I’ve played around a bit with Alexa, and even considered buying an Echo Dot or two before the launch of HomePod, but in the end decided to wait it out.
However, while Hunter Douglas is still promising HomeKit support for our Luxaflex Duette blinds, and was expecting to get there by now, certification has been delayed until later in the year. In the meantime, it’s gone ahead with the launch of the new bridge which brings voice control to the blinds – but so far only for Alexa and Google Home …
Rather than wait for HomeKit, we decided to get an Amazon Echo Dot as an interim solution – which also provided an opportunity to pit Siri against Alexa in a real-life smart speaker test.
Note that I say ‘Siri versus Alexa,’ not HomePod versus Echo Dot. As speakers, the two devices aren’t even in the same league. HomePod is a $349 device which gets into what I think of as semi-HiFi territory. It doesn’t compete with traditional HiFi brands, but is definitely into Sonos territory. Indeed, one replaced the Sonos Play 5 in our bedroom. Echo Dot is a tiny $50 (or less) speaker intended to be just enough for voice responses. You can play music through it, but I really wouldn’t recommend it!
This piece isn’t a comprehensive review of the Echo Dot. Rather, it’s an outline of my experiences using it as an interim device for control of our blinds – and the additional playing I did out of curiosity.
But let’s start with how Alexa handles general queries, because this is one area where it is reputedly smarter than Siri – but in reality, not so much …
Alexa mostly works on the basis of downloadable ‘skills.’ On the plus side, this means that its capabilities are infinitely expandable, and that anyone can add to Alexa’s skills, not just Amazon.
But there are two very big problems with this approach. First, because anyone can add a skill, there are lots of competing skills for things like public transit status – in London, the tube. There doesn’t appear to be an official Transport for London skill, so I was left installing, trying and then uninstalling random ones until I found a good one.
But the bigger problem is that, even with a skill enabled, you can’t ask natural questions like ‘Is the Circle Line running ok?’. Instead, you have to ask Alexa to ask the skill. The format for these queries is:
Alexa, ask London Travel whether the Circle Line is running
That’s not only horrendously clunky, but also ridiculously unscalable. Even with just a handful of skills enabled, I couldn’t remember the next day whether the tube one was called London Transport or London Tubes or London Travel – in part, because I’d had to try several of them before finding one that worked well.
My partner was also merrily using Alexa to add things to a shopping basket, thinking she was doing so on Ocado by saying ‘Alexa, add to our Ocado shopping list’ only to find that she had simply created an Amazon shopping list called Ocado. You have to say ‘Alexa, tell Ocado to add to basket.’
Once you have a few dozen skills installed, there’s not a chance in hell that you’ll ever remember all their names – especially the ones you use infrequently.
So the theoretical advantage of Alexa, that it can do very much more, is just that: theoretical. In practice, once I’d finished playing with it, I found that I only really used the PowerView, Neato and Ocado skills. Plus, Amazon will be pleased to hear, ordering from Amazon.
Alexa is also dumber than Siri when you have more than one device: all Alexa-enabled devices within earshot simultaneously answer, rather than Siri’s method of one device answering and the rest standing down.
The Alexa iOS app
There’s a further problem with downloadable skills: you have to install these via the Alexa iOS app.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Alexa app is one of the worst apps it has ever been my misfortune to use. It’s an absolute mess of random placement and non-obvious approaches to doing things. It looks like it was designed by a roomful of monkeys on crack. I cringe or swear every time I have to use it.
And it’s this same app you have to use to enable smart home control …
Smart home control
Like Siri, Alexa can control your smart home devices. Its big advantage here is that Amazon makes it very easy for device manufacturers to enable Alexa, so almost anything you can name can be Alexa-controlled. Siri, in contrast, is limited to HomeKit-compatible devices, and those need to be individually certified by Apple.
There’s good reason for that, of course: Apple places a high value on security, so all products have to meet Apple’s standards before they are approved. But that is a pain for consumers. For us, it’s always felt like a pain that we can control all our lights by voice, but have to rely on a mix of timed automations and iPhone control for the blinds. More than once, I’ve caught myself about to instruct Siri to open or close a blind before remembering that she can’t do that yet.
There are a few bits of bad news with the Alexa set up process for the blinds. First, because you need a new bridge, you have to completely configure the blinds from scratch. That’s not difficult, but it is tedious if you have lots of them.
Second, Alexa can’t control individual blinds, it can only activate scenes. This means that if you do want to be able to open or close a single blind, you have to create a scene for it first. Again, not a huge deal, but a bit clunky.
Third, you have to use the awful Alexa iOS app to enable control. You create your scenes in the PowerView app as usual, and then have to go into the PowerView skill within the Alexa app and, counter-intuitively, tell it to add a scene. When you do that, it goes looking for scenes in PowerView and adds them to its own list. That done, you can use them.
