Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo vs Dot vs Tap: Which is right for you?

One of the biggest trends from CES earlier this month was the emergence of 3rd party Alexa-powered goodies in the form of new smart speakers, smart cameras, smart cars, and more. It’s clear that 2017 is going to be a big year for Amazon’s Alexa, with more choices than ever. But for those that would rather stick with Amazon directly, there remains three main choices: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Tap.

So what are the difference between these three products and which speaker is the best fit for you? Great question, let’s dive right in.


Amazon Echo

The smart speaker that started it all. The Amazon Echo is a 9.25-inch-tall cylindrical speaker that features a seven microphone array and packs reasonably decent immersive 360-degree sound thanks to its 2.5-inch woofer and 2-inch tweeter.

On the sound front, it’s certainly not the most impressive speaker ever to grace the market (with Google Home arguably doing a better job here), but it is the top tier option when it comes to the Echo family and unless you are a major audiophile, you’ll find nothing to complain about.

Amazon Echo - The smart speaker that started it all.

As for the feature set, the Echo utilizes a Wi-Fi connection to respond to voice commands using the wake word Alexa (alternatively it can use Amazon, Echo, or Computer). You can ask it to do all sorts of things including play music from a variety of services like Spotify and iHeart Radio, read audiobooks, tell you the weather, answer basic search questions and more. Amazon also has a growing library of 3rd party skills that allow you to further expand the Echo’s functionality.

The Echo also plays nicely with your smart home devices, allowing you to control lights, thermostats, and more — all with your voice.

Pros

  • Nothing else to buy – everything self-contained in one unit
  • The best built-in sound out of the three

Cons

  • A bit pricey at $180
  • There is no way to connect it to your existing speaker setup
Get it on Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo vs Dot vs Tap: Which is right for you?

The little guy who can do it all. I’ll admit I’m a bit biased here, as this is my own personal preference. At a fraction of the price of its bigger brother, the Dot does everything that the Echo can as far as voice functionality, smart home control, and other functions are concerned.

So what’s the difference? Sound. Unlike the Echo, the Dot has a tiny little speaker inside that really isn’t good enough for music, though it’s “okay” for just asking the Dot questions. This would make the Dot less desirable if not for its biggest advantage: Bluetooth and a 3.5mm jack that allows you to connect to your existing speaker setup.

At a fraction of the price of its bigger brother, the Dot does everything that the Echo can do.

If you already have a good pair of Bluetooth or wired speakers, the Dot is a no-brainer. The Dot also makes more sense if you are an extreme audiophile and are looking for a better sound experience than the all-in-one package you get with the Echo.

At the end of the day, for $50, the Dot Echo delivers all the functionality of the Dot minus built-in sound and so it is no wonder that it is quickly becoming the most popular member of the Echo family.

Pros

  • Super affordable price tag
  • Small design makes it pretty easy to move around your home, if needed
  • You can connect it to your existing sound setup via wires or Bluetooth

Cons

  • The built-in sound really doesn’t do the job, so 3rd party speakers are a must
Get it on Amazon

Amazon Echo Tap

Amazon Echo vs Dot vs Tap: Which is right for you?

All the power of Alexa, but on the go. Like the Echo Dot, the Tap can do all the same things that you can with the full-fledged Echo including smart home control, music playback, 3rd party skills, and the list goes on. However, the catch here is that you have to get up and “tap” it to use it.

The Amazon Echo Tap ditches the always-on capabilities of its other two brothers, trading this functionality for portability. The 6.2-inch-tall speaker offers a seven microphone array, 36o-degree sound via dual 1.5-inch drivers and dual passive radiators, and features a built-in battery that make it the perfect way to listen to your tunes on the go with battery life of about 9 hours on a full charge.

The Amazon Echo Tap ditches the always-on capabilities of its other two brothers, trading this functionality for portability.

The Echo Tap might be just as functional as the Echo and Echo Dot, but the fact that you have to actually hit the mic button to use it means it is somewhat limited for smart home control. Even things like controlling music require almost as much effort as it would take to whip out your phone and change the song on your ‘non-smart’ Bluetooth speaker.

