Amazon quietly unleashes a sleeping giant – Alexa – to a TV near you

5 03 2016
Fire TV Stick now comes with Alexa

Fire TV Stick now comes with Alexa

What this isn’t

This post isn’t about Amazon Echo, a device that has received rave reviews from most of its owners.

It isn’t about the newly announced Echo Dot or the Echo Tap devices that extend the Alexa experience around your home.

As great as those devices are, they won’t extend Alexa into a household unless someone buys a new (relatively expensive) tech gadget.

What this post *is* about.

Amazon have started giving Alexa away for free!!

Alexa is a very powerful cloud platform, not a cute name associated with an expensive gadget for upwardly mobile techies.  You maybe able to use Alexa on a device you already own – a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick for nothing. The latest software update to Fire TV and Free TV Stick has Alexa technology built in. You may already have Alexa attached to your TV which is ready to respond to your commands, you just didn’t know it.

You can be excused for not knowing about this. While the Amazon Echo Dot and Tap have been getting all the press lately, on the Verge and Lifehacker, articles announcing Alexa as “coming” on Fire TV devices have gone largely unnoticed.

The Amazon Echo is quite expensive at $179, the Tap at $129. Alexa on your Fire TV comes in at $0. Free. Nada. So now instead of looking at Alexa as a device (Echo, Dot or Tab) we now see it for what it is,  an all encompassing cloud platform. This is just the start of something huge Amazon are building.

Fire TV Set Top Box

Fire TV Set Top Box

Using Alexa on your Fire TV or Fire TV Stick device.

Your Fire TV device needs the latest Fire TV software version, version 5.0.5. You probably already have it, if not, it’s easy enough to request an update.

Next download the Fire TV App on your Android or iOS phone. Turn on your TV and Fire TV device, launch the app and sync to your Fire TV device. That’s it you’re ready.

You’ll notice a microphone icon at the top of the app interface, drag it down and *hold* it down. It works like a walkie talkie, you have to hold the microphone button while you talk. Speak your command like, “add sausages to my shopping list”. Alexa verbally responds on your TV speakers “Sausages added to your shopping list” and there is your shopping list displayed on your TV. Echo can’t do that, it hasn’t got a 56″ HD display to work with.

Try something else like “Play Adele”, and Adele plays on your TV. Say “Downton Abbey” and your Fire Tv device shows a tile for the TV show. Much quicker than searching with the remote text input on fire TV.

Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 12.27.33

Sometimes Alexa is dumb.

Some commands fail, either Alexa didn’t understand what you said, or doesn’t know how to respond. For example instead of understanding the word “Democrat” she may hear “Dimmock Rat”. Current affairs typically trip her up. So how do you figure out what she heard?

Next you need to download the Alexa app to your smart phone. Once installed you can look at the history of voice commands and in plain text is what Alexa heard you say. You ca also play back the audio of your command. A little bit creepy to think Amazon stores your voice commands indefinitely, but at least you can see and hear what they have recorded. Transparency helps with the creepy factor.

The Alexa app also shows you your shopping list, useful at the store so you don’t forget the sausages you wanted.

Alexa also has a to do list you can mange verbally. If you already have a calendar and don’t want another ‘to do list’, then you can attach your Google Calendar to Alexa instead and then have Alexa read you calendar to you audibly by saying “What’s my schedule?”.

Alexa can also play your current Audible book to your TV, just say “Play my Audible Book” and it starts and aslo shows the books cover art. It is fully whisper sync compatible and synchronizes with your other audible playing devices. If found it important to say “Stop playing my book” to be sure it recorded my place in the book.

Managing links to other services such as Uber or Dominoes pizza is best done on your compuer via Amazons Alexa website alexa.amaxon.com

If you like it, add the voice remote for Fire TV for $29.

