Home automation update

Posted in Amazon, Hardware on January 12th, 2018 by Michael

Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote about my Echo Show. Still enjoying it, although I don’t think I’m getting as much usage out of the screen as I could. I’m still not sure what screen-centric things to do with it, to be honest. I think a lot of people agree with me, as the price has fallen dramatically from what I paid.

Be that as it may, I still like it and hope the screen becomes truly useful to me one of these days.

But wait – there’s more! I now have the following Echo devices in my house:

  • The Echo Show in the kitchen
  • My original Echo in the bedroom
  • An Echo Dot in my office/lab
  • A brand-new Echo Dot in the master bathroom
  • A Dash Wand in the kitchen
  • One more brand-new Echo Dot still in its box, which I think will go in the guest room (although the garage is still a possibility)

Don’t laugh about the Dot in the bathroom. I listen to books, podcasts, and music while I’m showering and shaving in the morning. I was bringing my nice little Bose Bluetooth speaker into the bathroom connected to my phone for that purpose, but now I can just ask my Dot to play things for me. It’s a little low in the max volume department, but it works. Plus, I can interact with it in the usual way while I’m there.

And I suppose it can be useful while I’m in that particular room for other purposes too. Hey, it’s no different from a phone in that regard. Stop judging!

So what are all those Echos doing? A plethora of things:

  • Turning lights on and off – In the living room, in our bedroom, and on the front of the house, so far, with more to undoubtedly come. I’m thinking about the lab next.
  • Listening to music – I recently bought a trial subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited and I’m generally pleased. I’ll add my thoughts in a future post. I can also listen to any of my Pandora playlists. Choices! Oh, the Show also shows lyrics for a lot of songs. Karaoke night, here I come!
  • Listening to Kindle books – I recently discovered you can have Alexa read you your Kindle books. No need to subscribe to Audible (sorry, Audible: I know your quality is better; I just wouldn’t use you enough to justify the price).
  • Listening to podcasts – This one is still tough for me. I use the excellent podcast app Overcast on my phone (and therefore in my cars, including on Carplay) and love it. It keeps track across devices of what I’ve listened to and where I am in a given podcast. It allows me to order my podcasts however I like. It allows me to either stream or download podcasts, or any combination of the two. It intelligently speeds my content up if I choose. It’s great. Sadly, it’s not yet available on Alexa. Come on, Marco, Arment! Just do it! In the meantime, there are a couple of podcast apps supported by Alexa, none of which I really like.
  • Listening to the radio – I use TuneIn to play a few local stations when I feel like it. Works great. Maybe I should look into its ability to play podcasts. Hmm.
  • Kitchen timers – You can have multiple timers at once and I can see them on the screen of my Show or query them by voice. I added an If This Then That (IFTTT) applet to turn on one of the living room lights when a timer goes off, just in case I’m not in the kitchen and don’t hear the timer (I just wish I could get it to flash the light). Works great.
  • Kitchen conversions – Alexa knows how many tablespoons in 3/8 of a cup (6). Plus a whole lot more.
  • Telling time – When I feel too lazy to look at my phone or watch, I just ask Alexa what time it is. Works great
  • News – I have a pretty good news feed set up.
  • Jeopardy – I play Jeopardy every weekday. It asks twelve questions and is amazingly good at understanding my answers. Great fun.
  • Other games – I occasionally find another game that’s interesting. Try 21 questions.
  • To-do and shopping lists – We use the shopping list functionality a lot. When I use up a staple in the kitchen, I just tell Alexa to add it to my shopping list. I use IFTTT to transfer those items to my iOS Reminders app, which I use in the store. IFTTT also copies my to-do items to Reminders.
  • Amazon videos – If I know the name of the movie or TV show, I can get my Show to play it for me. Nice company while cooking from time to time.
  • Weather forecasts – Alexa gives amazingly detailed weather forecasts, either local or remote. Really useful.
  • Controlling my thermostats – I have Nest thermostats and can find out and/or set the temperature both upstairs and downstairs
  • Drop-ins – I just started using this capability. I can ask Alexa to drop in on any of the other Echo-equipped rooms in my house and talk to whoever is there. Pretty cool. I haven’t enabled that capability outside of our house and I don’t plan to.

There are numerous other capabilities I’ve messed with but don’t use regularly. For example, Alexa can send text messages for AT&T customers (which I used to be), but it’s fairly clunky, so I only experimented with it.

Oh, Joanne and I also like to tell Alexa to play thunderstorm sounds when we’re going to sleep. There’s something peaceful about hearing a thunderstorm outside when you’re snug in bed, even a pre-recorded one.

Coming up sometime soon – details on my Alexa-controlled lights. I’m using smart bulbs, smart switches, and smart plugs. Each has its own ups and downs.