Still, if you want a great speaker that doesn’t require you to bring along your phone, the Echo Tap is a great option — just remember you still need to have a Wi-Fi network though.

Pros

  • All the key functionality of the Echo, but on the go

Cons

  • Arguably a bit expensive at $130
  • Requires you to physically ‘tap’ the Mic button to use its smart features
Get it on Amazon

Ultimately, all three speakers are worthy of your consideration, though the right one for you largely depends on what kind of experience you are aiming for.

If portability is your thing, the Tap is naturally suited for it. If you want a lightweight design that connects to existing speakers, the Echo Dot makes a lot of sense. And last but not least, the original Amazon Echo is built for those that want a one-fits-all solution where you don’t have to bring anything else to the mix.

Which Amazon Echo model do you prefer, and why? Let us know in the comments. Conversely, if you don’t think any of these models gets it right, be sure to check out our Google Home review to get a better look at the competition.

PSA: PIN protect your Amazon Echo to prevent unwanted purchases

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It might be time to set up a PIN code for your Amazon Echo following a string of incidences regarding unwanted purchases. News broke yesterday of a six-year-old girl who used Alexa to order a doll’s house and 64 ounces of cookies, trailed by a news anchor — reporting on the story — inadvertently creating similar requests in other households.

The Dallas girl made the accidental purchase when talking to Alexa, reputedly asking: “Can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” During the exchange, Alexa ordered the products, costing the girl’s family $170 before the story later appeared on news channels.

When a reporter from San Diego’s CW6 News commented on the incident, stating: “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,” some Echo units in homes where the broadcast was being watched took those words as an order request.

See also:

Lenovo introduces Smart Assistant, an Amazon Echo for $50 less

6 days ago

It’s believed that none of those resulted in a confirmed purchase, however the ease of buying items an Amazon Echo product might cause you to consider setting up a PIN or turning voice orders off altogether (visit echo.amazon.com and log in with your Amazon account details to change your Alexa preferences). If you do create a PIN, note that Alexa will require you to say it out load to place an order; try not to say it when your kids are around.

The Amazon Echo Dot also recently made headlines after misinterpreting a request from a toddler. Alexa said: “You want to hear a station for ‘Porn’ detected,” before announcing a string of lewd words. Seemingly, the child had actually wanted Alexa to play a nursery rhyme.

Amazon Echo can now answer follow-up questions similar to Google Home

While the Amazon Echo speaker, and its Alexa digital assistant, have been available for over two years now, it seems that it is just now adding a feature that’s been available for owners of the more recent Google Home speaker since it launched in early November. Specifically, Amazon Echo can now respond, at least in limited form, to follow-up questions that are given after the first inquiry on the same subject.

See also:

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do

1 week ago

What does this mean? Basically, if you have the Echo, you can say, “Alexa, who is the governor of Texas?” and it will say, “Greg Abbott.” Then if you follow up by saying, “How old is he?”, the Echo and Alexa should respond with “59”. This feature was first noted by Reddit users earlier this week, but it apparently only works with some inquires, so it’s doesn’t quite work as well as Google Home.

Amazon Echo can now answer follow-up questions similar to Google Home

Indeed, one of the biggest selling points of the Google Home is that you can start a normal conversation with it and it will, hopefully, respond in kind through multiple exchanges. This kind of feature is only just now rolling out to the Amazon Echo devices, via Alexa, but so far it would appear that Google Home has the edge on this particular feature.

What do you think of the Echo adding this feature that’s already available out of the box for Google Home? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

And then there was Alexa: how Amazon Echo might solve a murder case

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Victor Collins lay there, facing down in James Bates’ hot tub. Strangled and drowned. What started off as a group of friends watching a football game turned into a brutal murder. And there may have been a female witness in the scene: Amazon Echo’s Alexa.

See also:

Amazon developing a premium Alexa-powered speaker with a 7-inch screen

4 weeks ago

Sound like a detective novel with an absurd twist? Well, this is real life: in Bentonville, Arkansas, police think that the suspect’s Amazon Echo may have some crucial evidence from the night of the murder.

Police think that the suspect’s Amazon Echo may have some crucial evidence from the night of the murder.

