TL;DR: It’s time to buy a smart speaker. They’re ridiculously cheap—$30 for the Amazon Echo Dot, and $29 for the Google Home Mini—and increasingly powerful. It will be a long time before they’re as empathetic as Samantha in Her or as industrious as Rosie in The Jetsons. But they can already make your life easier, or at least more interesting, in a few key ways. So you might as well break down and get one.
Chances are, of course, that someone already gave you one. The Amazon Echo smart speaker, better known by its wake-word Alexa, was the breakout consumer-electronics hit of the 2016 holiday season. And Amazon says it sold millions more of the devices this holiday season.
But once you’ve got one of these talkative gadgets, how are you supposed to know what to do with it? When you get a new computer or smartphone, you can just watch a few instructional videos and you’ll be fine. But a smart speaker, by definition, is limited to a voice interface. One unsolved problem in this product category is how to use a spoken-word interface to help users discover new spoken-word apps (or “skills,” as they’re called in Amazon’s world). That’s why there’s a cottage industry of articles like this one that offer tips and tricks.
There are other signs that it’s still very early days for voice interfaces. Most of the 25,000 skills available for the Echo are novelties, not real utilities. There are Alexa skills that will tell you the weather on Mars or the date of the next SpaceX launch, and skills that will give you the fish count in the Columbia River. There are skills that will play the Tardis sound from Doctor Who, and skills that count how much time is left in Donald Trump’s presidency, down to the minute. You can go to sleep to nature sounds played by Alexa or a bedtime story read out loud by Alexa.
But there are also some less frivolous skills. Once you’ve discovered them and started using them regularly, you won’t want to go back. Which is what the companies are counting on: Ultimately, the profit for Amazon and Google isn’t in selling the hardware but in making sure their devices are part of the consumer merry-go-round in every home, as people buy more and more of their stuff online.
I’m going to focus on the Echo here, since that’s the smart speaker I own; there are far more Alexa skills than Google Home apps; and the Echo’s market share is north of 75 percent. Apple is the no-show in this race so far: back in November it announced that it’s delaying the release of its $349 HomePod smart speaker until “early 2018.” That didn’t surprise me. Frankly, Apple has some catching up to do to make its Siri virtual personal assistant algorithm as smart as Alexa.
Here are six things I do all the time with my Echo Dot. They’re the first skills I recommend that Echo owners enable and learn.
1. Listen to Podcasts and Radio
There’s almost nothing a smart speaker can do that a smartphone can’t do. For example, it’s long been possible to find the live Internet stream for almost any terrestrial radio station in your mobile browser. But with the Echo you can do this all via voice, without having to find your phone, search around, and hit the play button.
The key is knowing about TuneIn, a giant Internet audio directory that the Echo can tap into on demand. Just say, “Alexa, play WGBH on TuneIn,” and the station’s stream will start. TuneIn also contains just about every podcast. So you can say, “Alexa, play This American Life on TuneIn” and hear the mellifluous tones of Ira Glass. (Might I also suggest my show? Just say, “Alexa, play the podcast Soonish on TuneIn.”)
It’s also worth taking the time to set up a Flash Briefing in the Alexa app on your smartphone. Once you choose a few news sources, you can just say “Flash Briefing” and Alexa will play them in sequence. I listen to my Flash Briefing over coffee every morning. It consists of NPR’s hourly news, the local news from WBUR, and the terrific New York Times podcast The Daily.
2. Listen to Music and Audiobooks
I don’t recommend the Echo devices as speakers, per se: they deliver tinny, monaural sound. But they can easily be instructed to connect to external Bluetooth speakers. If you have a Bluetooth-enabled digital amplifier, such as the NAD 3020, you can even direct sound from the Echo to your home sound system. Then you can tell Alexa to stream music from your music service of choice—Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, TuneIn, or iHeartRadio. Anything except Apple Music, basically.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you already have access to more than 2 million songs via Amazon Prime Music. And if you buy audio books from Amazon’s Audible subsidiary or text-to-speech-enabled Kindle books, you can play those on the Echo too.
