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.

 





New Kindle Owner – Week 1

19 09 2010

I placed my order for the latest Kindle 3 with Wifi + 3g on September 3rd 2010 and it arrived a few weeks later on September 16th. I’ve used it for a few days now and here are my first impressions :-

The Unexpected

Being sold out and on back order I resigned myself to having to wait 2 weeks to get the device before I could use it. However as I read up on the Kindle I quickly discovered you don’t actually need a Kindle at all to read Kindle books. Amazon have released Kindle applications for computers and smart phones. Visit this web page for more details.

I was able to install the Kindle app on my Android phone and start downloading and reading Kindle books immediately.  You don’t need to have ordered a Kindle to do this, the software is freely available.

I read HG Wells War of the Worlds. I had seen the TV reenactment of the famous radio version of this story. The book however was both different and delightful. Quite a satisfying read. I was amazed how readable the book was on an Android phone. I had read the entire book while waiting on the Kindle to arrive in the mail. I found the ‘Sepia’ theme to be the easiest on the eyes. I also experimented with the Desktop application on both Windows XP and Windows 7. It worked great and synchronized my reading place between devices across the internet. Amazon refer to this sync feature as WhisperSync. It works remarkably well.

I also discovered that many classic books are free, and some books are offered for free on short term promotions. Many books offer the first chapter for free.

By the end of the first week I had purchased 17 books. 15 free, 2 paid for, for a grand total of $10. I had registered 2 mobile devices and 4 computers to my Amazon account in addition to the yet to be received Kindle.

The Good

The Kindle arrived and I found the reading experience to be much better than anticipated, even given the positive reviews I had already read on the web. The text is very sharp thanks to great contrast. This is my first time to experience ‘e-ink’ and it is quite phenomenal. In bright light I find the readability to be superior to physical books.

Not only were all my purchases available directly upon opening of the box, but all my Audible titles were also available for download. The automatic synchronization between my Kindle and Audible accounts was seamless and the audio books sound great on the Kindle. I was able to pick up reading Stieg Larssons, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ where I had left off on my android device.

Free 3g wireless for the life of the service/device. What a deal!! No contracts, no fees just download content from anywhere with 3g data. It even works with Edge if 3g isn’t available.

The Bad

The price of e-books. You’ll notice I ‘purchased’ a lot of books at no cost, this sounds great, what can I complain about? The reason I selected free books is that current books are in my opinion over priced, as a rule of thumb, e-books are priced the same as paperbacks, or a smidgen less. Don’t blame Amazon, they wanted to price most e-books at $9.99 or less, but the publishers lead by Macmillan were successful in strong arming Amazon into charging more. Read more here . It is dismaying to see Apple at the center of the price hike as a result introducing the iPad earlier this year. More competition leads to higher prices!?! Am I missing something? I refer to higher e-Book prices that is, thanks to Apple the Kindle price is cut in half, hence my purchase :-)

Click to enlarge image

Amazon advertise the latest Kindle as having 4GB of storage. Well actually its more like 3GB usable storage. I’m accustomed to GB inflation from hard drive manufacturers, but 25% difference? Hmmm….

The Ugly

‘Experimental Features’ such as the MP3 player and Web Browser are not easy to use on the Kindle. The MP3 player is simply a jukebox that plays your MP3’s in the order they were loaded on the device. No controls.

The Web Browser is slow and very difficult to use without a pointing device. Using up/down/right/left arrows to navigate is very frustrating. One good note however, the browser scores 100 on the acid3 browser test and renders sites such as Gmail very well. Why offer a browser at all? To sell books of course.

Summary

I like it. I like it a lot. I recommend you get one even if you already have a laptop/notebook/iPad. This dedicated reading device is very compelling.





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.





Transfer Audible.com content to Droid

22 04 2010

Audible.com have been slow to provide an Android application for their service. Audible .aa files are DRM protected and will not play natively on android phones. As a paying subscriber it can frustrating to pay for an audible book and not be able to listen to it on the primary device you own.

There is a way to convert Audible .aa DRM protected files to MP3 using iTunes and a program called NoteBurner. NoteBurner is free to try and costs $35 for the un-crippled version. The quality of the converted mp3’s is awesome.

The process is fairly straightforward, however I have found a few glitches in the NoteBurner software that requires some tweaking to get it to work reliably. It’ll take 5 minutes to setup the first time, but conversion thereafter is just a few clicks.

Initial Setup

  • You need to register your Audible content to work with iTunes.
  • Then download NoteBurner, I suggest you use the free version to prove it will work on your setup. (Some Mac users have complained the software is unreliable on that platform).
  • Open the Noteburner control panel and change the MP3 quality from 160 Bits/sec down to 96, this will make the process more reliable and the spoken word does not require high bit rate for  quality result.

    Click to Enlarge

  • Setup the naming of files to be album /number/artist / title so the ‘track number’ is attached to the begging of the file name, this is important if NoteBurner splits the audio into separate segments, which it will for longer audio tracks.

