Alexa, Alexa… ALEXA!

Alexa, Alexa… ALEXA!

I purchased an Amazon Echo Dot in the first few days of 2017, and use it daily. This is my review of the best and worst of my experiences, and some insight into what kind of milage you can get out of a voice based home assistant.

Barriers to entry

A key factor in how much I use my Dot is because of the location and "earshot" of the device. Thankfully, my apartment is relatively small and pretty much open plan, so I can engage Alexa from most places. That’s been really good because - aside from in the bathroom - it's universally available for me to call on wherever I am. This might be a problem in a more traditional home space where there are lots of walls and corners to contend with.

Another thing that might prevent someone from getting full use from it is having to learn and recall the sequences you need to to get it to do something reliably. Most are simple, some are entirely forgettable.

Some requests I put to it daily, some things I only ask once a month. I remember the less frequently used commands poorly - this is very similar to my experience of complex mobile device gestures - for example I never can remember in the heat of the moment how to split the screen on an iPad, and so I generally forget the feature exists.

How I get on with specific Skills

Examples of some skills I use very frequently are for lighting control, music, to do items and shopping. Here's a more detailed breakdown of my experience.

Music

I have Alexa hooked up to my Spotify collection. So I know I can say “Alexa, play the Spotify playlist ‘Sunday Mornings’”, and it will.

However I don’t really want to say all that. It feels very unintuitive to have to mention the brand of the player when all my music is in one place. Thankfully I can use short-form like “Alexa, play my ‘Sunday Mornings’ playlist”. These short form commands often work, but sometimes not.

For example, if you say “Alexa, play” — which is a similar shortcut — in theory it will start my Spotify music where I left off because in settings you can swap your Amazon music for Spotify as the default player. However, one in a dozen times, it tries to play the selection of just 10 or so tracks I have in my Amazon Music library. And because of this quirk, I’m now /really/ sick of hearing that one album when it gets it wrong.

Once it starts playing from that incorrect music library, I have to issue another, very specific Spotify command to correct it - which makes the situation feel even more convoluted. The thing is, I never want Alexa to use my Amazon’s music library or hear those tracks again, but Alexa continues to dip at random into it’s own Amazon library every so often, despite the default music service being set to Spotify.

This feels like some kind of long-standing bug. I certainly can’t explain why it switches between the two libraries, but being able to say “Alexa, play” is so much more like the experience it should be than needing to remember to say “Alexa, play Spotify” which just over-complicates something which should be buttery and simple.

Another minor complaint from a heavy user of the music feature - Spotify really struggles to deal with certain playlist names. It sometimes feels like I spend more time re-naming playlists than creating them, just to get Alexa to be able to understand them. And some I can’t control at all, for example, “Vacation Haus” - an official Spotify playlist - and that is never recognised when I say “Alexa, play Vacation Haus”.

I assume this is because Amazon is trying to find something called “Vacation House”, and of course, there’s no match for that. Some other problems I’ve had with Alexa recognising all my existing playlist names: year numbers (e.g. 2016), abbreviations (e.g. NYE), and just some words like ”Loft”.

The most infuriating ones are when you ask for a specific artist or track and you don’t get it. For example, ask “Alexa, play music by Toots and the Maytals” and you get songs by some other strange artist entity called “11 Toots and the Maytals“, which isn’t the real band and I assume some kind of categorisation error or typo somewhere in one of the systems, but I can’t get around that. Alexa will never play me the artist I’m asking for in this case, and I don’t know how to fix it. I just want to put on some ska!

To Do Lists

I use (and recommend) the excellent Todoist app, and the associated Alexa Skill. Amazon allows you to replace the default Todo skill with Todoist skill which is great, so I didn’t have to change my behaviour when I started using it in the middle of the year. I can say “Alexa, add pick up my suit from the dry cleaners to my todo list”, and it feels sublime.

