Thursday, April 27, 2017

Using the Echo Dot

I've had my Amazon Echo Dot for a couple of weeks now (since I won it in a raffle). I like the concept, but I just can't get it to do much of use for me.
The main draw for the Echo is voice recognition, used to command the voice assistant Alexa. That part works pretty well. As long as there isn't too much background noise, Alexa recognizes my commands almost every time. When there is a failure, I can use the Alexa phone app to provide feedback and improve the system.

Where I run into problems is finding things that I want to tell Alexa to do. My first thought was to hook up my Amazon Fire TV to the Echo, so I could use voice commands when watching TV. But despite both being Amazon devices, the Echo and Fire TV won't talk to one another. It's possible to use voice commands directly on the Fire TV, but only with a microphone-equipped remote control. If I've already bothered to find the remote and pick it up, I probably don't need voice commands any more.

OK, if video is out, how about audio? The Echo Dot has a speaker, but it's pretty weak, not suitable for much of anything but short responses. Hooking up an external speaker is supported, and I was able to do that with the stereo in my media center. But that doesn't work well, either. If I switch the stereo's input to something else (I also use it with the Fire TV and my PC), then the Echo is useless since it has no output. It's not smart enough to switch back to the internal speaker when the external one isn't available. I suppose I could switch the stereo input every time I want to listen to something, but if I'm doing that, then it would be easier to just use whichever other device is already connected.

If I did work around the speaker issue, what could I listen to? Alexa will recognize podcast names and play the latest episodes, but I'm often a episode or two behind. Plus, it doesn't know what I've already listened to on my phone or PC. Easier just to listen on those other devices than to manually mark which ones were played somewhere else. There's a MLB At-Bat skill for listening to baseball games, but it doesn't work with the Echo Dot. Music works fairly well - I mostly use Spotify these days, and there's a Spotify Alexa skill that works just fine - but with that speaker issue the sound quality is poor. About the only thing I do find useful is the ability to occasionally ask for the latest NPR news headlines.

What about home automation? I have a Logitech Harmony remote for my media center, and it was very easy to link that to the Echo. I can ask Alexa to turn on and off my various preset configurations, but that's not very useful. For instance, I can ask Alexa to turn on the Fire TV, but then I still need the remote to actually do anything (see above about Amazon devices not talking to one another). Same thing for playing DVDs. Might as well just use the remote in the first place.

I also tried lighting control, with TP-Link smart plugs and bulbs which are advertised as working with the Echo with no need for a hub. Getting those connected was fairly easy, but after a few hours, the connection stopped working. Alexa would say that the device wasn't responding, and I'd have to manually turn the device on and off to reconnect. Kind of defeats the purpose of a smart device if you're manually cycling it on a regular basis! I suspect it would work better if I got one of the hub-based systems rather than connecting to the devices individually, but that's a ridiculous expense for a tiny condo like mine.

I love the idea behind the Echo, and I do occasionally find a reason to ask it a question. But it just doesn't do quite enough to make it a reasonable replacement for what I already use.

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