean, I’ll be interested in it all, but I won’t be buying it all. My iPhone 6s Plus is most definitely the best phone I’ve ever bought and with the addition of the upcoming iOS 10, it’ll surely be even better. What could an iPhone 7 (or whatever it’s called) do that would justify giving Apple even more of my money?

(Let’s be honest for a moment. I think we all know there’s a very high probability of me getting the new iPhone, but do bear with me while I go through this annual exercise of protesting that I won’t hand over my cash just as fast as Apple can take it).

I’d love a bigger screen, but that doesn’t look likely. I’d love if it worked with the Apple Pencil. Again, not that likely. More storage is always welcome and since Apple never went in for SD cards, the rumour that it’ll come with a 256GB model is most welcome. The rumour of a missing audio jack is less appealing.

Harrumph.

Putting aside the inevitability of my future purchase, I have to wonder: are we reaching “peak iPhone”? Not in terms of sales, but more in terms of what a phone can actually do. It’s come on leaps and bounds since it was launched, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed a slowing down in shock-level innovation.

I’d love to be proved wrong tomorrow evening, all the same.

I’m really looking forward to getting iOS10 on my phone and iPad though. It looks great and, if they follow through on their promises about Siri, I might actually start using it more regularly. I stopped using Apple Music some time ago, preferring to use Spotify, which comes free with my mobile phone contract. I’m unsure if any improvements will bring me back, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Any improvement to watchOS will be very, very welcome. All the reviews of the beta that I’ve read describes it as being incredibly faster, and that’s even before we’ve seen an Apple Watch 2 – which may also arrive tomorrow. I really like my Apple Watch, but sometimes the wait for it to respond or to activate apps is infuriating. Here’s hoping for a little more zip.

I’ll hold off on an upgrade to macOS Sierra, until the various bugs have been identified and zapped. I really can’t do without my laptop during a standard working week. Upgrading the OS, when every other upgrade in history has come with various issues, is not the best of ideas.

Tomorrow’s event will hold some surprises. I can’t wait to see what Apple are up to with health, home and fitness. And if they do launch a 6-inch iPhone with its own Apple Pencil, then you’ll be picking me up off the floor.

Torn between iOS and Android? Kind of.

The experiment isn’t over!

Some of you may remember I got myself all Androided-up a few months back. I bought a Nexus 6P and fell in love with it and its OS, Android. I kept my iPhone and Apple Watch in a drawer and lived a Google-focused existence.

Since then, I’ve moved between the two devices, as well as a Nexus 7 tablet for a couple of months. The good thing about buying your mobile phones unlocked is that you can simply switch SIM cards between them when you want to. All of my apps are cloud-based, so it doesn’t take long for one to catch up with the other (Calendar, contacts, Spotify etc).

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not living in one ‘world’ or the other. I regularly use my Nexus 7 while I’m at my desk, to flip through Twitter or to look at ToDoist. I’m still using my iPad Pro when traveling for business, paired with a bluetooth keyboard. I still wear my Apple Watch (most of the time), which means I have my iPhone 6s Plus on me too.

Torn between the two?

I’ve realised that you don’t have to pick a side, but you can pick and choose from within the two major ecosystems. I’ve regularly gone out for coffee bringing an iPhone and the Nexus 7. Not an iPad. Because the Nexus 7 is what I found useful at the time.

I don’t think it’s a groundbreaking thing to say that both ecosystems and operating systems have their strengths. For iOS, it’s the millions of apps and with iPhones it’s the easily-available multitude of accessories. My bank balance is testament to the latter. I have a drawer full of various iPhone cases, covers and stands.

For Android, (for me at least) it’s Google Now and just how accurately Google understands me when I speak with it. It’s uncanny. It’s also the flexibility of device set-up.

On the other hand, Apple devices cost a lot more than Android ones (mostly). And Android isn’t supported as widely as iOS (for now, at least). I’m talking very broadly here, before a fan-boy from one tribe or the other decides to have a pop.

My tools of choice, app-wise, are available on both platforms and are pretty comparable: Evernote, ToDoist, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Slack, WhatsApp etc. My mail (iCloud, business and gMail), contacts (Google) and calendars (iCloud and Google) are also ‘out there’ and not tied to a single device.

So in theory, I could swap phone devices on a daily basis, if I had the time and inclination. What stops me doing this is messages. Unless you turn off messages on all your Apple devices, there’s a good chance text messages from others will fail to show up on the Android device. It’s happened before. And it’s very, very annoying.

A second screen

But there’s nothing to stop me using my Nexus 7 alongside my iPhone, for example. The information on both is up to date and the only major difference in content is in Google Now, which is far superior on the Nexus.

Similarly, there’s nothing to stop going out to work with my Macbook and the Nexus 6P. For exactly the same reasons. And as both work off USB-C chargers, this seems to be an ideal pairing.