You can add a voice remote

You can add a voice remote

Using the free Fire TV smart phone app is great, but navigation isn’t as easy as with a physical remote. Its easy to trigger a TV show accidentally while scrolling through a list of episodes. The Voice Remote can be purchased from Amazon for $29. I have the original Fire TV Stick, the new 5.0.5 software has made the device a little less responsive than it was, Amazon maybe stretching its capabilities to the max, you may instead decide to upgrade to the new version of the stick that comes with the voice remote or get the full featured Fire TV.

The fire TV Stick can’t do all features of Alexa. Home automations such as switching on lights, changing thermostat temperature aren’t available. You can’t train ALexa to understand your dialect better. For those functions you need the full Fire TV set top box device or one of the Echo products.

Alexa on your TV – not just a me too upgrade.

Alexa's response to my question about Mt Everest

Alexa’s response to my question about Mt Everest

Actually seeing your full shopping list visually, seeing the album art for that music adds to the experience of Alexa. If you do a search for Mt Everest it shows you a picture of the mountain on the TV as well as tell you the basic facts. That’s neat. This isn’t just a me too experience. Amazon are smart, they realize giving Alexa away for free will drive sales of Alexa compatible devices as you get to use the service more and more.

Some may not want to sink $180 into a fancy speaker system you can talk to and listen to music on. Alexa on a Fire TV ($100) or Fire TV Stick ($50) is much cheaper and does much more as a true set top box device with video and the ability to run applications such as YouTube and NetFlix. Alexa on your TV It isn’t always listening, so may allay privacy fears from people who are concerned with Amazon listening in.

 





Live Streaming on a Budget

28 02 2016
Canon Camcorder on permanent mount

Canon Camcorder on permanent mount – click to enlarge See video below to see how the camcorder zooms.

Challenged with finding an inexpensive way to stream a church service to the internet with a shoe-string budget, I have arrived at a setup I believe is worth sharing that costs about $500 (if you use a existing desktop computer). Here is a video we streamed to YouTube recently…

The upfront cost to do this (assuming you already have a computer) is about $500. Monthly expenses are less than $10/month.

We realized that gamers are constantly streaming/recording their games to YouTube or other streaming sites and we’d do well to utilize the systems gamers use on a low budget. However gamers don’t need to record activity at a distance, its normally confined to a single room in a home, so we needed to find the right video capture device.

We did go through a variety of configurations and learned some valuable lessons.

Our final configuration

Here is the equipment and software we settled on

The Canon Vixia 600 camcorder was cheap since its a discontinued model, the current 700 series model will set you back $300.

Details of how we set it up

Camcorder and mount.

We chose to mount the camcorder on a fixed mount onto a wall in the media booth. Using a tripod on top of our work surface in the booth took up valuable space and the video image vibrated as media personnel went about their duties on the work surface. The Camcorder came with a HDMI cable to attach to the computers capture card. Since we are streaming only, no memory card is needed for the camcorder!

The Vixia camcorder can be configured to remember the last zoom position and can be left attached to a power source and the media computer at all times. It’s truly ‘set it and forget it’ once you have tweaked things the way you like it.

It was necessary to turn the microphone volume down to zero on the camcorder to avoid a hiss or any feedback.

The only thing media personnel need training on is where the on/off switch is for the camcorder.

Avermedia Capture Card.

The Avermedia capture card is installed into a PCI-Express Slot. It is a ‘1x’ PCI Express card so should fit any PCI-Express slot not just the smaller 1x slots. The card came with a nice array of cables, none of which we needed and comes with a 3 month subscription to XSplit, our chosen software for streaming to YouTube. For some reason the card comes without a driver CD and the card isn’t recognized by Windows. You’ll need to download the latest software and driver package from the Avermedia website. It was a painless install.

XSplit Broadcaster.

XSplit is free to try. Installation is easy enough.

Add the camcorder as a “source” for video and you are set for video capture.