    Click to enlarge

How to Convert aa  file(s)to MP3 file(s)

  • In iTunes you add the audible content to a play-list and click on ‘burn’ as if you are going to burn the content to a CD.
  • In iTunes select the NoteBurner virtual CD Burner instead of your CD drive. I elected to do volume leveling with no gap between tracks. Be sure to tell iTunes to include CD text.
  • Once you click OK to begin the burn process, iTunes does a preparation step prior to beginning the actual burn process. During the burning process you will see a NoteBurner progress bar pop-up out of the notification tray showing progress.

N.B. Audible.com content can only be burned to a CD once, if you make a misstep or a problem comes up you will not be able to repeat the conversion. So do not do other tasks on the computer they may interrupt the operation. Experiment with free content from Audible first before converting paid for content on audible. I have successfully transferred the New York Times daily digest (complementary content) from iTunes podcast to my droid to listen to during my morning commute. The audio quality is awesome.

Transfer considerations to the Droid

I have found NoteBurner splits up the audio into 7 minute and 30 second  segments. If you had NoteBurner put a track number on the beginning of each file then when you transfer the files to the droid they will be sequenced perfectly. I have found the transition from one segment to another is almost transparent, sometimes you hear a click as it goes onto the next track, other times it goes unnoticed.

Can you do this without forking out the $35 for NoteBurner?

Yes. Instead of burning to MP3 via NoteBurner, burn directly to a physical CD-R, you can now play this in a CD player.  This is less convenient, but the advantage is that one now has a physical backup of ones ‘paid for’ content.

Is this Legal/Moral/within Audible Terms of Service?

Probably so. My answer is prefaced by the statement that I’m not a lawyer and don’t pretend to know copyright law, the laws where you live will no doubt vary. Here is my take on using this tool.

  • The Audible content has been paid for on Audibles website using a web browser and subsequently downloaded using Audibles download tool.
  • I’m keeping the content to myself. Nothing is being sold, shared or given away.
  • iTunes is authorized for use with Audible content.
  • Burning Audible content to a CD device using iTunes is not only provided for by Audible, they encourage its customers to backup their paid for content. Here is an excerpt of their terms of service.
    • Accordingly, we encourage you to make back-up copies of purchased Audible Content as referenced above.
  • Once I have listened to the content on my Droid I delete it.

Could you have your Audible account canceled by doing this? Quite possibly, Audible reserve the right to cancel the agreement whenever it suits them.

I look forward to the day when there is an Audible application for the Droid to make all of this extra effort and expense unnecessary.

Update: 2010-09-08: Hooray!!!  The official Audible app is now available in the Android Market!! Read more here.






My Top Ten Droid Applications

1 01 2010

This is a list of the applications I have found most useful on the Motorola Droid. I will update this post as I discover apps that are worthy, and demote an item to make room. Some of the apps come on Droid out-of-the-box, others are available on the Android Marketplace. Here’s a quick flavor of what  will describe in more detail.

  • Turn by Turn Navigation.
  • Multi-touch ‘pinch’ zoom just like the iPhone. Plus tabbed browsing!
  • Print web pages and photos from your cell phone directly to your printer(s) from anywhere.
  • Make cheap international calls on your cell, bypassing Verizon’s higher rates.
  • Play Audible eBooks and magazines/newspapers.
  • Have the phone go into silent mode as you arrive at church and go back to normal after you leave.
  • Lose weight.
  • Turn you phone into a radio by playing internet radio on your home or car audio system, or on ear buds as you work out. No DJ’s, No audible adverts. Just music.
  • Have your MP3 collection with you wherever you go, even if it exceeds the memory capacity of the Droid. Take 100GB of search-able MP3’s (or more) on the road!!
  • Sync you iTunes library with the Droid!

1. Pandora (Free with ads or $34 without ads). Comes with the Droid.

Pandora is a really well written internet radio application. One can select a music stream from a list of genres or type in an artists name and create your own feed of your favorite music. One can’t choose which songs are played, but each Pandora user can give an online thumbs up or thumbs down to a track that is being played which will help Pandora provide music that is well thought of in each genre or for each artist.

The ads are very small at the bottom of the screen, better still there are NO audio ads to interrupt the music, so it is much better than traditional broadcast radio. No DJ to tolerate either. If your phone rings, the audio stream is automatically paused and will resume after the call ends. Attach the audio out jack on the Droid to a stereo or car audio system and the music is CD quality.

I found that it works just as well on Verizon’s 3G network or on WiFi. If the phone switches between WiFi and 3G, say as you drive off from home, it switches seamlessly without skipping!! A click is sometimes heard, but that’s it.

The free version is limited to 40 hours of listening per month. There are also limits on how many tracks one can ‘skip’. These limits are either raised or eliminated if you subscribe to Pandora One. Read the rest of this entry »