According to authorities, Bates invited Collins and two other friends to his house for a football game. Collins was found dead in the morning, strangled in Bates’ hot tub, and Bates was consequently charged with first-degree murder. Bates claimed that he had gone to bed around 1 a.m., leaving Collins with the other two friends – Owen McDonald and Sean Henry – but it was later confirmed by McDonald and his wife that McDonald had left Bates and Collins around 12:30 a.m.

Now, the interesting part is Bates had a few IoT devices around the house, including an Amazon Echo. Police records show that this Amazon Echo may have been used to control music and that Alexa may be a key witness to this crime. Technically, the Amazon Echo has seven microphones that are always listening – listening for your wake-up command. This means that police could use its data to see whether it has recorded anything from the night of the murder. Accordingly, police have issued a warrant to Amazon, asking for the said data in order to help prosecute Bates, but Amazon is reluctant:

[We will not release customer information] without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

The Echo device has been seized by the Bentonville police, and although it’s unclear whether Alexa will speak what may have happened that night, this is just one example of how Internet-connected devices around us may one day become a key component in solving crimes.

Do you have IoT devices at home? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do

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While Google Home is quickly expanding its library of commands, the reality is that Alexa still remains the most robust digital assistant when it comes to smart speakers — at least for now. Alexa is a powerful assistant that is capable of fetching all sorts of information for you, but the trick is knowing all the commands you can ask it.

Some of the Amazon Echo commands are pretty straight-forward like asking it “What’s the weather”. However, there are a ton of additional commands that you might not even realize exist. With that in mind we’ve gathered up all the Alexa commands (that we’re aware of) in one place.

Editor’s note: Looking to dive into the world of smart assistants and don’t have one already? We highly recommend the Amazon Echo Dot for its affordable pricing and flexibility. You can get here from Amazon for just $40.

Starting with the basics

First, it’s important to note that summoning Alexa can be done a number of ways with the Echo and Echo Dot. The default wake word is “Alexa”, but other optional wake words can be set in its place. Currently the alternative wake words are Echo, Amazon, or Computer.

Okay, now you have her listening. So what’s next? The most basic commands are “Alexa, help”, “Alexa, mute”, “Alexa, unmute”, Alexa, stop”, and “Alexa, set volume to 6”. There are also some variations of these that Alexa understands including telling Alexa to shut the **** up… not that I’ve ever done that before (Okay, I have).

News and weather

Alexa has the option of conducting Flash Briefings with the command “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing”. You can also ask it “Alexa, what’s the news”, “Alexa, what’s the weather”, and so forth.

Want an extended forecast? You can ask Alexa about tommorow, this weekend, etc, with commands like “Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like this weekend?”

For those looking for traffic information, you can also ask Alexa, “What’s the traffic like?”

Asking the time, setting alarms, etc

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do

The Echo family make for excellent alarm clocks. Setting an alarm is dead simple, just ask “Alexa, set an alarm for 6am” or “Wake me up in 3 hours”, etc. You can even ask it to set a repeating alarm by saying, “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for weekdays at 6 a.m.”

Timers are another great feature. “Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes”. “Alexa, set a second timer for 5 minutes”. “Alexa, how much time left on my timer?”

Surprisingly I love using Alexa as a clock by simply asking it, “Alexa, what time is it?”

Additional time related commands are:

  • “Alexa, when’s my next alarm?”
  • “Alexa, what’s the date?”
  • “Alexa, cancel by alarm”
  • ”Alexa, snooze”

Media controls

For many, their Amazon Echo will most dominantly be used for playing music, and the good news is that Alexa supports quite a few music services and commands right out of the box.

Here’s a list of media-related commands:

“Alexa, play some music.” – this command randomly plays some music through Amazon’s music services. You can also specify songs or artists with commands like “Alexa, play music by [artist],” “Alexa, play latest Drake album”, or “Alexa, play Lose Yourself by Eminem”. You can also go to the next song with “Alexa, next” or restart the song at any time with “Alexa, restart”.

You can even add songs to Spotify or Amazon Prime music libraries by telling Alexa to “add this song”.