XSplit can be configured to always source audio from the ‘microphone in’ on the computer – we have a cable that runs from the headphone jack on the soundboard to the computer microphone in. We record audio separately using Audacity for some projects when video isn’t needed, so we prefer not to connect the audio to the camera or video capture card directly.

YouTube Live

Resist the temptation to use a personal YouTube account and establish an account linked to the organizations main email address. Once established Live Streaming is activated by visiting “My Channel” and then “Video Manager”. Live streaming is an available option in Video Manager. Follow the “Live Stream Checklist” which guides you in the steps necessary to create a live stream feed on the YouTube account.

Under “Stream Options” there is a section for Encoder Setup. Copy the URL and paste it into XSplit to link XSplit to YouTube account. The option in XSplit is under the “Broadcast” menu.

We enable the DVR option under Stream options, which creates a permanent recording of all live streams.

At this point you should be setup to test the stream.

YouTube have a rudimentary editor that allows videos to be trimmed. As a rule we stream/record only the sermon. Music and videos will attract attention from copyright holders. Copyright violations could result in the account being terminated. Most often the rights holder allows the copyrighted content to be posted on YouTube and YouTube sells advertising space on top of your video. This will not happen if no copyrighted material is posted on YouTube.

The YouTube video editor is hard to use and is very basic. We encourage media personnel to start and stop the stream so that only the sermon is streamed and recorded therby eliminating the need to do any editing at all.

Our next steps – Multiple camcorders and mixing video

Our next step will be to install multiple cameras and capture cards so that we can switch between a close up or wide views. Currently the streaming is done on our main media computer. This is the cheapest option and makes things tricky for the media team.

Handling multiple cameras will require us to buy a dedicated computer for video. That will have to wait for funds to be available. XSplit has the ability to manage up to 16  video feeds, so video switching/mixing can be done all in one interface. It saves the need for a dedicated video switch hardware and allows multiple video feeds to be merged or overlay-ed.

 





Android Pay, Successes and Quirks

5 10 2015
APay

Android Pay

Since it’s launch several weeks ago I have successfully used Android Pay for transactions at two different merchants. The user experience changes depending on which merchant you use Android Pay at. Hopefully consistency will come to Android Pay as it matures.

OfficeDepotPayment 1 – Office Depot – Tap, PIN, Finished.

My first successful transaction at Office Depot went without a hitch. I held my phone to the payment terminal close to the tap and pay icon, it beeped within a second and I saw a green check mark indicating success. I was prompted to enter a PIN on the payment terminal, (similar to the process for a Debit Card). I entered my old Google Wallet PIN and the transaction completed quickly.

That was Easy.

StaplesPayment 2 – Staples – Tap, Sign, Ooops, Finished (eventually).

The second transaction at Staples took a little longer. I saw Apple Pay and Tap and Pay advertising taped onto the payment terminal but it wasn’t obvious where to hold the phone. Maybe the tap and pay icon was obscured by the advertising. I held the phone above the advertising and it beeped and I got a green check instantly.

Then the clerk informed me of the total price charged and I paused. The amount she quoted was three times the price of the item, I questioned the amount. Unlike a Credit Card swipe the payment terminal didn’t ask me if the total amount was OK. I asked the clerk how to cancel the transaction. “You can’t” was the response, “go ahead and sign and I’ll process a partial return”. There’s a difference, I was not asked for a PIN, but asked to sign instead. This seems much less secure.

That wasn't so easy

That wasn’t so easy

After the transaction completed the clerk took 2-3 minutes of several tries to process the partial return, eventually she asked to see my credit card again. I asked do I scan my phone again, I don’t have that credit card on me!?! “No” she said and pressed a button to complete the return. The clerk handed me both the original receipt with the overcharge and a separate receipt showing the credit amount.

That wasn’t so easy.

ChaseI’ll have to wait for the credit to show up

The charge shows up on my Chase credit card as a pending transaction, but the credit has yet to show. This is fairly typical, credits take longer. I’ll add an update to this post once enough time has gone by for the credit to appear.