Todoist is also capable of replacing the default shopping list functionality (which is great, because accessing the list you’ve created via the Alexa iOS app is a bit of a second-rate experience). That leads me nicely on to…

Shopping

I’m a regular Ocado shopper, and they recently released a skill for ordering from them, however anything that allows you to directly place an order for something with (probably) a 60% chance of it being the actual you wanted means I’ve been nervous about using it in anger.

When I shop online on Amazon, Ocado or anywhere, I tend to browse, compare, select and purchase. If I had to characterise my shopping behaviour, I’d say it’s relatively ‘involved’. It’s therefore very difficult for Amazon or Ocado to second guess that accurately, although my browsing and buying history hopefully is being used to figure some of that out.

I don’t want to miss out on a deal that might be running on a similar product, and to be honest if I have listen to a list of 10 audio-described options before I try and pick one, it’s going to be easier for me to pick up my iPad and do it visually.

I therefore haven’t really been using the Ocado skill yet (it’s only been out a couple of weeks), and instead I continue to rely on the excellent default Shopping List feature. By saying “Alexa, add cheese”, I get precisely what I want, specifically added to my Shopping List, ready for my weekly shop, right inside Todoist. This feels magical, and I cannot tell you how much this has changed my behaviour in recording these items. No more stopping and washing my hands repeatedly to go and write something down on paper, I just say it. The accuracy rate seems pretty high too. There have been a few challenges that have tripped Alexa up; I once added “Baileys” and got “Babies”, “Cordial” gave me “Cold eels“, “Custard” became “Corset”, and “Hollandaise Sauce” returned the interesting sounding “Holiday Sauce”. But generally this is not a big problem.

One thing it’s not very good at though is stringing multiple requests together. For example, “Alexa, add ham and cheese” will create one item, and waiting between each list item can be frustrating when you have two or three items to add, but in reality this is something you can fudge around at the moment - it’s not a massive inconvenience to have two items listed on the same checklist item in the app - but naturally, I’d love to see that improve in time.

Home Automation

A few years ago, the only really integrated modern home automation options were lighting controls like Philips Hue, but now there is much more selection, and although you can choose to start a collection of devices from a specific range if you want (e.g. SmartThings, Hive etc), it’s much easier now to mix and match /without/ the requirement of needing a specific additional hub for each collection.

In my implementation, I’ve avoided the need for a hub all together. As much as Hue appealed, it was going to be devilishly expensive to run out across my apartment. Not only would I need to replace every bulb and buy a hub, which is pricey in itself, the major additional cost would have been changing all my light fittings over as Hue only supports certain fixtures. For example, I have 12 down-lighters in my kitchen, and none are compatible with Hue out of the box.

Another factor is, some of my banks of lights simply don’t need dimming capability, and without replacing some of my transformers, I wouldn’t be able to get some of them to benefit from that functionality even if I wanted. I was keen to find a solution that worked for me, so instead I took a piecemeal approach and have built my own solution from different components.

I started with Wemo smart plugs for a couple of freestanding lamps in my apartment. This gave me my first major wow moment; I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to turn things on an off with a word or two - and I was hooked after that.

Lighting hardware is the area I’ve invested in most heavily since getting the Dot. I found an inline relay that I could use to convert my kitchen lights to be compatible with Alexa, and getting into that challenge also prompted me to spend money on replacing all my old 20W and 50W bulbs (a legacy of the prior owner) with far more energy efficient 3W LED bulbs. So even the ones I couldn’t automate immediately were at least a little more environmentally friendly.

The area I am excited about most is window blind control, however it is also the one I’ve made least progress on. I have five roller blinds that I want to control automatically, but the products available on the market today are either highly-involved (not really designed for a plug and play Alexa experience), or not broadly reviewed (Kickstarter-backed retrofit kits that are a little unproven yet), so I think I’ll hold my breath for a little while longer.

I have one automated window blind already, but this old circuit uses a proprietary encrypted signal to control it, which complicates matters. I think I may have found the early signals of a retro-fit “signal learning” solution, but even if that doesn’t pan out, I can always switch the relay unit out at some point for a wifi compatible one.