Not sure what the song you want to listen to is called? You can even say stuff like “Alexa, play that song that says ‘I would have stayed up with you all night’ — and it’ll play “How to Save a Life” by the Fray.

Music app specific commands for Spotify and Pandora are as follows: “Alexa, play [song] on Spotify” and “Alexa, play [artist] station on Pandora.” TuneIn can be fetched by saying: “Alexa, play [radio station] on TuneIn.”

You can like or dislike songs on services like Pandora and iHeartRadio by saying “Alexa, I like this song” or “Alexa, thumbs down”.

Additional music commands include the following:

  • Song info: “Alexa, what’s playing?”
  • Set a timer: “Alexa, stop playing in 20 minutes.”

Audio books

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do 

Playing audiobooks: “Alexa, play [title] on Audible,” “Alexa, read [title]” or, “Alexa, play the book, [title].” You can also ask it to resume by saying “Alexa, resume my book”. Other commands include “Alexa, next chapter” and “Alexa, previous chapter”.

Audible isn’t the only option. You can also ask Alexa to read you a Kindle Book with “Alexa, read me a Kindle book”.

Entertainment and eating out

Amazon Echo commands works great for finding information about movies, actors, and what’s playing. It’s also pretty useful for finding out about local restaurants.

First, here’s all the movie/show related commands that we know of:

  • “Alexa, what movies are playing?”
  • “Alexa, tell me about the movie [whatever it’s called]”
  • “Alexa, what is the IMDb rating for [show/movie]?”
  • “Alexa, who plays in [show/movie]?”
  • “Alexa, what is [actor]’s latest movie?”
  • “Alexa, who plays [character] in [movie or TV show]?”

Here are the commands relating to music:

  • “Who sings the song [title]?”
  • “What year did [band] release [song or album]?”
  • “Who is in the band [name]?”
  • “Alexa, what’s popular from [artist]?”
  • “Alexa, sample songs by [artist].”

And finally the commands related to restaurants and businesses:

  • “Alexa, find me a nearby [food type] restaurant.”
  • “Alexa, what restaurants are near me?”
  • “Alexa, find the address for Target”
  • “Alexa, find business hours for Walgreens.”

Sports

There are a number of different sports commands including getting a briefing on all the latest happenings in the world of sports by saying, “Alexa, give me my Sports Update.”

Other sports commands include:

  • “Alexa, when do the [team] play next?”
  • “Alexa, what was the score of the [team] game?”
  • “Alexa, did [team] win?”

Shopping lists and to-do lists

Alexa can be great for creating to-do and shopping lists as well. Here’s the commands related to this:

  • “Alexa, creat a to-do list”
  • “Alexa, add ‘buy food for guinea pig’ to my to-do list”
  • “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list”
  • ”Alexa, what’s on my shopping list?”
  • “Alexa, I need to make an appointment to see the vet”
  • “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?”
  • “Alexa, add [event] to my calendar for [time/date]”

Asking questions and general information

You can ask Alexa a ton of general questions like “How hot is the sun”, “How far is Mercury from Earth”, and so on. You can also ask it how many people live in certain towns or countries, and so forth.

Looking for more detailed information? Alexa also has Wikipedia integrated out of the box, just say “Alexa, Wikipedia: [subject].” It will give your some brief info, but you can hear even more by saying “Alexa, tell me more”.

Not only does it know basic questions about science, geography, trivia, and more, but it’s also useful for math questions. Converting units is easy enough with a command like “Alexa, how many tablespoons in a cup”. You can also ask it “Alexa, what’s 10 times 6”, and so on.

Alexa also is great if you need to know the definiton of a word (“Alexa, what’s the definition of [word]?”) or how to spell it (“Alexa, how do you spell [word]?”).

Purchasing

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do 

It wouldn’t be an Amazon product if there wasn’t some way to sneak in the e-tailers main business into the deal, right? The Echo family has the ability to track packages from Amazon (Alexa, track my order), or even re-order items like shampoo, with the command “Alexa, buy more shampoo”.

You can also add things to your shopping cart with “Alexa, add [item] to shopping cart” — from there you can just load up your phone or tablet and complete the checkout.