Summary

To be fair the transaction at Staples took much longer because of the item ringing up at the wrong price. However the difference in the process is both odd and concerning. At Office Depot I entered a PIN to complete the transaction, at Staples I signed, just like a traditional card swipe. How does the check out clerk verify the signature is good if there is no physical card present? Seems very odd and less secure than a traditional credit card.

The lack of confirmation regarding the amount charged is also a concern. It seems to charge without confirming the price charged thereby requiring a credit to correct any errors at the checkout. Not having the physical card also caused extra delay for the clerk to process the credit.

PINEntryI preferred the process at Office Depot, the requesting of a PIN adds an extra layer of security which is superior to traditional credit cards that use a swipe. This new process is also more secure than Chip and Sign cards being introduced. I hope when all the glitches are worked out of Android Pay we end up with a PIN requirement. Tap and PIN is much more secure than Chip and Sign or Tap and Sign.

Credit Update October 6th 2015.

Android Pay Credits Work!!

Android Pay Credits Work!!

The Credit from Staples did get posted 24 hrs later through Android pay. It looks like Credits work just fine. I’ll keep my eye on my Chase account to see when the credit transaction shows up there. The original charge of $24.02 is still showing as a pending transaction.

Credit Update and Rewards Eligibility

I was glad to see the credit transaction posted to my credit card account with Chase. Not just because I got my partial refund, but I also noted that despite the Chase card not being ‘officially supported’ by Android Pay I still accrue the correct rewards points percentage on my credit card.

Android Pay is working just fine as far as I am concerned.

Credits and Rewards points work just fine with Android Pay.

Credits and Rewards points work just fine with Android Pay.





Thanks to TurboTax – IRS Reject my tax return

6 02 2012

IRS Reject my return - click to enlarge

This is the first year I have e-filed. It may be the last.

I submitted my return Saturday February 4th and the IRS rejected it Sunday evening. The reason given is that all parts of a multiple page form were not submitted. Intuit have acknowledged that their software is faulty and I will be able to resubmit on the 10th February, maybe.

The software doesn’t indicate which form is faulty. There is a  support page at Intuit’s website where you can register for email updates as the problem is worked by them.

It maybe a happy mistake after all, I thought of another deduction I can claim that I had overlooked, it won’t amount to much, but every bit helps.

TurboTax Support Page





Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless

6 04 2011

Hotspot Dashboard - Click to Enlarge

Sprint offer a wireless hotspot device for their 3g and 4g networks. I took a device on evaluation from Sprint recently and tested how well it worked at my home. My address is not listed as supported for Clearwire wireless internet, which is the same network as the Sprint 4g devices use. So I was interested to see how well it would work.

AT&T DSL Speeds - Click to Enlarge

First I tested the speed of my AT&T DSL broadband as a comparison between wireless and land-line capability. My DSL is marginal where I live (which seems to apply to any service I have looked into). DSL Download/Upload speeds achieved were 2.35 Mb down and 0.32 Mb up. Pretty pedestrian by today’s broadband offerings and demands from services such as Netflix streaming.

Sprint 3g Speeds - Click to Enlarge

I then switched on the Sprint Hotspot device. It sync’d using 3g only. Power cycling didn’t encourage it to connect to 4g at all. Maybe my home is just too far out. The speeds I got with Sprint 3g are 0.33 Mb Down and 0.24 Mb Up. Very slow indeed. I got much better speeds using my Droid as a tethered modem using Verizon wireless 3g network.

Perturbed by the very slow speeds I decided read the manual and discovered where the factory reset button is. Being an eval unit someone ahead of me may have set some weird and wonderful setting. After a successful reset and reboot the device immediately connected to the 4G network. I checked the firmware, it is up to date, all it needed was a factory reset.