Are you doing anything really cool with your Amazon Echo?

 

Echo Show First Impression

Posted in Amazon, Hardware on August 3rd, 2017 by Michael

I really like my Amazon Echos.

I have an original Echo and an Echo Dot and use them constantly. I won’t say I’m anything like a power user, but I do use them.

I have three smart lightbulbs and control them from my Echos. They’re particularly good in the nightstands in our bedroom. We go to bed with the lights on, get all comfortable, and turn the lights off with a voice command. Sometimes we have our Echo lull us to sleep with thunderstorm sounds. And we play music with it quite a bit, either by streaming from a phone or by using the built-in links to Pandora and/or I Heart Radio.

I use them to set timers and alarms. I use their very convenient shopping list, which I have hooked up to my iOS Reminders app via IFTTT. IFTTT also helps me add to-do items on Echo and convert them to Todoist. They look up information for me, which works sometimes, but not often enough. And of course there’s their most important use – playing Jeopardy every day. I don’t want to live life without Jeopardy.

Oh, and I just remembered I have an Echo Wand. I think I may be the only person who bought one, but look it up. It’s kind of a slightly crippled handheld Echo that has a laser barcode scanner. You scan used-up items you want to replace, for example, and it adds them to your Amazon shopping cart. I’m casually waiting for somebody else to come up with an IFTTT recipe to remove items from my shopping cart and add them to my Reminders shopping list. Then my Wand will become very useful indeed.

In short, Alexa is an integral part of our household.

Which brings me to my latest purchase – the Echo Show. It’s a pretty clever Echo with good speakers (maybe not quite as good as on my original Echo, but good), coupled with a camera and always-on 7-inch touchscreen. It can do a bunch of unique stuff, including acting as a videophone, displaying recipes, playing Amazon Video movies, and … umm … stuff. In general, I like it. So what’s good and what’s bad?

The good:

The screen is always on and displaying useful information when it senses somebody is in the vicinity. You can refine what kinds of things it shows you, which I haven’t done yet, but I might eventually get around to it.

I really like being able to see the status of my timers. I use it for timing things in the kitchen all the time, and I always had to ask it for its status when I wanted to know how much time was left. Not anymore!

I actually watched part of a movie while cooking once! It’s a pretty cool idea, although it only works with Amazon Prime movies, which I don’t watch all that much. Still, it’s there and I like using it.

The sound is fine and it’s nice to be able to see what’s playing.

The bad:

My other Echos offer a visual indicator that they’ve heard their wake word, in the form of a moving bright blue light along the top edge that’s visible from across the room. There’s no light on this one. The screen shows a moving blue bar along its bottom edge, but that’s only useful when you’re standing right next to it. Otherwise, you just have to assume it’s on and listening to you. Not a huge deal, but I’ve been surprised at how much I miss that visual confirmation that she’s listening before I ask my question.

Nobody else has one, so the video phone function is fairly useless. Plus, I don’t want to have to stand in my kitchen to talk to somebody, and my phone, iPad, and computers all have a much more flexible version of that capability already.

It’s kind of expensive.

When I bought my first Echo, I thought it was kind of cool but doubted I would ever really use it very much. Then I discovered more and more of its capabilities over time, and now it’s an indispensable member of our household. I have a feeling this version will turn out the same way. Recommended.

Alexa works on iOS! Mostly.

Posted in Amazon, Apple, Internet, Problems, Software on April 24th, 2017 by Michael

I was delighted to learn today that Alexa is finally ready for iOS! And it seems to work great, except for one glaring problem – one of my very favorite Alexa apps: Jeopardy.

Like many people, I’m a big fan of the Jeopardy television show. I’ve loved it since the Art Fleming days, when little-boy me ran home from school for lunch and watching Jeopardy with my mother. They may not have any more-loyal fans than me.

So I was delighted to learn┬átoday that Alexa was now working on iOS, within the Amazon app. I tried it out first by asking for a joke. No problem! Immediately, I asked it for today’s Jeopardy clues, since I’m out of town and don’t have access to my beloved Echos.

That’s when I discovered the problem: Jeopardy hangs the app very frequently when it’s waiting for a user response. Maybe they forgot to test that functionality. The only recourse seems to be to close and reopen the app, at which time it allows you to either start over or resume from where you left off.

But there was a bug with that too. One of the several times it hung, I closed and reopened the app and asked it to play another joke, just to be sure it was still working. Jeopardy had apparently not really closed that time (although it seemed to do so every other time I went through the close/open cycle) and interpreted my joke request as an answer.

I lost credit for my correct answer! Noooooo!

Anyway, please fix the iOS app to allow Jeopardy to work properly, Amazon. In the meantime, it works fine on my Amazon Fire tablet. So that’s plan B until they fix the iOS implementation.