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.

 





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.





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 »