Sprint 4g - Click to Enlarge

The signal strength varied between 20% and 40%, so my address is clearly marginal for Sprint. I tested the performance and got 4.92 Mbs Down and 0.92 Mbs Up. Much better and superior to my AT&T DSL. This is fast enough to support HD quality movie streaming from Netflix and others. I am due to get uVerse installed in a few days so will update this post with those speeds as a direct comparison.

The hotspot device can be used as a Wifi hotspot supporting up to 5 clients, or as a tethered device. The management console is clear and easy to use. I was able to change from WEP encryption to WPA2 easily enough, the unit rebooted after this change and worked just fine.

I switched on GPS location to see how that would work. The unit consistently failed to get a GPS lock inside my home. My Motorola Droid never has issues, so the GPS sensitivity for this device seems poor.

The device looks like a hockey puck, is reasonably light and is easily thrown into a laptop bag. It uses a universal Micro USB charger, so you don’t need to carry its charging cable/wall plug if you already have one for your phone or other device(s). As standard the device comes with a quick start guide. To get the full manual, one needs to download this from Sprints support website.

Compared to Verizon wireless LTE, the Sprint network is a step behind in terms of raw speed. Reports of 10Mb down and 3 Mb up on Verizon LTE hotspots reveal that the Verizon 4g is a step above the older Sprint/Clearwire 4g. Speed isn’t everything though. Verizon put a 10GB monthly cap on their hotspot devices, Sprint’s claim to fame is that their unlimited means truly unlimited. So if you want to stream Netflix movies and therefore consume large amounts of bandwidth, the Spring hotspot device makes better financial sense.

If AT&T U-verse disappoints, I will seriously consider a Clearwire modem or this 4g hotspot from Sprint. As much as I like LTE from Verizon and already being  a Verizon customer, the 10GB cap would be way too restrictive for my home internet needs. Sprint have made the right choice in not placing caps on their wireless service, no one wants an unexpected bill at the end of the month because you used ‘too much’ bandwidth. 10GB is hardly classifiable as hogging bandwidth in this day and age. A 10GB cap on a individual smartphone sounds OK, but on a  hot spot, it’s outlandish. Congratulations to Sprint for getting this right, shame on Verizon.





Nissan LEAF Test Drive

27 03 2011

Nissan LEAF during a test drive. Click to enlarge

On March 26th 2011 Nissan held a test drive event for their all electric car, the Nissan LEAF at Franklin TN.

The Event

This was a source of disappointment. Nissan set up a series of tents on the Parking lot of their Headquarters in Franklin TN. It was a cold and damp day and the tents had no form of heat. Punters had to be content wearing multiple layers of clothes as they listened to a sales pitch and lined up to drive the LEAF’s. I had a 1pm appointment time scheduled. Other than quick registration, the appointment didn’t assure you of a  place in line or any priority, one lined up with walk-ins. The ‘refreshment’ lounge consisted of a cup of instant coffee and a packet of cheez-its. It made me feel the event was done on a tight budget. The guy delivering information about the car and the logistics of the event was both upbeat and informative. He was the only spark of life I saw that day.

Nissan LEAF Battery Pack mockup - Click to enlarge

The LEAF reservation system

I am on the list of 20,000 people who have first refusal on a  new vehicle. I have not taken advantage of this since I would never buy a  vehicle without seeing it in person and have a test drive. I also Read the rest of this entry »





Google’s Two Step Verification – Why everyone needs to use it

15 03 2011

Google Authenticator Logo

Google have introduced a new feature called 2-step verification. To learn the basics read the Google Guide.

Why you Need it

This feature is a must have security feature that should make it very difficult for anyone to hack into your Google account, which is much more than simply your email. Google has a slew of products that you maybe using that store detailed personal information about you. Protecting this information is important to prevent Identity Fraud

Using the 2-step verification ensures that only authorized computers/devices will accept your Google password therefore restricting access to your Google email and other data. If someone finds out Read the rest of this entry »