Other purchasing and service related commands are:

  • “Alexa, order an Echo”
  • “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride” or “Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride”
  • “Alexa, shop for new music by [artist]

Smart home

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do

Easily one of the coolest and high-tech tricks up Alexa’s sleeve is the ability to control your home. Alexa can be used to turn off lights, adjust temperatures, and so much more. Obviously 3rd party accessories like smart plugs, smart lightbulbs, smart hubs, and smart thermostats are required to make this happen.

The cost of investing in these smart add-ons varies considerably. For example, I bought a smart plug for our Christmas tree so I could turn it on and off without reaching behind the couch each time. This was a $25 purchase, on top of the $40 cost of my Echo Dot of course.

Some of the basic commands here include:

  • “Alexa turn on (or off) lights”
  • “Alexa, dim lights to 40 percent”
  • “Alexa, set temp to 73”
  • “Alexa, lock my front door”

The full list of ‘smart home’ commands is obviously much more extensive than this, and varies depending on the products being used.

That’s really just scratching the service on what Alexa can do

Amazon Echo commands – our guide to everything Alexa can do

Alexa can do a ton out of the box but what really makes it shine is the ability to add extra skills to the mix. This skills can do anything from adding specific support for smart products or giving you the power to look up recipes or find out the balance on your Capital One card.

Some of my favorite skills also include Glad Leftovers (Alexa, talk to Glad Leftovers) which lets you tell Alexa what leftovers you added into the fridge, freezer, or pantry — and on what dates. This is super useful for those who have that leftover chicken casserole in the fridge and can’t remember if it’s two days old… or two weeks.

There’s also plenty of fun extras like Magic 8-Ball, 20 questions, a bartender skill that tells you how to make your favorite drinks, and more.

Fun easter eggs

If you are just looking to mess around, there’s a ton of commands here that Alexa will recognize. Here’s just some of the ones we’ve encountered:

  • “Alexa, good morning.”
  • ”Alexa, how are you?”
  • ”Alexa, beam me up.”
  • ”Alexa, tell me a joke.”
  • “Alexa, party time!”
  • ”Alexa, tell me a riddle.”
  • “Alexa, are you SkyNet?”
  • “Alexa, nice to see you, to see you…”
  • ”Alexa, would you like to play a game?”
  • “Alexa, what’s the first rule of Fight Club?”
  • “Alexa, will you marry me?”
  • “Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”
  • “Alexa, when am I going to die?”
  • ”Alexa, do you think I’m sexy?”
  • ”Alexa, where is Waldo?”
  • ”Alexa, where in the world is Carmen San Diego?”
  • “Alexa, surely you can’t be serious.”
  • “Alexa, don’t mention the war.”
  • “Alexa, show me the money.”
  • “Alexa, set phasers to kill.”
  • ”Alexa, I want the truth.”
  • “Alexa, my name is Inigo Montoya.”
  • “Alexa, party on, Wayne.”
  • “Alexa, what is your quest?”
  • “Alexa, what is your cunning plan?”
  • “Alexa, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

And so ends our list of Amazon Echo and Alexa commands. Admittedly we call this a “full list” but there are so many new commands being added everyday that odds are we’ve missed at least a few. These are the most popular though and we’ll continue to add more to the list as we discover them.

Any epic commands we missed? Let us know down in the comments.

Microsoft might have some secret weapons in store for its Echo competitor

You may have caught a glimpse of Microsoft’s teaser for its Amazon Echo competitor the other day. It’s a Harman Kardon speaker running Cortana that aims to take on not just the Echo, but also the likes of Google Home and whatever Samsung eventually comes out with running Bixby (besides the Galaxy S8 of course). But against such fierce competition, does Microsoft’s digital assistant speaker stand a chance?

See also:

10 best personal assistant apps for Android

4 weeks ago

In short: absolutely. But there are quite a few things to consider when trying to predict how well a virtual assistant product will do on the market. First, there are the obvious things, like the quality and feature-set of the virtual assistant itself and the hardware in which it exists.

Then there are other less obvious aspects like compatibility with other devices, price points, form factors and other barriers to entry. And then there’s the issue of the openness of the platform to third-party developers and manufacturers, which can have an immense impact on its growth.

