Amazon is heavily promoting its powerful and popular voice assistant Alexa, but what most people don’t realize is that Alexa is more than Amazon Echo.
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What is Alexa (and what is not)
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To better understand where you can and cannot use Alexa, it’s helpful to separate the software and hardware elements. In short, Alexa is Amazon’s answer to Siri, Apple’s voice assistant service. Just as Siri is available on a range of devices (and exists independently of those devices), so is Alexa.
Alexa is a cloud-based personal voice assistant that can answer questions, control your SmartHome devices with voice commands, and provide you with traffic and weather updates, and more. The voice assistant service is completely separate from the hardware.
The Echo, on the other hand, is a particular set of hardware products that Amazon has created to showcase and deliver Alexa. Without Alexa, the Amazon Echo device is a good but overpriced Bluetooth speaker — with Alexa, however, it’s a pretty amazing addition to your home.
But you can get Alex on products other than Echo. Of course, the distinction between the two was very blurry in the beginning, as the Echo was the only Alexa-enabled product on the market. But now Amazon has extended its internal stability to Alexa-enabled devices. as well as licensed the Alexa platform for external use.
Where can you access Alexa
There are three different product tiers within the Alexa-enabled device family. Echo line, push-to-command line (such as Tap, Fire and Fire TV tablets), and third-party Alexa-enabled devices.
The Echo Line: handsfree control
Within the Amazon product family, the term «Echo» is reserved for a specific class of Alexa-enabled devices. All Echo devices are equipped with seven microphones on the top of the device that are always on and waiting for your commands.
There are currently two Echo devices on the market: the Amazon Echo ($180) and the smaller (but very similar) Echo Dot ($90). Both are triggered with a wake word (usually «Alexa») followed by a command: «Alexa, what’s the weather like today?». Future devices that bear the namesake «Echo» will likely also feature the same «far-field» microphone array found in earlier Echo models.
Crane, Tablet Fire & Fire TV Line: Push-to-Command
In addition to their always-on Echo line, Amazon has several devices that support the push-to-command interaction model with Alexa. While the Amazon Tap ($130) is also a Bluetooth speaker and has a similar shape to the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t carry the Echo name and doesn’t have the Echo line listening feature. Instead, you need to press a button to put the device into listening mode, after which you can speak a command.
Fire TV ($85) and Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote ($50) work the same way. When your device and TV are turned on, you press the microphone button on your voice remote to issue commands to Alexa. The Fire TV lineup also has the bonus feature of displaying the output of most commands as cards on the TV screen.
The $49 Amazon Fire tablet, Fire HD 8 ($89), and Fire HD 10 ($229) also come with Alexa, and you just press the home button when you say a command. You can also use your Fire tablet as an Alexa accessory using Voicecast, which will automatically wake up your Fire tablet and show you more details from the voice command you gave your echo.
Side line: room to grow
While Amazon has been talking about third-party integration since the beginning (they are heavily investing in promoting Alexa as the personal/voice assistant of the future), we’ve only recently seen a third-party market entrant.
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The recently released Triby bluetooth speaker ($170) is fully integrated with the Alexa system, including detection of awakened words like Echo. There is currently no established terminology for third-party devices that identify themselves as voice-controlled or push-to-command, so you should read the product description carefully to make sure you are getting a product that meets your needs.
Ford is also integrating Alexa into its Ford Sync platform, and there’s even a cool lamp from GE that includes Alexa.
Amazon is actively promoting Alexa as a product for third-party devices, so expect this market to expand significantly in the future. Heck, if you have a bit of technical know-how, you can even build your own push-to-talk Alexa device with a Raspberry Pi.
Where it’s hard to access Alexa
While you can access Alexa from both Amazon products and third-party devices, there’s one place — rather curiously — that’s pretty hard to access Alexa: your phone. While there is an Alexa app available for Android, Fire OS, and iOS, it exists solely for you to set up your Alexa devices, adjust settings, and view the information that Alexa-enabled devices share with you.
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However, you you can not use the Alexa app to actually ask Alexa questions. While we’re sure Amazon has its own motives for this design choice, we certainly hope they include the functionality in the future. After all, there is nothing more ubiquitous than a smartphone, and if they want as many people as possible to integrate Alexa into their lives (especially as an alternative to Siri and Google Now), then they have integrated Alexa right into the application that people always have . would be a smart move.
While Amazon doesn’t include access to the Alexa service directly through its own app, they don’t seem to have any restrictions on third parties. You can get third party apps that let you use Alexa right on your phone.
If you have any doubts about where you can and can’t use Alexa, it’s time to focus on the fun things you can do with Alexa, like controlling your entire Kodi media center with your voice.