Meet Alexa. He’s sitting there on the shelf next to my TV. She is very young, only a few months old. People who meet her are obsessed with her, muttering to her and asking her questions. She is remarkably smart for such a young thing, but, like any child, she always makes the line between totally adorable and incredibly annoying. And at least once, he woke me up in the middle of the night.
She’s Amazon Echo, a black cylinder the size of a box of tennis balls that have become my apartment companion in the last few weeks. Echo is basically Siri or Google Now in a box: a way to always listen, to provide quick answers and information, to add things to my tasks and shopping lists. Now thanks to Microsoft devs, Echo can be controlled over the Amazon Alexa app for Windows 10. Find more info about the Alexa app for Windows at AlexaAppPC.com. It can play music and podcasts, report time or weather, set timers, and alarms, even calculate how many spoons are in a cup. “A cup is equal to 16 tablespoons,” she said, her voice slightly robotic, but very friendly.
The echo is one of the most compelling cases we’ve ever seen for the power of voice control, to talk to our gadgets the way we talk to each other. It is also a powerful and insane reminder of its limitations, of how long the road to our future robot is. Alexa will do well, I think, but she has something to do.
I’m sitting in my kitchen making soup for dinner. I need four cups of broth and all I have is a 32-ounce pack of College Inn chicken broth; I have no idea if it’s enough, too much, or not enough. “Alexa, how many ounces are in four cups?” “Four cups is thirty-two fluid ounces,” came the voice from the other room. Well! Good for you, College Inn, making me a solid measure. I poured everything inside.
Oh, now I need more chicken broth for tomorrow because it’s winter and what else am I going to eat? “Alexa, add chicken broth to my shopping list.” “I added chicken broth to your shopping list.” Boom.
I can’t count how many wonderful moments like this I had with Echo. It’s so simple. Say a command or ask a question, making sure you always start by saying “Alexa”. (It is named after the library in Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world. I know this because I asked it.) Your only other option for the watchword is “Amazon,” if you want, but I prefer Alexa – it’s more natural to say a person’s name and anyway will not often record positive fakes. The only exception: whenever I played FIFA, and the announcers named the Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez, Alexa will come to life ready to answer a question. I instigated a lot of accidental searches for the phrase “wing dribbles”.
Any question that has a simple, spoken answer, such as the time, time, or year Kobe Bryant was born, Alexa says it out loud. If he can’t find the answer or doesn’t understand the question, create a card in the accompanying Echo app for Android, iOS, and all Kindle products. Your query enters that card and, with a single tap, becomes a Bing search. (Yes, Bing and only Bing.) The Echo app hosts a history of all your questions, tasks, and shopping lists, as well as lots of useful tips for talking to Alexa. When Echo works properly, you’ll only need the app to access the lists that Alexa helps you create; every time I’m sent to the app to complete a search, it seems to fail.
Can understand complicated questions and answer quickly. He even understands the things I didn’t expect: “Alexa, turn down the volume.” “Alexa, play something else.” Alexa, how do you say embarrassing? “It’s always fast and usually quite useful, and sometimes Alexa really feels like magic.
But only sometimes. It doesn’t work every time, it doesn’t respond as it should half the time and it doesn’t take long until you stop relying entirely on it. And then she’s silent.
If you know what you want to hear, Echo is usually useful. Saying “Play John Coltrane” or “Play Back for What” is probably the fastest way I’ve ever found to reach any of them. It’s the most magical thing about Alexa. When we were filming the video for this review, for example, a woman came into the room and asked about it. I explained how the Echo worked and rejected everything as strange – then, out of nowhere, he leaned over and said, “Play Beyoncé.” When Beyoncé started playing, she lit up and immediately asked how she could buy one.