Tag Archives: alexa

The Sweet Sound of My Echo

This is going to be a quickie. I’ve got some more in-depth articles planned for the near future (such as my first few weeks with Apple CarPlay, among other things), but  I wanted to share a simple pleasure I recently discovered.

I’ve been studying for recertification, and music helps my mind focus. But if it has lyrics or too intense a tempo, I can get distracted. The best fit for me, personally, is classical music. Knowing that Amazon has a pretty good selection, I figured I’d put my still-pretty-new Echo to the test, and I asked her, “Play me some Classical Music.” And boy, did she.

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Amazon Prime Music. Click the image to visit their page.

As I type this, I’m listening to the “Classical Focus” station on Amazon Prime Music. The link may only work if you’re a Prime member, so here’s a link for a free Prime trial:

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

Two things struck me, listening to this sweet, lilting music (sorry, classical fans: no crashing cymbals or blasting trumpets on this station): the built-in speaker of my Echo Dot sounds great; and Amazon Music doesn’t have commercials.

Connect the Dot

As you may recall, I had originally intended to connect my Amazon Echo Dot to my more robust home theater sound system, via bluetooth. After all, the Dot comes equipped of notoriously the weakest built-in speaker of the Echo line. But as you may also recall, I ended up disconnecting Dot from my home theater when I upgraded to an A/V Receiver with built-in audio streaming from Pandora and Sirius XM. So I really only used the built-in speaker on my Dot for playing Jeopardy! J!6 Alexa. Music wasn’t part of my plan.

 

 

But when I decided to try out this Classical Focus station, I discovered how much clearer the tiny speaker was than any tabletop AM/FM radio. And by keeping the music coming out of a small speaker in the corner of my living room, I averted the audio overload I would have gotten listening to music on my surround-sound system. After all, I just wanted some light, unobtrusive background music. And that’s exactly what I got.

Less Talk, More– Well, Not “Rock”…

The other revelation was that the music never stopped for station identification, commercials, or even to pause between songs to let me know what I had been listening to. Because that’s what Shazam is for.

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I’ve grown accustomed to commercial interruptions, listening to the free versions of Spotify and Pandora. With my subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio, it’s true I don’t get “commercials” in the traditional sense. Instead, I hear ads for other XM stations, as well as commentary by their on-air talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a ploy to eventually unveil “XM Plus,” with nothing but music. It’s an aspect Amazon has perfected, that I wouldn’t mind seeing other services, well, Echo.

One last thing: when listening to Classical Focus on the Echo, whenever I have to pause playback, I can command Alexa with my voice. Since I’ve changed her wake word to “Computer,” it makes me feel just that much more like Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Hey, when the music moves you…

As I keep saying, “the future is now…” ■

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How I Heard My Echo

As I write this week’s post, I’m listening to Pandora Radio via my new Amazon Echo Dot. It’s that rare modern gadget that has no video display (unless I bring up the Alexa app on my iPhone or iPad), so audio quality is made even that much more essential. It was with this in mind that I decided to hook my Echo Dot up to my powerful home theater sound system… and made more work for myself, in the process.

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Connect the Dot, la la la. (Source: Amazon.com, click the image to order.)

Unlike its big siblings the Echo and the Tap, the Dot doesn’t have a very powerful built-in speaker. When Alexa (the Amazon AI assistant in the Echo) speaks to me, I can hear her just fine; but when I want to listen to music, the overall effect is underwhelming. Luckily, the Dot supports bluetooth, so beaming the audio signal to a powerful speaker system is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, my older Sony receiver doesn’t have bluetooth built in, so I needed to pick up a device to add bluetooth to my sound system.

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The Sony STR-DG820. It’s a great receiver; it just doesn’t do bluetooth. (Source: Engadget.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

Logitech makes such a device, their compact Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It plugs into a wall outlet for power, and includes a cable to connect it either to a 3.5 millimeter stereo jack, or to red and white RCA stereo jacks. I ended up using a separate red/white stereo cable set (sold separately) to go from the Logitech adapter to my Sony receiver. Once I programmed my Logitech Harmony remote to switch on the receiver and change its input to the port with the bluetooth adapter, I was able to vocally command Alexa to do the same job without my having to pick up my remote control. She ably flipped on my Sony receiver and had it switch to the proper input, leaving everything else off. The bluetooth adapter was already on (there really isn’t an “on/off” switch on that device), so playback proceeded to stream through my speakers flawlessly.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It’s actually quite small, measuring only 0.88″ tall by 2.00″ wide by 2.25″ deep. (Source: Logitech.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

The problems only began when I turned my stereo off.

