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.

 

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Amazon PrimeNow – Nashville

28 11 2015
Screenshot 2015-11-28 at 10.28.59

Amazon PrimeNow

As of November 20th 2015 Amazon now offer their same day delivery service in the Nashville area. This service is available for Prime members only. There is a promotional checkout code GETITNOW that gives you $20 off your first order of $50 or more. That’s a pretty good incentive to try the service, so I did.

2 Hour Delivery Promise

My first impression of the service was that once I place an order with the PrimeNow service I’d get it delivered at my house within 2 hours (1 hour for an additional $7.99). That’s not quite how it works. Orders are delivered in a 2 hour delivery window, time is also added for picking and packing the items. So an order I placed at 8:04 am was available for delivery 10am-12pm the same day at the earliest. So worst case scenario is almost 4 hours from time of order. Still pretty amazing, but don’t think you can get that last minute item delivered in under 2 hours. It is possible to select later delivery windows when placing your order if the first window doesn’t suit you, so there is no need to wait until 3-4 hours before you want an item. There is a reasonable amount of flexibility.

Ordering and Selection on Mobile Devices only

To select and order items using PrimeNow, you must use a specific Amazon PrimeNow application which is for mobile devices only. It is not possible to order via a laptop or desktop computer. I found the experience on my smart phone to be rather limiting. A much better experience can be had on an Amazon Fire Tablet, the app there is much easier to use thanks to the larger screen. I did install the iOS app on my iPad, but the app is made for the iPhone only so is very limited on that device as well. For the best experience use an Amazon Fire Tablet. Amazon really should develop a native iPad app.

If you have a tricky place to find or need to provide the driver with special instructions, that can be done in the app during the checkout process.

Wide selection of items

The Nashville PrimeNow warehouse, located close to Nashville airport, carries a wide range of products. I hadn’t expected items such as Ice Cream and Eggs to be available. I had imagined more durable and non perishable goods. Even though they deliver grocery items, this is a different service to Amazon Fresh. Fresh isn’t available in Nashville, but PrimeNow is pretty close to it.

When you see bulky items such as 50″ TV’s or a smoker offered you realize that this is more than a convenience service. This service could impact Best Buy and other electronics outlets in the Nashville area. If your car isn’t big enough for a large TV, the Amazon delivery maybe quicker than the local stores delivery and you don’t have to change out of your PJ’s!!

Delivery is Free – Sort of

Amazon deliver within the 2 hour window for free. You can’t argue with free. However there is a delivery driver gratuity of 10% added to your order. Amazon promise that 100% of the gratuity goes to the driver. You can alter the tip amount up or down, a tip isn’t mandatory, you could reduce it to zero if you really wanted to.

The odd thing is that the tip is charged when you place the order, not at the time of delivery. Tips should be a reward for good service and the amount set as appropriate. It is possible you’d tip a driver well and he/she be late or rude. That wouldn’t be good. There should be an option to add a tip on your mobile device after the delivery is made.

Drivers are instructed to refuse tips in cash, so giving a cash tip isn’t possible.

Good prices

I purchased 5 items, they were at or below the prices on Amazons main website. One item was $15 cheaper via PrimeNow in two hours versus ordering online with 2 day shipping. The online item that was more expensive was sold through a merchant, not Amazon directly, which explains the price variance.

Before ordering online check the prices of items on PrimeNow, the savings may more than cover the cost of a tip for the driver!!

Uber like tracking of Delivery vehicle.

Screenshot_2015-11-28-09-25-04

Amazon PrimeNow

Using the mobile app it is possible to see the location of the delivery vehicle in real time on a map. This is handy, if the driver leaves early or late you’ll know roughly when to expect him/her. Or if they get stuck in traffic you’ll see that’s the case. I was able to see that the driver was delivering to other homes in our area 30 minutes before he came to ours.

Amazon prefer if you are at the delivery address when the delivery occurs. This is understandable with perishable items such as ice cream. It is possible to opt for items to be left without anyone being present.