With these things in mind, how well is Microsoft’s Cortana speaker going to stack up? Google Assistant will likely always have the edge on search, and Amazon has a massive array of skills and third-party integrations already thanks to being first to market. Microsoft’s product design, which reeks of the Amazon Echo, isn’t going to differentiate it, so what secret weapons does Microsoft have?

Google Assistant will likely always have the edge on search, and Amazon has a massive array of skills and third-party integrations already.

Cortana vs the competition

The thing with digital assistants housed in speakers is that, like most things in life, it’s essentially what’s inside that counts. No one really buys a virtual assistant speaker based on looks. If they did, Google wouldn’t stand a chance (air freshener burn!). But Google Home still has a very good chance at being the dominant speaker in years to come, because Google. That is, until Apple releases some overpriced home AI product.

But if you were to ask me for a gut-reaction to which virtual assistant is best, I wouldn’t put Cortana at the top of the list, but it probably wouldn’t be at the bottom either. Of course, depending on what you use your digital assistant for, your mileage may vary: everyone has their preferred digital assistant for their own particular reasons.

Preference for an AI assistant boils down to two things: the quality of its voice recognition and enhanced functionality.

But ultimately, that preference boils down to two things: voice recognition and enhanced functionality. A virtual assistant is no good if it can’t understand you or is incapable of doing much.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s teaser don’t exactly inspire us with confidence. The only ‘skills’ shown in the short video are playing a song and setting a reminder. This is not the stuff of AI dreams.

Hardware options

Let’s face it, as important as the virtual assistant inside the product is, the hardware in which it is encased also matters. But not necessarily just for what it looks or sounds like, but also for what choices it offers. Microsoft, perhaps recognizing Cortana’s current weaknesses, has wisely identified that limiting Cortana’s home-assistant life to one product would put it in a very tough position.

Not only would it have to have better (or at least comparable) software abilities when compared to Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, it would also have to be a better speaker than both of them. Partnering with Harmon Kardon certainly gives Microsoft’s first swing at bat a much better chance of outdoing the competition on audio quality. But why stop there?

This is where Microsoft diverges from the competition. That is because the speaker teased in the video isn’t a Microsoft product per se. It is a Harmon Kardon product that runs Cortana, much like a Dell PC running Windows. This is a critical difference.

Microsoft will only have third-party products running Cortana: the same approach it traditionally took to getting Windows on PCs.

Microsoft won’t make hardware

While Amazon and Google have released their own branded speakers running their own digital assistants, Microsoft will come out of the gate with only third-party products. This is the same way it traditionally approached hardware and software for computers (before the Surface, that is). These new products won’t just be relegated to speakers either: a recently-leaked Microsoft slide shows Cortana will live inside a wide range of household consumer products next year.

Of course, there are already third-party Alexa-powered devices available, but they tend to be less fully-featured when compared to Amazon’s own hardware (requiring a tap before speaking commands for example). They also tend to be cheaper and nastier than Amazon’s offerings, clearly pitching them beneath Amazon’s own products. And as far as I’m aware, there isn’t an Alexa-powered fridge in the pipeline.

Microsoft, Google and Amazon have all opened their platforms up to third-party developers.

Meanwhile, Google indicated way back at I/O that it was working with various audio companies on third-party speakers as vehicles for Google Assistant. But it seems to be prioritizing giving its own hardware a head start first, because we’ve not heard anything more on that front since May.

Both Google and Amazon have already opened their platforms up to third-party developers, just as Microsoft has done this week.

Microsoft might have some secret weapons in store for its Echo competitor

Third-party support

By opening up the Cortana Devices SDK to anyone that wants to include Cortana in their connected products, Microsoft is taking a two-pronged approach: get an uncrippled version of Cortana into as many products as possible, and remove itself from the hardware side of things as much as possible. This is important, because as mentioned above, Microsoft is going to need all the help it can get.

To get an idea of how Microsoft’s approach might pan out, just think of the distribution model of iOS vs Android. With Home, Echo and Dot, Google and Amazon released their own device running their own software with very little choice for consumers. This is Apple’s approach with the iPhone. It’s essentially take it or leave it.