But what about the “third screen”? My Apple Watch. This is where it gets a little complex. I also got myself a Pebble Time smartwatch at the same time I bought the Nexus 6P. And while are both smart-watches, they’re hugely different. The Pebble’s battery will last for days at a time, even with heavy use. Whereas the Apple Watch needs a nightly charge. The Apple Watch display is a thing of beauty, while I have to regularly squint to see the Pebble’s screen.

It looks like the next update to WatchOS is going to make there Apple Watch even better (in terms of speed, at least), so I’m not tempted to make the switch permanent.

And seeing as an Apple Watch will only work with an iPhone, I’m ever so slightly stuck with the iPhone 6S Plus as a my ‘daily driver’. This is no hardship, by any means, but it does take some of the flexibility out which device I use each day.

Some very full pockets!

Now, there’s no way in hell I’m going to become one of those guys who carries more than one mobile phone out of choice! (As opposed to those poor souls who have to carry a work handset and a personal handset). Neither am I going to wear more than one smartwatch. I mean, I’m a geek, but there are limits – even for me. Yes. Even for me.

In reality, either the iPhone or the Nexus 6P offer enough speed and power to be the only thing I need with me for my mobile needs. Frequently, a tablet is a luxury, especially hen I’m trying to lighten the load of tech I find it my bag.

That said, I’m still leaning towards the world of Apple – if I have to make a choice – due to the Apple Watch pairing and my need to leave one handset at home.

So what does the future hold?

We’re about to see updates to both operating systems in the next couple of months. Google will roll out Android N (Nougat) in the next few days, if the rumour mill is correct. And Apple is going to release iOS 10 and WatchOS “in the fall”. Hopefully, that means September.

I’m going to update all my devices when the time arrives and do another comparison. Meanwhile, it looks like I’ll be using the iPhone 6s Plus combined with an Apple Watch and a (3 year old) Nexus 7 tablet when I’m out and about.

How’s that for eclectic?!

(In fact, I think a blog post all about the Nexus 7 is in order – it’s one of my favourite devices right now).

It works for me. It combines everything I like about iOS, allows me to use my Apple Watch, and gives me access to pure Android and Google Now. And before you ask: yes, you can install the Google app to access Google Now on your iPhone, but its functionality is severely curtailed compared to the Android version. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

Any questions?

I’m also aware that very few people get to buy handsets like this and compare them. I’m lucky like that. So any questions about working in two operating systems are very welcome. Maybe I can help you make up your mind!

Organising the Nexus 6P

The adjustment from iOS to Android isn’t as significant as it used to be. As I said previously, Android is now a lot more polished as an OS and there are so many more cross-platform apps available.

One of the big differences that still exists between the two platforms is the flexibility of the Android interface. You can choose your own launcher, layout, colours, default apps and a ton of other settings that iOS keeps firmly under lock and key.

You could spend far too much time on setting all this up, but I’ve just had a look at the apps I use the most and organised them into some on-screen folders under what I think is a logical categorisation.

(If you have no interest in reading about other people’s mobile phone settings, you may as well stop reading at this point. And frankly, what sane person would blame you.)  Continue reading “Organising the Nexus 6P”

The Android Experiment: one week in

Okay, so strictly speaking I’m not a full week in to my “new life” with Android rather than iOS, but I started using a Nexus 7 this day last week and my new Nexus 6P arrived last Tuesday.

I fully intend to do a full comparison between Android and iOS – a very subjective and incomplete comparison, if I’m honest – but for now, my main take-aways are the following:

Continue reading “The Android Experiment: one week in”

Will Apple Music be my new Spotify?

I’m a few weeks into Apple’s free three-month trial of Apple Music and, so far, I have to say I’m liking it. The title of this blog post is potentially a bit misleading, in that I’ve never been a massive Spotify user. I’ve never paid for it, but had access to the premium version courtesy of my Vodafone mobile plan.

(It was that, or access to Sky Sports, so let’s face it – not much of a choice).

I found Spotify useful for trying out new music and listening to other people’s playlists. At home, it mostly got used for background music when I was working or just relaxing with my Kindle. Something jazzy… something classical. Nothing I was really paying attention to.

My real music was in iTunes, despite all of its massive drawbacks. I’ve said many times over the years that iTunes needs pulling down and building back up. It’s a bloated, over-complicated and glutting piece of crap and regularly comes between me and accessing my own media. At just the wrong time, too.

But over the years, I’ve moved from obsessively buying CDs to obsessively buying music from iTunes. When I’d stumble across something interesting on Spotify, I’d give it a few weeks and then ultimately buy it on iTunes. My mindset was about owning the music, not renting it. And the days of searching the web for illegal MP3 are thankfully long behind us (or is that just me?) now that iTunes has such a large selection of music available so cheaply.

So when Apple Music was announced, I have to say I wasn’t that impressed. Another music streaming service, where you don’t actually own the music. Nevertheless, I signed up for the free trial. Because if there’s one thing that this blog demonstrates to everyone, it’s that if Apple set up a stall selling chocolate-covered pigs’ heads on a stick, I’d be in the queue to see that all the fuss was about.