Out-of-the-box skills vs third-party skills

With Alexa, you might install a third-party skill which provides a much match for your own needs than the default one that Amazon supplies, however doing this often requires you to say the command in a new and more complicated way.

Amazon lets you swap the default music skill out for Spotify, which is great. However, they don’t let you swap out the Weather skill yet. I use (and thoroughly recommend) Dark Sky for forecasts, which I also use on my phone, which for some inexplicable reason is triggered by oddly different and head-ache inducing command, “Alexa, ask Big Sky what the weather is”.

I really wish I was able to swap all of Amazon’s default skills out, as I’m pretty sick of not being able to say “Alexa, weather please“ and getting Dark Sky’s fantastically accurate forecast for the day rather than the low-fidelity, out-of-the-box version.

Audio pickup & quality

The greatest challenges I presently have with the Dot is to do with audio in and audio out.

If I choose to use any kind of media that I’m not directly playing through the Dot (for example music or catchup TV from my speakers or iPad) the sound this creates causes interference problems. For example - if I’m watching something on my iPad while eating, both the audio from the iPad and my own voice compete for Alex’s attention if they are roughly in the same place - so I find myself juggling mute buttons or holding the device out at arms length to separate the directional signal.

The Dot also requires you speak quite clearly and in the direction of the unit. I’ve found you usually need to look in the direction of the speaker to get a good pickup unless it’s very quiet in the space. This can be frustrating as it picks up a great deal, so sometimes you don’t need to be so precise, but then when it fails, you fall from your magical world to Earth again with a bump.

Finally, the quality of the audio out isn’t great. It will quite happily fill my apartment with noise, but really you want to pair it with a good speaker especially if you are going to listen to music on it, and so far I’ve not done this yet.

Risks

The risks of home automation are well documented, and of course most of the worst ones centre around the access to your personal data and activity. I am happy to play guinea pig a little here, and I therefore do expose myself to some of these risks.

As much as we today tend to take a “protective” line on this sort of personal data, their is a growing an inevitability that in modern society you can never truly protect yourself from some breach or bad actor somewhere in the chain somewhere, now or in the future. I suspect those who resist entirely will end up making life so difficult for themselves in time that I think consumer attitude will eventually broadly switch to a more “I’ve got good protection in place for when this does happen” approach rather than the current prevailing attitude.

However, these concerns aside, the main risks I have found are:

  • Friends who visit you like to try it out when you’re out the room. I have found a whole variety of imaginative items on my shopping list in the past 12 months after visits.
  • It’s quite embarrassing to use it when other people are around and they “don’t get it“ because it can seem (to me) to seem pretentious. Rather than feeling magical, I sometimes feels quite self-conscious when others are around and I’m telling Alexa to turn on the kitchen lights because (and this is a significant limitation) without some additional wiring, I can now only control them via an app on my phone or via Alexa.
  • Alexa will annoyingly and occasionally quite happily chime in at things happening on TV or other audio sources that for some reason convince it that you’re asking for information on the capital of Washington state, or whatever else it imagines you said.
  • If the wifi goes down, things stop working (so have some backup options).

Verdict

I use the Echo Dot daily because I get great value from it. For the £40 investment I made 12 months ago, it’s been a hugely transformative experience in my house. I would genuinely miss the assistance it brings if it no longer existed.

As expressed before, I’ve come to terms that there’s a “always listening” device on in my apartment, and I’m ok with that. It’s acted as a spring board to the future of how the home will work (I’m convinced of it) and many of these early concerns about data will abate one way or another - either because society will become more relaxed or because companies will do better at delivering a service that’s acceptable to consumers.

I will likely try and improve the vocal reach of Alexa within my apartment this year, and ideally get my first window blind working.

So far, it’s been an exciting experiment that I’ve really enjoyed, and if you’re curious to get into home automation, it’s a great springboard into the area.