Microsoft hasn't made an Echo competitor so much as asked others to do it on their behalf.

On the other hand, Microsoft will allow basically anyone that wants to use its software to do so, much like Google did with Android. So Microsoft hasn’t made an Echo competitor so much as it is getting others to create those products on its behalf, covering a much wider product portfolio than it could ever hope to manage on its own.

That’s not to say that making Cortana open to all OEMs and ODMs that wish to incorporate it means Cortana will suddenly become the Android of virtual assistants. Far from it. If Google does start releasing third-party speakers at the high end and Amazon continues its low-end Alexa-powered expansion, Microsoft will be squeezed from both sides.

Microsoft’s edge

For Microsoft to really compete against the cheap, third party-friendly and very capable Alexa products, Microsoft needs Cortana-powered products at the high and low end of the scale. Fortunately, Microsoft won’t cannibalize its own sales by doing so as it is strictly focused on getting Cortana out there. But if Microsoft wants to compete against the power of Google Assistant it really needs to beef up its software.

This is the crux of the software issue: Microsoft can’t just settle on letting manufacturers slap Cortana inside their products and hope for the best thanks to greater numbers. After all, Apple successfully proved one iPhone was enough to compete with the multitude of Android options.

Not having to focus on hardware means Microsoft can invest all of its time and resources into making Cortana better.

No, if Microsoft wants to join the voice assistant speaker over a year late it needs to bring something new and fresh and compelling. Not having to focus on hardware so much means that Microsoft can invest all of its time and resources into making Cortana the best-in-class assistant for whatever hardware it appears in.

Thankfully, Microsoft recently achieved human parity in conversational voice recognition and has confirmed it will make its way into Cortana. This is hugely important, as speech recognition has always been Cortana’s weak spot. The recent update to the Cortana app also shows Microsoft is actively working on more than just the back end too, which is equally encouraging.

Microsoft might have some secret weapons in store for its Echo competitor

Differentiation

A display has already been ear-marked as a requirement for third-party manufacturers to incorporate Cortana into their products. While this might sound novel, Amazon is already rumored to be working on an Alexa device with a large screen. So Microsoft won’t be able to stand out there.

Likewise, knowing you can buy the toaster, fridge, speaker and washing machine you like and have them all support Cortana is a bonus, but having multiple devices that all do the same thing isn’t necessarily a killshot either. (That said, planning multiple devices that all feature a fully featured Cortana is definitely a wise move.)

But Microsoft might have another secret weapon up its sleeve, one very close to its heart: voice controlling your Windows computer. A recent Windows 10 insider preview build includes the ability to wake your PC, put it to sleep, lock it, and change the volume, all with your voice alone. These powers and more will roll out officially in the Windows 10 Creators update scheduled for early 2017.

Microsoft might have a secret weapon up its sleeve if recently leaked plans for a Microsoft Home Hub pan out.

But it might not just be one way control, if recently leaked plans for a Microsoft Home Hub pan out. If these rumors are true, you won’t even need to go out and buy a Cortana-powered product to handle all your voice assistant needs in the home: your existing Windows 10 PC will be able to assume that role. All it will take is a software patch, which may well be a part of the Creators update.

There are numerous barriers to entry in this space: price, product range, maturity of the platform, perceived need for what is ultimately an unnecessary if-not-entirely ‘luxury’ product, compatibility and so on. But if Microsoft rolls out its Home Hub for free to gadgets people already have in their homes, it bypasses several of those traditional obstacles.

See also:

What voice commands can I use with Google Home?

November 10, 2016

Make it free

Betting your PC against an Echo speaker or Google Home is a much safer bet than competing on even ground. Microsoft must know that rolling out a free update to add super-charged AI features to your existing Windows 10 computer is a great way to introduce people to what the new Cortana can do.

Once folks have had the chance to try out Cortana’s voice assistant powers in the home will make convincing them to buy into the Cortana product ecosystem a much easier sell. Making multiple other products available without crippling them to push one’s own hardware first is also a huge plus. This might just be the way Microsoft manages to turn up late and still come out with a healthy piece of the pie.