But once it’s done, the good news is that you don’t have to use the clunky ‘Ask PowerView to …’ format. The Alexa app has a separate section for smart home functionality, and there you can just use the same commands you could for Siri.
The exact phrasing for control of the blinds still isn’t 100% intuitive. You can’t say something like ‘Morning, blinds.’ You instead have to say ‘Switch on morning.’ But once you’re used to this, it’s simple enough.
For Hue lights, Alexa control is identical to Siri control. I took to randomly using one or the other to switch lights on and off, and found no difference between them in language, speed or reliability.
Our robot vacuum cleaner, the Neato Botvac D7 Connected, is also Alexa-enabled. Mostly that’s no great benefit, as weekdays it runs on an automated schedule, doing the cleaning at 8.40am. But at weekends, we run it when we’re out of the way, and for those times it’s handy to be able to say ‘Alexa, ask Neato to start cleaning.’ More on that phraseology later …
Timers and other reminders
We use Siri a lot for timers and other reminders. Pre-iOS 12, Siri famously can only run one timer at a time – while Alexa happily handles multiple timers.
News and weather
For news, Alexa offers a Daily Briefing, with your choice of source. In the UK, that defaulted to BBC News, which would have been my choice, and it would be a handy catchup for anyone who is a bit out of touch. For a news junkie like me, it is less useful.
Alexa had a big fail when it came to weather. It offered weather for a random previous address, and didn’t seem keen on changing that fact. It seemed odd that I was connected to Alexa using my Amazon ID – which obviously has my current address – but the Alexa app didn’t have my address pre-populated. Even after I entered it, it continued to give weather for the old address, until I found a second place to enter my address. That roomful of monkeys really needs to be fired.
We do most of our shopping online, groceries from Ocado, most other things from Amazon.
Here, Alexa is fantastic. I told Alexa ‘Order a Sodastream spare gas cylinder.’ It saw I’d ordered one from Amazon before, confirmed the details and price and asked me if I wanted to order one. I replied ‘yes’ and Alexa confirmed the order and told me it would arrive tomorrow.
Similarly, I told Alexa ‘Ask Ocado to add kitchen roll to my shopping trolley.’ Alexa used my favorites to choose which brand, and again advised details and price before asking me to confirm.
This experience is truly great. I hate shopping, and find even online shopping a chore, so this is a totally painless way to do it. I’d buy an Echo Dot just for this.
Another advantage of Alexa over Siri is that Amazon allows third-party speakers and headphones to support the platform, so you have a huge choice of Alexa-enabled speakers from a wide range of brands. These range from the Echo Dot to Sonos and Harman Kardon.
I tried an attractive speaker from Cavalier called the Maverick. This is roughly the same size as the main Amazon Echo speaker, but a rather more premium experience. The sound quality is remarkably good for a speaker of this size. It delivers a total of 20W output with two active drivers providing stereo, and two passive radiators delivering way more bass than a speaker of this size has any right to.
With a metal casing coupled to leather and fabric, the look and feel is leagues above the Echo too. It has a beautifully weighted rotary volume control on the top. The panel is also touch-sensitive, with the usual pattern of controls by default: tap once for play/pause, twice for next-track and three times for previous track. But the double- and triple-taps are configurable in the app.
Sat on a desk or worktop, you wouldn’t guess the other key benefit of this over the Echo: the Cavalier is battery-powered. It lifts off its charging base, and you then have a speaker you can carry to another room or use outdoors.
As you’d expect, it’s also a lot more expensive than the Amazon Echo, at $299 rather than $99 (or less), but it is in a different league. I’m pretty fussy about my speakers, but for a speaker of this size, I really can’t fault it.
I’d fully expected Alexa to be considerably smarter than Siri. The fact that Amazon lets anyone create a skill for its intelligent assistant means that it ought to be massively more capable.
And in theory, it is. But the clunky method of adding skills to the device means that, in practice, nobody is going to add more than the essentials. So that theoretical advantage is worthless in practice.
The one area where it does win out is controlling smart home devices. Alexa can control our lights, blinds and robot vacuum cleaner; Siri, only our lights.
In some cases, that’s a temporary advantage. Hunter Douglas assures me that HomeKit support is on the way, but it’s still annoying to have to wait so long for it to arrive. I really think Apple needs to streamline the process of testing and approving products for HomeKit support.
But in other cases, it’s a permanent win for Alexa. Apple’s approvals process is great for keeping our homes secure, and I wouldn’t want to see that compromised, but the hoops through which manufacturers need to jump means that many simply won’t bother. There are always going to be devices which Alexa can control but Siri can’t.
Ultimately, though, voice control of gadgets is an interim stage. We already use automated schedules for a lot of things (including routine opening and closing of blinds), and smart homes will gradually get smarter, so they can figure out more of what we need from our patterns of behavior. At some point, the need to ask either Siri or Alexa to do something will be the exception rather than the rule.