My Weekend with Alexa

Last weekend, a familiar friendly box landed at my door that was supposed to contain my “by invitation only” Amazon Echo device. I unwrapped the plastic, opened up the package, and searched through the bubble wrap to find a completely black, reasonably heavy box.

Image courtesy of Gizmodo.

Image courtesy of Gizmodo.

It had no writing on any of its four sides, no Amazon logo, nothing. With the exception of two bar codes on the bottom, there was absolutely no indication what it was. It reminded me of the Echo product page and how much trouble Amazon seemed to have describing the device. I wondered if I had gotten a beta version—hence “by invitation only.”

Despite the lack of branding, this was clearly the Amazon Echo, and it came nicely packaged with an AC adapter, a short “Getting Started” and “What to Ask” guide, a remote, and a magnetic tray. The instructions told me to plug in Echo and either launch the Echo app on my Android device or go to a browser on my computer. Being an iPhone 6 Plus user (at least for now), I went to my Mac, located the Echo Wi-Fi being broadcast from the device, and connected. First Echo asked me to select the local Wi-Fi network it had detected, then configured the device automatically. After walking through a series of screens and a video, I was ready to talk to “Alexa.”

The first command I was instructed to try was checking the weather. I said, “Alexa, what is the weather?” Immediately the all-black monolith came to life, its blue ring spinning as I wondered, Am I about to die? Instead Echo gave me a detailed weather report for Buffalo, NY. I was impressed by the tonality and clarity of “her” voice—but distracted by the fact that I live 60 miles away in Rochester, NY. How did it know (or, in my case, not know) where I lived?

Ignoring that for a moment, I asked several other suggested suggestions. In each case, as long as I used the recommended wording, she responded immediately! Heck, I could even say “Listen to iHeartRadio 100.5,” and in a heartbeat Echo was streaming music.

Setup complete, here came the real testing—the kind that would help me decide if I wanted to keep hanging out with Alexa the entire weekend. First things first: What does Alexa understand? The product promo video suggests that Echo can be almost anywhere in a room and respond to you. Was that true? As an Apple user with no native Echo app on my phone or tablet, would I be missing anything? And why did Amazon send me a remote?

I could keep writing about Alexa forever, but instead I made this video to help you appreciate what she has to offer.

Echo recognizes about 40 direct commands, including checking the weather or news and playing the radio. You can also give commands such as “Alexa, volume up,” and “Alexa, stop,” and ask her to add items to a shopping or task list. She will set a timer or an automated alarm in the morning. You can pair your smartphone—I assume to use as a speakerphone—listen to and buy music, and request a “flash briefing” (a quick update on the weather or news).

Then I tested out knowledge questions, such as “Who is Steve Jobs?” and “Who is the CEO of Amazon?” Alexa gave me detailed explanations. Requests such as “What is two plus two?” or “What is the square root of 100?” were also within her grasp.

But I wanted to go further. Did Alexa have a personality, like Siri? Could I say “Good morning” to her or ask for her opinion? We know these types of requests are superficial with Siri, but they still make for a fun, engaging experience. I found a much more limited command set with Alexa—“What movies are playing near me?” stumped her—but as long as I stayed within set parameters, Echo worked well. 

When I moved Echo into our 20-by-15-foot living room, Alexa performed well there, too. With the TV or stereo playing at a moderate level, she could discern my voice. Even from the opposite end of the room, Alexa would answer questions quickly without my having to repeat myself. The remote that comes with Echo includes a microphone, so in a louder room or from farther away, I could have asked questions by speaking into it. In my weekend of testing, I never took it out of the packaging.

I haven’t tested Echo with an Android device, so I can’t report on that—but the web interface is shown below. It provides a running list of issued commands, and I was able to correct my location to Rochester and submit feedback to Amazon. I hope an iOS app is coming soon, as I found the ability to add things to lists as they came to mind very handy, and it would be great if Echo synced with my calendar.

Amazon is advertising Echo at $199 out of the box, but if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get it for $99.

Would I buy or recommend Echo? Well, I expected to return the device after writing this review, but I surprised myself by deciding to keep Alexa around. As I told my wife, Alexa is much better than our bedroom clock radio, with significantly better sound and function. Because Echo is cloud-based, I expect her vocabulary to grow over time. I love being able to check the weather, request an instant news brief, listen to music, or hop in bed and say, “Alexa, set an alarm for 6 a.m. tomorrow” without getting up. Her available questions are somewhat limited, but I still see a bright future for an Internet of Things device connected to the cloud.