1 Hour Delivery only available in select locations.

Screenshot 2015-11-28 at 10.29.43

Service availability is determined by Zip code.

My home is about a 30 minute drive from the Amazon PrimeNow warehouse.  As such Amazon do not offer 1 hour delivery for the extra fee of $7.99 in my zIp code. Not that I needed my items that quickly anyway. Don’t expect 1 hour delivery in all locations in the PrimeNow service area. It would be handy if they had a map showing the service area and delivery time windows available by zip code.

How Amazon select which zip codes are covered is also a mystery. My Daughters home which is about the same drive time from the warehouse is not covered. Maybe it’s based on the number of Prime Members in a zip code as well as distance/travel time. Transparency isn’t Amazon’s strong suit.

Did they turn up on time?

Yes, the items arrived during the 2 hour delivery window and less than 3 hours from time of purchase.

8:04am Order Placed and email acknowledgement received.

10:28am Text Received to say Geoffrey was close.

10:53am Driver arrived with order

10:54am Text received indicating delivery has been made.

Drivers use their own vehicles.

My driver arrived in a saloon car which appeared to be privately owned. I don’t know if drivers get paid for the miles they drive, my guess is not and that gas and wear and tear on their vehicle comes directly out of their own pockets. Amazon hire the drivers as independent contractors. All the more reason to be sure to give them a tip!!

Items packaged in a brown paper bag.

Small items are grouped and placed into a brown paper bag. Much less waste compared to the shipping boxes we have grown accustomed to with mail order. The bag has your address and the delivery time window prominently marked on a large label that is used to seal the paper bag.

 

 





Froyo Woes – Maps and Pandora

7 09 2010

Google Maps navigation voice prompts stops Pandora music playing!

The Android 2.2 update has brought many good things to the Droid user, however I discovered recently that since the 2.2 update Maps does not play nicely with Pandora anymore. While getting audible directions while navigating I used to enjoy Pandora, maps would simply mute Pandora while it spoke its directions. Now Maps paues Pandora and Pandora eventually dies, requiring a restart.

The problem is definitely a result of the Android update, I found an official Google support forum where many hundreds of users complained of the same issue. Apparently the issues affects the stock media player as well.

Let’s hope a fix is in the works – soon.

Update October 3rd 2010 – Recent updates to both Pandora and Google Maps seem to have resolved this annoying issue. Now I can both navigate and listen to my favorite music channel  on my Droid once again.





Official Audible App for Android – Beta now available!

5 06 2010

Audible have been slow to support Android devices, not sure why but the wait is over. Google and Audible have teamed up and there is now an official beta app available that works with your Audible account/library. To get it visit the Audible for Android (Beta) group at Google Groups.  At the time of writing (June 5th 2010) there are 3231 members of this group, so there are not many folks out there aware of this beta application. Hopefully I can spread the word via this blog :-)

Installation

The download is not available on the Android market so you need to setup your phone to allow downloads from ‘unknown sources’. To do so enter the settings on your android phone, select applications and check ‘Unknown Sources’. Now visit the download page on a desktop PC scan the QR code using your android device. Once the download is complete click on the .apk file and follow the installation prompts.

How Good is It?

I have found the beta to be stable on the Motorola Droid (Version 0.136b). As soon as you authenticate the application to your Audible account it updates the items you have in your Audible library, presents them in a list that can be sorted several useful ways and allows one to select the items for download.

One ‘drawback’ of this application is that it can only download and play Audible’s enhanced audio format. This means the downloads are quite big, 28MB per hour of audio. Not all titles are available in the enhanced format, out of my library of 24 titles, 2 are not available in enhanced audio format, so I can’t play them using this android app. This level of audio fidelity is wasted on a mobile device one will use while exercising, driving the car etc. As a result it is best to download the files while attached to a WiFi network for speed and to ensure you don’t hit any download caps your provider may have set. This means you really need to download files prior to heading out the door. In the discussion forum the developers have mentioned they will support lower fidelity file types in the future. The only way to download enhanced audio format using the app is to first ensure that your audible media is setup as enhanced using your account on the web, you can’t change format via the phone.

