One of the big surprises of the past few years has been the rise in popularity of Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant. Alexa resides in a number of Amazon and third-party products now like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Tap, Fire TV, and Fire Tablet. Although it’s not an Apple product — in fact, Alexa is designed to compete directly on many fronts with Apple services — I thought it would be a good idea to introduce Alexa to Apple World Today readers…if they haven’t already introduced themselves to “her”.
My experiences have come over the past three months with a $50 Echo Dot (affiliate link) and a $65 JAM HX-P590BK Jam Voice portable speaker with Alexa. The Dot is equipped with what Amazon refers to as “far field voice recognition”, meaning that it listens to all sounds and responds to a voice prompt — “Alexa”. You don’t need to be right next to the device, as it’s quite sensitive to sound. When it hears the magic word “Alexa”, the top of the device lights up with blue swirling lights and it then listens for the rest of what you’re planning to ask.
The Jam Voice portable speaker with Alexa — like the Amazon Tap — is for those who are a bit more concerned about having a device listening to every sound in the house or office 24/7. To ask a question, you tap a button on top of the device and then speak.
The big difference with these devices compared to Siri on an iPhone or iPad is that these devices are pretty much fixed in one place, although I can unplug the Jam speaker and carry it to another part of the house. With the Fire Tablet, it’s obvious that Amazon is testing the waters of mobile usage of digital assistants. Alexa even appears now in $200 GUESS Connect Watches that work through a connected iOS or Android device. There is also an Alexa app for iOS, although it’s primarily used to help set up Alexa-enabled devices.
Unlike Apple with Siri, Amazon appears to be wasting no time in expanding the reach of the digital assistant. Alexa uses what are called “Skills”, essentially apps for the device that just need to be enabled once in order to give the device a new capability.
There are thousands of skills, from the silly “Alexa, Play Jeopardy!” to being able to control Nest thermostats, operate WeMo switches, and the other “internet of things” items that you’d expect with Siri and HomeKit. I kind of find it irritating that you actually have to discover and then install these skills, but it’s at least getting more capability into Alexa much faster than SiriKit is adding power to Siri.
How do Alexa and Siri stack up against each other? The newcomer is actually pretty good, although there are some areas where Siri really shines. Let’s take a look at some general questions:
“What’s the weather like?”
Siri responds with a screen showing the current weather conditions for my location as well as an hour-by-hour forecast. I have to look at my iPhone, iPad or Mac screen.
Alexa has no display, so the response is verbal “In Littleton, it’s 44° with cloudy skies. Today, you can expect partly sunny weather with a high of 68° and a low of 44°”
Sure, I’m not getting an hour-by-hour forecast, but basically Alexa is responding to my question with usable information.
If I ask that question a bit differently, like “What’s the weather like tomorrow?”, the answers are quite similar. Siri responds with “Nice weather coming up tomorrow, up to 71” and that weekly forecast on the screen, with Alexa saying “Here’s the forecast for tomorrow in Littleton. Look for partly sunny weather with a high of 71 and a low of 44”.
“How are the Avalanche doing?”
Siri responds with a full screen of standings complete with team logos, and says “Uh oh, the Avalanche appear to be in last place in the Central Division right now”. Good response!
Alexa says “The Avalanche are not playing right now. On Tuesday, they beat the Canadiens 4 - 0. They’ll play tonight at 7 o’clock against the Penguins.”
Siri provided much more detailed information, showing how execrable this year’s Avalanche really are. Alexa assumed incorrectly that I was asking what was going on right now.
Music might be in “Apple’s DNA” but I think Amazon has an edge in this area. Rather than supplying music from Apple Music (which I don’t subscribe to) or my own music library, Alexa has a large group of sources; my own music library (any Amazon purchases and imported songs), Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more.
“Play Yesterday by The Beatles”
Alexa announced the name of the song, then played the song. The speaker on the Dot is pretty good, but you can link it to other speakers wirelessly for even better sound. I like the fact that even songs that aren’t in my library are supplied to me as a result of my Amazon Prime Membership. For example, right now I'm listening to a recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony courtesy of Amazon Prime Music.
