The talking speaker craze continues into 2018, but mostly with two players– one major, one minor– and a race that does not seem to have started yet. Yes, I’m talking about Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, Google Home and Assistant, and, well, is that all?
These talking speakers are something of a thing. I have an Echo Dot. My experience with Alexa is about the same as it is with Assistant and Siri– all three have advantages, each has improved in the past couple of years, but they are just as stupid today.
The Cheat Sheet
Echo, Assistant, and even Siri sound more humanlike this year than a few years ago, but to get any action from any of the talking speakers you have to know what they want to hear. Of the three, Alexa seems to do more by responding to more queries than her friends, but Assistant sounds more humanlike, and Siri is still rather dumb– but in good company.
I fail to mention Microsoft’s Cortana or Samsung’s Bixby, because neither one has much of a market presences. Only Amazon’s Echo and Google Home have hardware, but both Alexa and Assistant can be used outside of their proprietary hardware.
The list of what each of the two top sellers can do is growing, and the list of compatible devices is growing, but what is not growing is my ability to remember how to ask the right questions so each device can understand what I want or need. Alexa and Assistant can work alongside Siri on my iPhone, but that doesn’t make them more useful.
In fact, that’s the real issue with each device. Usefulness.
The commands we need to get anything useful from each device varies– but they’re similar– and it’s a growing list as capabilities are dynamic and easily updated, but the same problem exists.
Sarah Jacobsson Purewall and Jason Cipriani compiled a list of Siri commands recently. Here are just a few:
- Call or FaceTime someone. Ex.: “Call Sarah,” or “FaceTime Mom.”
- Start a call on speakerphone. Ex.””Call Mom on speaker.”
- Call an emergency number. Ex.: “Call 911,” or “Call the fire department.”
- Check voice mail. Ex.: “Do I have any new voice mail?” or “Play the voice mail from Mom.”
- Text someone. Ex.: “Tell [name] I am on my way,” or “Tell [name] I am going to the store.”
- Send an email. Ex.: “Send email to [name] about [subject] and say [message].”
- Hear your messages or emails read aloud. Ex.: “Read my new messages,” or “Check email.”
- Set a timer. Ex.: “Set the timer for 10 minutes.”
- Check the weather. Ex.: “What’s the weather like today?” or “Do I need an umbrella?”
The actual list is much longer and growing, but the queries and commands often result in a befuddled response if Siri cannot understand what you said, or your request did not fit the required format.
Amazon’s Echo and Alexa combo does not fare better. Taylor Martin and David Priest compiled a list of Alexa commands. The similarities are striking.
- Ask for help: “Alexa, help.”
- Have a conversation: “Alexa, let’s chat.”
- Mute or unmute: “Alexa, mute” or, “Alexa, unmute.”
- Stop or pause: “Alexa, stop” or, “Alexa, shut up.”
- Change volume: “Alexa, set the volume to 5,” “Alexa, louder” or “Alexa, turn up/down the volume.”
- Play music: “Alexa, play some music.”
- Play music on other (or multiple) Alexa devices: “Alexa, play [artist] in the living room” or “Alexa, play [artist] everywhere.”
- Queue specific song or artist: “Alexa, play music by [artist].”
- Play a song based on context: “Alexa, play the latest Avett Brothers album” or “Alexa, play that song that goes ‘Gotta gotta be down, because I want it all.'”
- : “Alexa, play baby-making music” or “Alexa, play rock music for working.”
You get the idea, right?
Of the three major intelligent assistants, Siri is the most convenient because it travels on each Apple product– Mac, iPhone, iPad, Watch, Apple TV– while Alexa is mostly tied to an Echo device (you can use an Alexa iOS app, but not with the same results).
What about Google Assistant? This one sounds more human to my ear but it’s still a list of commands and queries to remember. Taylor Martin and David Priest again:
- Hear your daily briefing: “OK, Google, tell me about my day” or “OK, Google, good morning.” (This includes a personalized greeting, info on weather, traffic, reminders, calendar entries, flight status and curated news stories.)
- Weather: “OK, Google, how’s the weather today?” or “OK, Google, do I need an umbrella today?”
- Traffic: “OK, Google, what’s traffic like?”
- Create a reminder: “OK, Google, remind me to [title] on [day] and [time]” or “OK, Google, remind me to [title] every day at [time].”
- Play reminders: “OK, Google, what are my reminders?” or “OK, Google, what are my reminders tomorrow?” or “OK, what is my reminder for [title}?”
- Delete reminders: “OK, Google, delete my reminders for tomorrow” or “OK, Google, delete my reminder to [title]” or “OK, Google, delete all of my reminders.”
- Check notifications: “OK, Google, what’s up?” or “OK, Google, what are my notifications?”
- Create a new calendar event: “OK, Google new calendar event” or “OK, Google, add [event] to my calendar” or “OK, Google, schedule [event] for me on Saturday at 8 p.m.”
- Math: “OK, Google, what’s 354 times 11?” or “OK, Google, 546 plus 406?”
- Count: “OK, Google, count to 20.”
- Measurements: “OK, Google, how many liters are in 4 gallons.”
- Roll a die: “OK, Google, roll a die” or “OK, Google, roll a 12-sided die.”
- Flip a coin: “OK, Google, flip a coin.”
- Random number: “OK, Google, give me a random number between five and 50.”
- Currency conversion: “OK, Google, how much is 100 Euros in dollars?”
Assistant can also string two commands together which totally befuddles Siri.
While Apple may have jumped into the marketplace first with a talking intelligent assistant, Siri’s competitors are nearly as stupid, and Amazon’s Alexa is less than ubiquitous. All have improved the past few years, and Apple customers can look forward to HomePod and an improved Siri, but so far, all these talking speakers are pretty stupid, not very useful, and insufficiently consistent to be worthwhile.