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Alexa in the house

Posted February 12, 2018 into Science and Tech by John Birmingham

It's hard to believe I got an Echo before an Apple Homepod, but I did. The Echo is now sitting in our kitchen, where I would never dare put a Homepod. I've had a Bose bluetooth speaker in the kitchen for a couple of years now and it's given sterling service. But it's getting old, the charging brick has fallen apart, (I shudder to think how much it would cost to replace that sucker) and the whole unit looks like shit. Over the years it's picked up a second skin of cooking grease, microscopic organic debris, oily particulates and crap.

There is no way I want to drop $500 on a piece of Sir Jony Ive's handiwork in that environment.

The Echo, however... meh.

It's a fraction of the price, a literal fraction, about 1/5 I think, and it's not going to look any better once it's been exposed to a couple of weeks worth of cooking, but it's not going to break my heart either. Also, to be honest, the Echo is likely to be a lot more useful in the kitchen. The Homepod's inability to settle multiple timers has already been noted by most reviewers, as has Siri's constrained functionality compared to Alexa (and Google's eponymous AI). I think that misreads the purpose of Homepod, which is a mid-range premium speaker first, and a smart speaker a distant second.

Still, it creates an opening for Alexa. I've had her parked on the kitchen bench for a few days now and I'm getting used to the syntax and constraints native to Amazon's lady in a can. Because Alexa's APIs were opened up to developers immediately, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of 'skills' she can learn that are completely beyond Siri and probably Google.

I've taken to asking her for the surf report from Bondi every day.

Not having listened to the radio anywhere but the car for nearly a decade, I found myself listening to news bulletins again to start the day, because it's such a simple matter to ask Alexa to bring you up to speed. There are cocktail recipes, bus and ferry timetable information, cooking suggestions, podcast players, dictionaries, weather reports, all sorts of useful shit. It's a device focused on very broad but low-level functionality. That makes it a perfect fit for the kitchen. Or maybe just a very good fit. I don't find Alexa to be any more intelligent or responsive than Siri. There were some hilarious misfires when asking her to play music from an Internet radio service. (It's better now I've picked up an Amazon Music subscription on a free trial for three months).

I suspect the functionality will also greatly improve when Amazon Prime launches locally, and the Beast of Bezos starts competing with Coles and Woolworths for the food delivery market. The ability to add an item like butter or baked beans to a shopping list and have it turn up a day or so later will be a compelling use case. It's pretty much why I got the device.

It's a lot cheaper than Homepod, of course, and it sounds it. There are some types of music which sound authentically awful coming out of this speaker. OTOH there are plenty of other types, usually older albums for some reason, which sound just fine. Maybe it's the way music is produced these days, I don't know. But my old man music does sound way better than my new music playlists on this device.

It's hardly a dealbreaker, though. This is a kitchen speaker, and kitchens are terrible places to intensively listen to music. There's always something else going on, usually something noisy. Everything echoes of the hard surfaces. And people tend to be talking at or over each other. In that sort of environment a speaker which can pump out tracks at a reasonable volume is good enough, and this bad girl is more than good enough.

10 Responses to ‘Alexa in the house’

Therbs puts forth...

Posted February 12, 2018
So basically Alexa is your default breakfast radio crew without the zany hijinks. Be careful of the secret sound.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted February 12, 2018
Hard to capture the depth of my loathing for zany fucking hijinks.

Bondiboy66 would have you know...

Posted February 13, 2018
The surf has been crap at Bondi for weeks.

As for radio - the car stereo is stuck on 2MMM (and the attendant shouty tradie ads interspersed with Zaniness and popular 'rock' music....or JJJ if thats too much. Or CDs. Don't bother with radio at home for the above reasons.

Dunno if I want one of these things spying on me at home. My luddite inner self is a bit suspicious....

NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted February 16, 2018
I now podcast 6-7 hours a day. My Utes antenna was snapped off 2 years ago. Haven't bothered to replace it.

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Dirk swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted February 12, 2018
Looks good JB.

The problem I have with it is that it doesn't understand Dutch at the moment. But neither does El Goog at the moment (and Fruit IMHO is better bought at a green grocers ... ). But that is bound to change in time. Dutch will be in Home this year probably, and if Bezos comes over here (and he is making overtures to do so) Echo will support it also.