A few weeks later, and I’m a big fan. Sure, it’s not perfect and there are definitely some usability and stability issues with it. The interface can be confusing at time and I don’t believe you should need a user’s guide to access music on a computer or mobile phone. It’s not always as reliable as it should be and I’ve had a few moments of “I have no idea why you’re refusing to play this track”.

Honestly? I think Apple should have launched this free trial as a beta and been more open about its shortcomings.

So what’s so good about it?

Well, I think my mindset has caught up with all those 16 year olds who don’t see the big deal about paying for a service to access music they’ll never own. It’s not that big a deal to me any more. As long as I can access the music when and where I want, it’s fine. That’s quite a change and something Spotify never succeeded in doing with me.

The impact of the Apple brand? I’m quite open to that possibility. Pigs’ heads and all that…

I think it’s got something going for it in the recommendation engine. The “For You” section suggests artists and playlists it think I might like. The ratio of hits to misses here is about 4:1, which is not bad in my book. For every excellent Tony Bennett track (yay!) I get suggested, there will be the odd random artist or track that I want to avoid completely. Garth Brookes, I’m looking at you.

It has opened my eyes (and ears) to new music and I’m grateful for that. I’ve stumbled across a few playlists and tracks that I really like, or which were in the “what’s that song?” part of my mind when featured on TV or in the movies. In the last week, I have been switched on to the force of nature that is Taylor Swift, and all because of Apple Music.

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I didn’t even know who Taylor Swift was last month. Honestly. I had heard the name, but somehow had categorised her as a country music nymph. Which meant I had to avoid her at all costs. But up she popped in the “For you” list in Apple Music and I was hooked. I added her “1989” album to my music within minutes and several of the tracks to some running and workout playlists I have. I now officially heart Taylor Swift, joining the countless “Swifties” all over her world.

No, not really. But I think it’s a great example of how a smart music recommendation service can open us up to new kinds of music. How we got here, I don’t know. It might be the presence of so much Kylie, Madonna and Eurovision in my iTune Match library. Maybe Taylor Swift is a natural next step. For me, it worked.

It’s not all pop, though. Apple Music has suggested some fantastic jazz playlists and suggested vocalists and musicians whom I’ve never heard of, but whose sound is a perfect fit for all the other jazz tracks in my library.

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The service has also allowed me to just add random albums to my music for later listening, albums from artists I already know but haven’t heard yet. And unlike the obsessive completist I am, prune these albums, saving just the tracks I really want to hear. The rest are still there in Apple Music, if I ever want to access them later.

It’s a bit like having access to the entire iTunes database, for one fixed monthly fee. Except nobody’s paying for it yet.

And what could be better?

As mentioned above, the interface could do with an update. On the iOS app and within iTunes, I’ve been confused about how to access some of the functionality. They don’t really marry up when really they should compliment each other. The iOS app should be as easy to use as possible, as you’ll likely be on the move when accessing it.

On iOS, the “For You” button is the first thing on the menu. In iTunes, it’s in third position.

It’s down to personal taste, but I’m really not enjoying Beats One, Apple’s new online radio station. I don’t listen to a lot of radio at the best of times as I personally really dislike when DJs talk over the music I’m trying to listen to. And Beats One offers this in volume. Maybe they’ll add Beats Two, Beats Jazz and so on, in time. But I’ll be avoiding it for the foreseeable future. Not a bad service, just one I don’t enjoy.

In the same category, I don’t see the point of Connect, how Apple sees you staying “in touch” with your favourite artists. It’s just not my thing. At all. But maybe it’ll evolve into something worth accessing, with news content about music, rather than just photos and other fluff.

Will I pay for it?

This is the crucial question, really. I think Apple has been very smart in offering three months for free. This is really long enough to see if you like it, while simultaneously long enough to find you need it and can’t give it up.

I’m enjoying – and using – it enough to say I think I’ll be paying for it after the end of my trial. So far, it’s introduced me to enough new music and given me access to albums I’ve thought about listening to, that it’s a solid addition to my entertainment library.

Based on my experience so far, I’ll be getting a family plan – this is much cheaper than @FrankDJS and I paying for separate accounts. £14.99 per month together, rather than £9.99 per month each.

I’m not sure I can recommend Apple Music for everyone just yet. I suspect Apple will address the various bugs and performance issues in the coming months, with a bit of a relaunch once iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan are publicly available this autumn.

And whether the price point is for everyone is quite a subjective thing. Music is a sufficiently significant part of my life that the cost of this service makes sense to me. I’m beyond the need to own all of this music, I just need to access it. If you’re an absolute completist and want to own special edition CDs for sentimental value, then Apple Music is maybe not for you.

For me, it’s replacing Spotify. Actually, it already has. I’ve deleted Spotify from my iOS devices.

And for your information, I’m not the only grown man who likes a bit of Taylor Swift. So there.