We don’t know if we’ll see Microsoft’s Cortana-powered speaker or any other products revealed at CES or MWC, but we’ll absolutely be keeping an eye on Microsoft’s plans in this space. We may end up being totally wrong with what Microsoft has planned for its Cortana ecosystem, but what at first looked like a weak Echo clone might suddenly turn into real competition for Amazon and Google in your home.

Would you prefer your computer to take the place of a Echo or Home? Who do you think will come out on top?

Amazon developing a premium Alexa-powered speaker with a 7-inch screen

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Amazon’s Alexa-enabled speakers have turned out to be quite successful. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, Amazon has sold more than five million units since the initial launch two years ago. But the best is yet to come.

In hopes of capitalizing on the success of the devices, the company is now taking the next step in the development of its popular speakers. According to a report from Bloomberg, Amazon will soon — reportedly in Q1 2017 — announce a new Alexa-powered device that will offer better sound quality, and more importantly, feature a 7-inch touch screen.

The screen should significantly enhance the user experience as it will allow for quick access to information like the weather, calendar appointments, news, and other similar functions. It will be tilted upwards, so you’ll be able to see it when the device is positioned on a table or the kitchen counter.

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September 30, 2016

The device will obviously still respond to your voice commands and will be able to tell you what time it is, what the weather is like, and even help you out when preparing lunch or dinner, just like the current Alexa-powered lineup consisting of the Echo Dot, Tap, and Echo, which retail for $49.99, $129.99, and $179.99 respectively.

The pricing of Amazon’s upcoming device is yet to be known, but it’s safe to say that due to the addition of a screen it will be the company’s most expensive Alexa product yet.

Over a month ago, Google announced the Assistant-powered Home device, which goes head to head with Amazon’s Alexa speakers. In addition, Apple is supposedly also looking to enter the market sometime next year. The online retail giant clearly hopes it will be able to fend off increasing competition with a new premium device that will offer additional functionality thanks to the integrated screen.

What are your thoughts? Does the addition of a screen make a voice-controlled speaker more appealing to you?

Amazon Alexa can now help you prepare 60,000 recipes

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Not only can you buy Black Friday deals with Amazon’s voice-activated assistant Alexa, you can now ask it for recipes too. Cooking website Allrecipes has introduced an Alexa skill which allows users to search the website’s catalog of 60,000 recipes for step-by-step instructions on how to prepare them.

You can ask Alexa for a specific dish, ask what can be cooked with certain ingredients, or even get a suggestion based on cooking time. For example, ask Alexa what you can make with chicken and sweetcorn and it will make a meal recommendation based on that criteria, along with an estimated cooking time. If it will take too long, you can tell Alexa how much time you want to spend cooking and it will make another recommendation. Check it out in the ad below.

Users can download the Alexa skill to their smartphone in the Alexa app by tapping the “Skills” option in the menu and searching for Allrecipes.

In other Alexa news, Amazon recently launched its Black Friday online store and introduced Alexa-exclusive deals, allowing Prime members to carry out complete voice-activated purchases on Alexa-enabled devices.

For more on Allrecipes Alexa functionality, visit the Allrecipes website.

AT&T customers can use Amazon Echo speakers to send messages on Nov. 18

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Texting is sometimes a drag because, well, you have put some effort to use your fingers on a keypad after all. How about sending text messages with your voice? That’s what AT&T wants to offer its users who also own an Amazon Echo or Echo Doc connected speaker.

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The wireless carrier announced today that, starting on Friday, Nov. 18, it will release the AT&T Send Message skill for the Echo speakers. The new skill will allow users to ask Alexa (the digital assistant that’s part of the Echo speakers) to have AT&T text one of their contacts. Alexa will then ask the user to say the actual text message to be delivered to that contact. The new skill will let users add up to 10 frequent contacts. Keep in mind this new feature is only for qualified AT&T wireless customers so you are out of luck if you are using another carrier.

AT&T also announced today that both the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot speakers will be available to purchase at the carrier’s retail stores starting on Friday. The price for the larger Echo will be $179 while the much smaller Echo Dot will sell for $49.