Would I buy one?
For a stand alone music system, maybe. But I would want to use more of the features and have it plugged in a total domotic infrastructure. So, music, video, lights, curtains, heat etc. And that "landscape" is at the moment to fragmented. To many different protocols, standards, interfaces. And with another battle of the brands brewing like in the 80-s with VHS, Betamax and V2000, i think i'm on the sideline for the moment.

But you made me curious what's out there.
I did some digging, and found something that might could be a reference for the 3rd generation. It's called Homey.
(note: site is best viewed in chrome, FF doesn't do the features that good).

IMHO it's not totally matured yet, but it could be the direction in which this battle will go.

The pro's:
1. what i can see it talks to about everything even old protocols like your tv via IR, bluetooth, different light systems, heating and WIFI/DNLA stuff.
2. It can operate with Alexa and Home.
3. It's an open system like Alexa, so there is room for growth

The con's
1. It's price is still a little on the hefty side (EUR 300, $ 370, A$ 470) but if that goes down to let say Eur 150-200, well then maybe.
2. The user friendly ness has to go up; what I've been reading in reviews installing it has kinda sorta steep learning curve at the moment, so that needs maturing.
3. What I can see it doesn't work in an Apple universe, except for the app. So no Apple TV interfacing etc. Not a big problem for me, but could be a downer for some.

PS: Google is teaming up over here with the largest grocer, so when Home finaly learns Dutch the shopping list could be made digitally. There is an app already for scanning the barcodes on products you want with your phone, so that won't be a biggie. add a cam to a next gen alexa/home maybe would be another option.

jl is gonna tell you...

Posted February 12, 2018
Albert Heijn strikes again? The last time I was in Holland I was shocked by the little personal barcode scanners at the door of my mother-in-law's little village grocery, the Plus. You would scan your own groceries as you put them in the basket. It made shopping soooo easy- a much different experience than here in the US at Wal-Mart, where there are huge bottlenecks at checkout. And Alexa makes it easier yet.

Dirk would have you know...

Posted February 12, 2018
Yep. They even took it a step further in the last 6 months...

For the uninciated: Albert Heijn is the biggest dutch grocer (think TESCO/Wallmart). Sister companies include among others ETOS (eq. Boots/Walgreens), Gall & Gall (off license/spirits) and (eq. Amazon).

Shopping and paying:
1. You can pay at a normal nice girl operated till (cash/direct debit)

2. You can use a handscanner, a dedicated phone app or if you have only few items a fixed scanner at the automated till, check in with your loyalty card and pay by direct debit. You can also drop your empty bottle receipt there, which is subtracted from your bill.

3. You can order online, and pick up your groceriers packed and all 2-6 hours later or have them home delivered within 24 hours (exc sundays for now) for a fee. They are working on a system to cut that back to 6 hours, and add your deliveries aswell.

The app also points you to the discounts of the week, can be used as a personal groceries list (just scan the barcodes, or use you loyalty card info: they know what you bought earlier), and gives you special bonus on products you buy regularly. So in my case for ex microwave meals, milk and coffee beans.

If that ain't fast enough, they are experimenting with Near Field Communication, so anything you dump into the trolley is automatically added to your bill. Swipe your loyalty card and Direct debit card (also NFC) at the exit and you can go on your merry way. is one of the reasons Amazon is not here yet. Starting out as a online bookretailer they added and added products (electronics, pet supplies, beautyproducts etc.) and also cater to other retailers, who for a fee can sell via the system and use the logistics track. Standard delivery is within 24 hours (which is de facto standard over here for about everything you shop for only unless its from Germany (Zalando/Correct + 1 day) or China (allibaba 4 day minimum), express delivery is for an extra fee within 6 hours.

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Spanner mumbles...

Posted February 13, 2018
I'd already tweeted this but it warrants repeating.

Mr17 got a goog home mini in his bedroom.

I told him that Google now listens to him masturbate.

The look of horror on his face was priceless. It works because there is a grain of truth in there. Just what is the sneaky bastard listening to?

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Dave W mumbles...

Posted February 14, 2018
It looks like there is a pod-coffee machine off to one side. I trust that this is to keep the junior Birminghams away from the aeropress and single origin civet-cat bespoke beans.

But anyway- we have the el goog at home and much fun and hilarity ensued when we ask it to put ham and bay leaves on the shopping list. Instead, cam and Bailey's wound up on the list. Glad there isn't a one-touch buying yet.

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insomniac ducks in to say...

Posted April 12, 2018
Have you asked Alexa to open the pod bay doors?

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