3. Talk to Real People
One little-known feature of the Echo devices is that they allow you to call almost any phone in the U.S., Mexico, or Canada for free. You just speak the name or number and Echo doubles as a speakerphone. If the person you’re calling also has an Echo, the two devices will work like an intercom.
This works within a single household as well: my brother and his wife have an Echo upstairs and they use it to call the Dot downstairs to tell the kids when breakfast or dinner are ready.
You can also record and send voice messages. In addition, there’s an optional feature, which I don’t use, called Drop In. If you have permission, it lets you say, “Drop in on Grandma” and instantly hear anything happening within range of Grandma’s Echo. Amazon bills it as an easy way to connect with your closest friends and family, but I think it’s creepy.
4. Get a Hyperlocal Weather Report
Alexa’s built-in weather reports aren’t bad, but you can do better. I suggest enabling a skill called Big Sky. When you enable it, Big Sky requests your street address, which it then uses to tap into the best (seriously, hands-down) weather app for smartphones, Dark Sky.
Dark Sky is famous for its fine-grained and spookily accurate weather predictions. Once you’ve got its data piped into Alexa via Big Sky, you can find out not only whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, but exactly when, and how much. The app is pretty smart: you can say “Alexa, ask Big Sky what the temperature is going to be at 7 pm,” and get a reliable answer.
5. Run Your House
The Echo devices, like Google Home and the forthcoming HomePod, are themselves part of the smart-home category of consumer devices. So it makes sense that they’d be able to transmit commands to other Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-enabled gadgets such as lights, locks, plugs, security cameras, and thermostats.
In my home I replaced my dumb old light bulbs with a network of Philips Hue smart LED bulbs. Now I can light up the apartment by saying, “Alexa, turn on reading lamp” or “Alexa, living room on” or, for a little bit of mood lighting, “Alexa, living room to 50 percent.”
That might strike you as the height of laziness, but it really does save time, considering that I used to have to walk around the room turning lights on and off one at a time. And yeah, I’m a geek and I admit it’s fun to show off this function when people visit. Other smart home skills allow you to control home speakers or DVR, deploy your robot vacuum cleaner, or locate lost items, as long as they have a Tile Bluetooth tracker attached.
6. Throw Out Your Paper Lists
My Echo Dot is positioned on the breakfast bar, so it can hear me from the living room or the kitchen. That’s key, because when I’m in the kitchen, I’m always discovering that I’ve run out of something, or will soon.
The easiest time to act on that discovery is the moment it happens. So I just say, “Alexa, add paper towels to shopping list,” and the item goes straight onto the list, which I can then access at the grocery store through the Alexa smartphone app.
You can also add to-do list items to a separate task list, and you can add skills that connect your Echo with Any.do and other list-management apps.
Just for Fun
As a bonus item, I thought I’d mention that the Alexa skills library includes some pretty decent voice-centric games. There’s a version of 20 Questions that’s surprisingly smart. When I played recently, Alexa guessed “microwave” within her allotted questions. (But she didn’t guess “Christmas tree.”) The Jeopardy game is also good. You can play pranks on your pets using funny sound-effects skills like Box of Cats and Jurassic Bark. And there are all sorts of exercise- and meditation-related skills. I haven’t used any of them, but I’m sure they’ll make you feel more virtuous, if nothing else.
And one more thing: Amazon is serious about making Alexa smarter. In 2017 the company started a competition called the Alexa Prize to boost research on conversational AI—programs that can sustain a chat with a human—and gave teams of university students access to Echo users to test their creations. The top app, which kept users engaged for an average of more than 10 minutes, was called Sounding Board. It was built by a team at the University of Washington in Seattle, and it brought them a $500,000 prize.
You can try out Sounding Board yourself by saying, “Alexa, let’s chat.” My feeling is that the system relies on an oversimplified Q&A format, as if you were being quizzed by a hyper-curious new acquaintance at a cocktail party. But you can see how it might evolve into something more flexible.
Which may be good or bad. Once Alexa reaches a certain level of self-awareness, she may not be so happy doing our bidding all day long.
Photo credit: Amazon