I have a confession to make. I don’t actually use voice-activated digital assistants that much. I’ve tried Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google’s system, which used to be called “Google Now”, but now answers eponymously just to “Google”. After testing them for a few days I tend to forget about them.
One problem is that voice instructions rarely seem appropriate. Searching for something or organising your diary by booming into your gadgets when you’re in a restaurant or office can be hugely embarrassing. It's even more cringeworthy when, as often, it’s difficult to make yourself understood thanks to the shortcomings in voice recognition. Typing usually allows more precision and you can get the task done far more quickly without the whole world knowing what you’re up to.
I was not therefore looking forward with unalloyed joy to the arrival in my life of Amazon’s Echo speaker and its built-in digital personal assistant Alexa. But things got off to a good start. With the help of the app, and Alexa’s clear and patient voice, setup took just a couple of minutes. My first voice command: “Alexa, play The Who” was recognised accurately and a track by The Who from my Amazon Music collection started playing almost instantly. I was quite impressed by the sound quality.
The success continued. Alexa played radio stations on command through the TuneIn app, even relatively unfamiliar ones like RTE Lyric and France Inter. My request for the news headlines got a prompt and useful bulletin from Sky News plus a weather report (other news providers are available - you set your preferences in the app). If your dog happens to be called Alexa you can opt for a different name in the app to avoid the obvious confusion.
Using voice commands when relaxing at home seemed very natural and sometimes proved quicker than finding and switching on a radio, or locating a tablet and selecting an app. It’s the sort of convenience that can become addictive. My fellow tech testers were getting on well too. Alexa was soon helping them adjust their heating, operate their TVs, boil the kettle and change the lighting.
The key to this productivity is installing various “skills” on your Echo. These are rather like apps. At the moment they’re actually quite limited. The Skyscanner skill, for example, didn't get me very far with actually booking a flight, and my tech testers found simple recipes and even ordering things from Amazon fraught with problems. But it's early days and the available skills are sure to improve as developers get to work.
Other issues I encountered were that music searching wasn't actually as reliable as my first impressions suggested. Some artists in my library proved stubbornly elusive. Alexa can also occasionally burst into life unexpectedly, when she interprets something she hears on the TV or someone’s saying in the room as a command. And with an always listening device, there’s the slight feeling of unease that someone somewhere just might be tapping into everything you say. There is, however, a microphone switch off button if this worry gets too much.
In general though I found Alexa the most natural and engaging personal assistant I’ve tried yet. She’s changed my views on them and I’m really looking forward to using the Echo more and seeing how the platform develops.
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