If you already have the enhanced audio files downloaded to your PC/Mac it is possible to simply copy the .aax files to the Audible folder on your android phone and the application will automatically detect them when it is launched. The application gives one a simple way to remove old audio files from your phone to free up space, long hold the title and chose remove.

The application fully supports chapters and bookmarks as with other audible players on other devices and on your desktop. One feature that appears to b missing is the ability for it to synchronize the place in any audio file to allow one to pick-up where you left off if you resume on another device. This feature is present with some supported audible devices, so this is a disappointment.

At this time it is not possible to search for or add books to your library via the app, you have to visit the website to do that, after which one can refresh your library on the phone and download the ebook. I am certain they will add this feature soon, it will encourage book purchases so should be high on the feature list for the app.

One feature of all audible players I dislike is the inability to manually advance to any point in the current file and therefore skip over uninteresting parts of the audio track. This application is no exception. Book chapters can be an hour or more each so I don’t find the ability to jump to/from chapters meets all of my needs. Android media player is much better in this respect. If you really need this ability then convert your audible files to mp3’s and play using the Android media player using the procedure I detailed in this other post. However the convenience to download directly to your android device instead of going through a multi-step process on your computer somewhat makes up for this drawback.

Summary

This is a must download for anyone who has an Audible account and an Android device.





Google Maps 4.0 OTA update available for Droid

11 02 2010

I got an Over the Air update this morning on my Droid for Google Maps. The new version is 4.0, just last week we got version 3.4 which added multi-touch.

3.4 to 4.0 sounds like a significant jump, however the only new feature I could find was an additional map layer that is integrated with Google s new social networking product, Buzz.

Multi-touch was a huge usability improvement and got no mention from Google, it was just slipped in. Clearly they are jazzed about buzz at Google. I’ve got one follower on Buzz and automatically was made follower of 12 others. Looks like Google are going after twitter with the way the Buzz network is setup. Is buzz a twitter killer? I don’t think so (just yet) because it integrates with Twitter, right now I view it more as a supplement to twitter and other social micro blogging. It maybe a freindfeed killer.





Multi-Touch for the Droid Starts to Rollout!!!

6 02 2010

Google recently released a new version of Google Maps for the droid which supports multi-touch (aka pinch-zoom). Mutil-touch zooming is vastly superior to the Plus-Minus zooming previously available on Google Maps. This is a great feature upgrade.

The release of this feature has been done very quietly by Google, almost stealth like. I noticed this morning that an updated version of Google Maps was available. I performed the upgrade and it informed me of some new features. Oddly multi-touch is NOT listed as a new feature even though it is present.

The new Features listed for version 3.4.0. of Google Maps are :-

  • Starred Items synced with maps.
  • Search Suggestions from maps.
  • Night Mode for Navigation

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No WiFi? Tether your Droid and use it as a Broadband Modem

30 01 2010

We’ve all been there, you visit a holiday home or a business and no public internet is available. Maybe the Hotel or Airport you’re at want to sell you a full days access just for the few hours you’ll be there.

Tethering computers to your cell phone is one way to overcome this, and with the Droid or another 3G cell phone one can achieve pretty decent data rates. So how is it done?

PDA Net

Click to Enlarge

Visit PDA Net and download their PC/Mac client software and install it. It will prompt you to connect your phone using its USB cable or connect via  Bluetooth when it is ready to install the software on your phone. On Android phones such as the Droid, it is necessary to switch the phones USB mode to debugging mode for PDA Net to work. (Debugging mode is accessible via the phones setting menu, Applications, then Development). The advantage of using a USB cable is that the phone will be charged at the same time you are using the internet on your laptop, giving you hours of use.

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