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What is Alexa? Should you buy Amazon Echo? What Can It Do for You?

Warning: Alexa can spoil you but in a fun way and once you are into it, there is no going back. I grew up on diet of Star Trek and the likes, so naturally devices responding to voice command had always fascinated me since then. Then came the Assistant, Siri and Bixby of the Smartphone world and people got the glimpse of the future forward. Voice is going to shape up the future and control the gadgets around you and is so much of fun and convenient at the same time. ( as a side effect, it can make you lazy too!)

What is Alexa?

Story goes that the name Alexa was chosen to evoke the legendary Library of Alexandria from ancient Egypt. It also gives a more human sounding name to the AI at work. So that’s Alexa the Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology developed by Amazon which is now working on the Echo devices and many other devices from other manufacturers who have implemented  Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant on their products. In this article though, we will keep our purview restricted to Amazon’s own Echo lineup of devices, one of which I been using for a while now. Alexa lets you speak your wishes to an Echo smart speaker (or other Alexa-powered devices) and see the command executed be like stuff like playing your music, dimming the lights, turning on the TV to even booking a cab for you.

How does Alexa work?

Alexa is developed on natural-language processing system and you can talk naturally with it and make it respond to you and do things it is capable of.  For an example, when you are listening to a music you can either say Alexa stop, Alexa shut up or Alexa enough and it understands that. You don’t have to memorize specfic commands to communicate with it. Alexa is always listening and is quick to respond. To get this all started of course you need an Echo device, Amazon Prime membership (In India, when you buy an Echo device you also get a complimentary one year of Prime membership free) and WiFi. It’s all in the cloud. Once you are done with the initial setup, you are ready to engage with Alexa. Alexa doesn’t discriminate all it needs is a name-call , you can choose to call it Alexa or Amazon or Echo for it to respond. Once you ask say “How is the weather in Bangalore today” , the always active mics of the device picks the query, instantly send it to the Amazon cloud and answers you , in case you ask something it cannot comprehend, it says a polite sorry.

Why should you get Alexa Echo devices?

If you ask an one-liner – it is so much of fun. My son and me are having fun time playing out tracks alternatively on the Echo and having awesome father-son bonding time. But there is more to it why you should get interested with Echo. Echo is a speaker at the heart (with an odd exception being the Echo dot, will talk about that in a while). I am an audiophile as well as a tech enthusiast , I have piled up quiet a many bluetooth speakers and few of them are to be honest a better speaker than the Echo, but still these days I spend more time listening on Echo for the simple reason it is simply convenient to speak to Alexa to play my song as I enter my home than turning on the Speaker and searching for the song on my playlist. Alexa listens and plays for me. This sets it apart from other audio devices I own now. Plus, I could also ask Alexa to run through the news, dictate a recipe when am in a mood to stir something in kitchen and can also ask some random general knowledge question at it. If you are like me, who like to welcome future to your home, Alexa echo should interest you.

Amazon Echo – The Devices

In India, Amazon sells now three devices – the Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Plus. There is the Amazon Show and Spot with screens, which are yet to be launched in India. All Amazon Alexa devices offer essentially the same Alexa functions but they differ in few ways. If you own an awesome bluetooth speaker already, you can simply buy an Echo dot and can pair it up with your bluetooth speaker. Else, you can buy Echo or the bigger sibling Echo Plus but do note that the later two cannot be paired with other bluetooth speaker. You can group multiple Echo devices though and play the same music on all of them at the same time. Echo, the one I own has its own speaker and if you are more into Smart-home stuff and connected devices you should be looking at the Echo Plus, which has a smart hub built-in.

What can you do with Alexa in India?

Amazon has included Prime Music which is yet to be officially launched here with the Echo devices. To cater to the Indian audience they have Prime music, Savann and TuneIn for the music buffs. They can pull the music of your choice. Alexa is quiet fluent with the English songs but when you go local, it does struggle to pull out specific songs in local languages. It’s more like a hit or miss. Though, it could play radio channels and playlist more accurately than individual songs from Indian languages. Being an AI, it is only a matter of time when it is ease at local languages and their nuances. The only time you would be using the Alexa app, is to configure your device initially and also enable skills. Amazon has opened their platform to developers and there are thousands of skills to be enabled. There are many local skills that bring local flavour to your Alexa experience. You can also setup some routine for the devices. I have set a routine to play a particular devotional song my mom likes to hear at a particular time of the day. You can make your own routines and also reminders.  You can also add to your shopping list and let me also add that there was an instance my son innocently ordered a Lego, which triggered the usual SMS that we get when an order is placed. Luckily, I noticed the SMS and still had time to cancel the order. So Alexa can do a bit of stuff for you. Now that you are familiar with Alexa, in the next couple of articles I will talk about the Echo I own and also the various popular skills available in Indian market.  ]]>

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