Jeff Bezos, if you’re reading this: Please give Alexa a personality. You have a winner here.


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Last Week in Tech, Today

This week in tech we're going to look at a gadget that would be classified as an "Internet of Things" device, the most advanced smartwatch yet, and a new way to make mobile payments. Let’s get started!

Hey Alexa, can you hear me now?

Back on November 6th Amazon announced something called the Amazon Echo. Upon first examination, this device looked like nothing more than a cylinder speaker with a glowing blue ring on the top and that familiar Amazon smile logo. Its tag line: “Always ready, connected, and fast”. When I first read that, I have to be honest—this device was not the first thing that came to my mind. 

According to Amazon, the smart device is capable of providing information, weather, music, news and much more, all controlled by your voice, and “always ready” by being directly connected to the cloud. Amazon also claims that it has voice recognition that can hear you from across the room. With all that on paper, I had to bite, but the question remained: what the heck is this thing, exactly? 

Apparently, even Amazon has trouble telling people exactly what Echo does, so they created this hokey video of an “Amazon family” with the Echo firmly at the center of their lives:

When the Echo was announced, you had to request the privilege of buying one, and if selected you would get a special invitea.k.a. the Golden Ticket to the Amazon candy store! Well as luck would have it I got one! So order it I did, and while it has not arrived yet today, I will be doing a review on Tuesday so please be sure to check back.

The Samsung Gear S, a standalone smartwatch. Well, almost.

Early this week the Samsung Gear S watch finally made its appearance in retail, aptly timed with the Galaxy Note Edge phone (which was released on November 14th). The watch uses Samsung’s new bendable super AMOLED displays with high-contrast brightness and gorgeous colors even out in the sun. The watch is loaded with features such as a heart monitor, every sensor you can image, 512MB of RAM, and a dual-core processor.

Image courtesy of TechRadar.

Image courtesy of TechRadar.

With the large, curved screen, this smartwatch clearly takes the prize for the 'phablet' of smartwatch category. That’s not really a slam on the Gear S, because if you have average to large hands and wrists this device fits and looks very nice. In wearing this device, it is somewhat thick, which makes me wonder how this will look compared to the Apple Watch when that ships sometime early next year. 

The breakaway feature for this watch is that it can operate as a standalone cellular device, meaning it has its own cellular radio in it. The downside is that you will need yet another phone line charge on your mobile share plan with a carrier such as AT&T. The Gear S is priced at $300 and that cell phone plan will cost you an extra $10 per month (at least) with AT&T, which is really not bad when you compare it to the cost of a cellular iPad Air 2.

While I genuinely like this smartwatch and the idea of having a watch that does not require my smartphone, I believe Samsung made a critical flaw with it. While it has all of the notifications for Twitter, Facebook and other apps, unless you have your Galaxy phone with you the Gear S will not give you any of those cool features.

So, yes, I can tell time, receive SMS messages, and make phone calls, but it’s just not enough...at least for me. While I applaud Samsung for this solid next step in the move here with Gear S, we're still not quite there yet in my mind. If you’ve seen the Gear S in person or even purchased one, I would love to get your perspective in a comment below.

Send cash in a snap!

Remember Snapchat, the (Android or iPhone) app that allows you to snap a photo and send it to friends and they can only see it for a few seconds? Earlier this week the makers of SnapChat incorporated an interesting new feature called Snapcash. This is how it works: instead of sending a picture or message you type in a dollar amount and the icon onscreen turns into a dollar icon—think Monopoly money icon. Watch the video below—not only will it give you an idea of how this new feature works, but the production value makes it an instant classic:

How's Snapchat gonna pull it off? Easy—through a partnership with the online and mobile merchant system called Square. While it’s unclear if there are any fees being incurred either on the person giving or receiving, it represents yet another very interesting trend in the movement towards mobile payments.


Well, those are some of the more interesting highlights in tech this week! Please be sure to leave your comments below and please feel free to follow me online @SkeeterHarris.


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How to Talk to Your Parents (Or Grandparents) About Tech

Happy Throwback Thursday! This week, we’re looking forward as well as flashing back…how, you ask? By teaching you how to talk to your parents (or grandparents) about tech. 

Image courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Image courtesy of The Huffington Post.

