Amazon has gone into overdrive promoting their powerful and popular voice assistant Alexa, but most people don’t realize: Alexa is more than just the Amazon Echo.
What Alexa Is (And Isn’t)
To better understand where you can and cannot use Alexa, it’s useful to separate the software and hardware elements. In short, Alexa is Amazon’s answer to Siri, Apple’s voice assistant service. Just like Siri is available on a range of devices (and exists independently of those devices), Alexa is too.
Alexa is a cloud-based personal voice assistant that can answer questions, control your smarthome devices with voice commands, and give you traffic and weather updates, among many other things. The voice assistant service is completely separate from the hardware.
Echo, on the other hand, is a specific set of hardware products that Amazon built to showcase and deliver Alexa. Without Alexa, the Amazon Echo device is a nice, but overpriced Bluetooth speaker—with Alexa, however, it’s a pretty awesome addition to your home.
But you can get Alexa on products other than the Echo. Sure, in the beginning, the distinction between the two was very blurred, since the Echo was the only Alexa-enabled product on the market. But now, Amazon has expanded their internal stable of Alexa-enabled devices, and licensed the Alexa platform for outside use as well.
Where You Can Access Alexa
There are three distinct product tiers within the family of Alexa-enable devices. The Echo line, push-to-command line (like the Tap, Fire tablets, and Fire TV), and third-party devices with Alexa support.
The Echo Line: Hands Free Control
In the Amazon product family, the term “Echo” is reserved for a specific class of Alexa-enabled devices. All Echo devices sport an array of seven microphones around the top of the device that are always on and waiting for your commands.
There are currently two Echo devices on the market: the Amazon Echo ($180), and the smaller (but very similar) Echo Dot ($90). Both are triggered by a wake word (usually “Alexa”) followed by a command: “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”. Future devices that bear the “Echo” namesake will likely also feature the same “far-field” microphone array found in the earlier Echo models.
The Tap, Fire Tablet, & Fire TV Line: Push-to-Command
In addition to their always-on Echo line, Amazon has several devices that support a push-to-command model of interaction with Alexa. Although the Amazon Tap ($130) is also a Bluetooth speaker and is shaped somewhat like the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t bear the Echo name, nor does it have the always-on listening feature of the Echo line. Instead, you need to press a button to put the device in listening mode, after which you can say a command.
The Fire TV ($85) and Fire TV Stick with voice remote ($50) work on the same principle. While your device and television are on, you press the microphone button on your voice remote to issue commands to Alexa. The Fire TV lineup also has the bonus feature of displaying the output of most commands as cards on your TV screen.
Amazon’s $49 Fire Tablet, Fire HD 8 ($89), and Fire HD 10 ($229) all come with Alexa as well, and you simply hold down the home button as you say your command. You can also use your Fire tablet as a secondary Alexa device of sorts using Voicecast, which will automatically wake up your Fire tablet and show you more details from a voice command you gave to your Echo.
The Third-Party Line: Room For Growth
Although Amazon has talked about third-party integration since the beginning (they’re heavily invested in promoting Alexa as the personal/smarthome voice assistant of the future), we’ve only recently seen a third-party entrant into the market.
The recently-released Triby bluetooth speaker ($170) features complete integration with the Alexa system, including wake word detection like the Echo. There’s currently no set terminology for third party devices to identify themselves as voice-controlled or push-to-command, so it’s up to you to carefully read the product description to ensure you get a product that meets your needs.
Amazon is heavily promoting Alexa as a product for third-party devices, so expect to this market significantly expand in the future. Heck, if you have a little technical know-how, you can even create your own push-to-talk Alexa device with a Raspberry Pi.
Where It’s Difficult To Access Alexa
While you can access Alexa from both Amazon’s products and now third-party devices, there’s one place—rather curiously—that’s quite difficult to access Alexa: your phone. Despite the fact that there is an Alexa app available for Android, Fire OS, and iOS, it exists solely for you to install your Alexa devices, tweak settings, and review information the Alexa-enabled devices share with you.
However, you can’t use the Alexa app to actually ask Alexa questions. Though we’re certain Amazon has their motives for this design choice, we certainly hope they include the functionality in the future. After all, there’s nothing more ubiquitous than the smartphone, and if they want as many people as possible integrating Alexa into their lives (especially as an alternative to Siri and Google Now), then integrating Alexa right into an app that people always have with them would be a smart move.
Although Amazon doesn’t include access to the Alexa service directly through their own application, they apparently have no restrictions on third parties doing so. You can get third-party apps that allow you to use Alexa right on your phone.
With any confusion over where you can and can’t use Alexa out of the way, it’s time to focus on the fun stuff you can do with Alexa–like controlling your entire Kodi media center with your voice.