Siri pointed out that I somehow don’t have that song in my library, but annoyingly started playing other Beatles songs — “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” ain’t “Yesterday”, Siri. When I chose a song that was in my library, Siri complied quickly. I think that if I was using Apple Music I'd have a lot better luck.
“Tell Me A Joke”
Siri: “The past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.”
Alexa: “Why is the mushroom always invited to parties? Because he’s a fungi (fun guy).
“What’s the price of Apple stock right now?”
Siri displays a detailed stock chart for the day, then announces that “Apple is down $0.44 today, or 0.33%, to $131.60.”
Alexa: “Here’s your flash briefing right now…” then goes into a morning NPR briefing that had nothing to do with the price of AAPL. Apparently Alexa doesn't give a rip how my retirement is going to be financed.
This is Alexa’s reason for being. It’s simple to set up an Amazon account so that you can say “Alexa, buy cat food” and it will fill that order instantly. This has apparently been abused by children who will ask Alexa to order “4 tons of candy”, but I’m sure Amazon doesn’t mind. At this point you can use Siri to only purchase products and services for which a SiriKit-enabled app has been created.
I use a lot of different lists, which is why I like Siri so much to add things to them on the fly. I can pretty much create a new list and start adding things to it immediately, all without even touching my iPad or iPhone (I like to use “Hey, Siri”). Siri can even delete items from the list with a verbal command. With Alexa, I have two lists — “Shopping” and “To Do”. While I can add items to those lists verbally, I have to physically remove them or “check them off” in the Alexa app.
I can see where Alexa would be much more useful to the sight-impaired, as it’s designed to be used without a display. For example, if I ask the question:
“Tell me about Mount Everest”
Siri responds with a Wikipedia article, complete with photo, that I can read in short or full-article form. Alexa gives me the beginning of that post. If I ask the question “the right way” (“Alexa, Wikipedia, Mount Everest”) I get that first sentence as well as a prompt to get more information by saying “Tell me more” (actually, she responds to “Alexa, tell me more”). Saying that phrase, a much longer Wikipedia segment is read to me.
Alexa works with a much wider range of devices than Siri, especially right out of the box. Siri requires either HomeKit-compatible devices or some complex automation done through other apps and services (like IFTTT). However, I found that Alexa usually requires a separate setup for each brand of device; sometimes it was as simple as turning an item on and off, other times I had to set up an account with a service (i.e., iHome) that isn’t required with Siri.
One of my favorite local restaurants is a place called “Los Dos Potrillos” (The Two Foals), a Mexican restaurant nearby. So I decided to ask both Siri and Alexa if the restaurant was open right now.
“What are the hours for the Los Dos Potrillos restaurant in Highlands Ranch?”
Siri had no idea what I was asking. I got answers for Petrillo’s restaurants in Glendora and San Gabriel, California. I then rephrased the question as “Is the Highlands Ranch Los Dos Potrillos restaurant open right now?”. That was interpreted as “Is the highlands ranch los dose Patrizio’s restaurant open right now?” and I was given information about a “Patricia’s Mexican Restaurant” 37 miles away.
When I finally asked Siri to find some nearby Mexican restaurants, Los Dos Potrillos appeared on the list.
Alexa? She knew what “Los Dos Potrillos” was right off the bat and told me that it was open from “now until 9 PM”.
Once again, the biggest annoyance is not having Alexa available everywhere. I love using Siri in the car to send or respond to text messages, set timers when I’m grilling, and so on. Sure, there are devices that you can put into your car and there are those GUESS watches, but both require access to an iPhone and additional purchases…so why not just use the iPhone? Yes, I know Siri on the Watch requires an iPhone as well…
Who’s the winner?
When it comes to grabbing information like weather or news, getting directions, setting timers, sending text messages or even emails, maintaining lists and controlling home appliances, Siri works the best for me. For playing music, getting detailed Wikipedia responses read to me, and buying frequently-purchased items from Amazon, Alexa is tops.
The clear winners in this war of the AIs are me and you — we can use both if we want to, and use each assistant to the best of its capabilities.
What do you think? What’s your favorite AI? Is there anything you really hate or love about Siri or Alexa? Leave your comments below.