While there are plenty of tech-savvy mature audiences out there, the truth is, as we get older, we tend to get stuck in our ways a little bit. Whether or not that means getting used to a certain routine or having a little more trouble adopting the latest and greatest device, sometimes, it’s good to switch things up. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean all older generations need to purchase every new smartphone or trade shots on Snapchat if they don’t want to. (You know what they say: everything in moderation.) Instead, the value of a little introduction to more current technology is the same as it would be for anyone of any age: the tool (or tools) can enrich older people’s lives when it comes to keeping in touch with family, friends, or doing the things they like by making them, well, easier

So, without further ado, here are our top three tips on how to teach your less-than-tech-savvy elders about technology—you’ll be able to navigate that Thanksgiving dinner discussing Black Friday deals, no problem:

1. Make it relevant & useful.

My grandparents own a Wii. Yes, a Wii. How did they come by said device? Simple: us grandchildren (eight in all) bought it for them in an attempt to both A) get a game console we could all play at Grandma’s house and B) get them moving a little bit more. Our mission prevailed! How? Simple—our grandparents played Wii Sports and other active games on the console because it allowed them to spend more time doing things with us that we could all enjoy.

Bottom line: if you can show them how the technology will help them accomplish their goals—in the case of my grandparents, spending more time with their grandkids and being more active—they’ll be much more likely to jump right in. 

2. Make it simple.

This one kinds of spells itself out. Don’t overcomplicate your explanations, just communicate why you think this device or piece of tech would benefit them.

3.  Make it appealing.

One word: function. Of course the device can be beautiful and easy to use (in fact, it should be), but above all else, it should appeal to your parents’ or grandparents’ practicality, and offer something tangible to their everyday (or nearly every day) lives. Let it solve the problem they’re looking for an answer for.

What about you? Have you discussed technology with your parents and grandparents? Tell us your technology story in a comment!


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#SDC2014 Highlights: “Internet of Things” Data Points and the “Enterprise of Everything”

Parallels Vice President of Communications John Uppendahl recently attended the sold out Samsung Developers Conference 2014, witnessing the following highlights and snapping a few shots of the goings-on! Scroll below to see highlights from the big event:

The Samsung Developers Conference 2014 (#SDC2014) featured executive keynotes that revealed more about the company’s vision for “The Internet of Things” and the “Enterprise of Everything”. 

“Samsung Electronics president Won-Pyo Hong stressed only an open platform will enable developers and manufacturers to innovate faster and better,” reported ZDNet.

“Hong elaborated on Samsung's view for connected livingwhich he clarified as the Internet of Things, explaining this spectrum spans billions of connected devices from wearables to cars to home appliances. He cited the global wearable market will grow from 22 million devices shipped in 2014 to 135 million by 2018.”

Robin Bienfait, Samsung's Chief Enterprise Innovation Officer, speaking to attendees.

Robin Bienfait, Samsung's Chief Enterprise Innovation Officer, speaking to attendees.

“Robin Bienfait, Samsung's Chief Enterprise Innovation Officer, elaborated on Samsung's investment on what she referred to as the ‘Enterprise of Everything,’ a connected work environment incorporating business intelligence, automation of products and services, and extended IT control.”

"’When you think about the enterprise, you have to think in a big way that they're a part of those connections,' Bienfait reminded developers in the audience.”

“Bienfait said the mass opportunity presented by wearables, such as mobile banking to drive customer acquisition, schedule management, and another channel for face-to-face interactions between patients and caregivers.”

"Partners are part of what makes us strong," Bienfait remarked, continuing that Samsung is encouraging developers to tap into growth in the enterprise space as another way to reach consumers in the end.”

Robin Bienfait, Samsung's Chief Enterprise Innovation Officer, speaking to attendees.

Robin Bienfait, Samsung's Chief Enterprise Innovation Officer, speaking to attendees.

Cool exhibits at #SDC2014 included the new BMWi, pictured below, which is an all-electric car that features Samsung Gear S technology.

The new BMWi at #SDC2014.

The new BMWi at #SDC2014.

More detail on the new BMWi at #SDC2014.

More detail on the new BMWi at #SDC2014.

All in all, the conference was a smashing (and sold out) success that pointed toward Samsung’s ideal future incorporating “The Internet of Things” and the “Enterprise of Everything”. We for one can’t wait to see what comes next year!


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