You see, when you tell Alexa to connect via bluetooth, she’s more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, asking her to switch away from bluetooth is a more challenging proposition. Since the Logitech box never turns off, it remains in a “ready to pair” mode even if a device like my Echo Dot leaves it. Alexa then sees there’s a bluetooth device out there looking to pair, and, helpful as always, she re-pairs with it. Except in this scenario, my receiver is now off, so I can’t hear Alexa through the external speakers; and since she’s using bluetooth, her internal speaker is off, too. This makes any further communication with her impossible until I turn the receiver back on. But sometimes I just want a weather forecast or a news brief, and stuff like that just doesn’t need to come out in high fidelity stereo!

The challenge I faced was how to turn the Logitech bluetooth box off so Alexa would revert to her internal speaker for non-musical conversation. Luckily, as with so many problems in my life, there was a solution, in the form of new technology. Enter TP-Link’s Smart Plug.

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TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. Make sure you have room for it on your power strip or wall outlet–it’s a space hog! (Source: TP-Link.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

If I couldn’t tell Alexa to turn off the Logitech bluetooth adapter directly, then I would have to have her cut the power to it, via TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. TP-Link advertises Alexa compatibility:

Amazon Echo Voice Control – Amazon Echo (sold separately) lets you control devices connected to the Smart Plugs just using your voice.

Indeed, once I had configured the Smart Plug to join my home network, I added the “Skill” (Echo’s answer to an app) for TP-Link devices in its “Kasa” service, and Alexa had no difficulty turning the Smart Plug on and off with a well-placed vocal command.

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The TP-Link Kasa app in action, controlling their Smart Plug. (Source: eBuyer.com)

With my Logitech bluetooth adapter now plugged in via this Smart Plug, I hypothesized that when I would tell Alexa to turn that Smart Plug off, that would cut off her bluetooth conduit to the external speakers. I put that hypothesis to the test, asking her to turn off the Smart Plug. She gamely did as I said, and the last thing I heard her say out of the external speakers was the compliant “okay.” After seeing that the Smart Plug was now in the “off” mode and that the Logitech bluetooth adapter was fully off, I asked Alexa if she was still there. “Yes, I’m here. I listen once I hear the wake word,” she emitted cheerfully and clearly… out of her built-in speaker, once again.

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A small selection of the many Skills available for Alexa to learn. (Source: AFTVNews.com, click image for their article on Alexa’s Skills.)

I made sure to establish a “group” command to turn on power to the bluetooth adapter, while simultaneously turning on the Sony receiver (via my Harmony remote, another Echo “Skill”) and setting it to the correct input. I called this group “Audio Only,” so all I needed to do was call out, “Alexa, turn on Audio Only.” It’s fun watching the relevant devices switch on and fall in line, like something out of a futuristic movie. In fact, it’s so “sci-fi,” that I was compelled to take advantage of the Echo’s optional alternate “wake word.” Amazon designed the Echo to respond to other words, in case, for instance, you have somebody named “Alexa” also living in your home. The alternate wake words are “Amazon,” “Echo,” and my personal geeky favorite: “Computer.”

I haven’t risked playing a Star Trek episode in Alexa’s presence yet. She hasn’t learned to distinguish my voice from the TV, yet.

Fun fact: if you call out, “Computer: Earl Grey, hot,” she’ll pick from a series of responses incorporating the concept of the Starship Enterprise‘s replicator. Alas, no tea for now; but there is a gadget…

For now, I’m happy with the result of my experimentation. Followers of this blog know how rarely my tech setups work out as planned the first time. It’s true, I would have preferred Alexa to stay off bluetooth when I ask her—thus not requiring an extra device—but this is a satisfactory compromise.

Besides, what other gadgets do you know of that will sing to you on command?

 

 

Two interesting, if imperfect, online search apps can help find streaming content… sometimes.

Over the holiday weekend, I engaged in an activity shared by many households lately: I binge-watched shows and films on some of the major streaming services. If you’re especially curious, I caught up on the latest seasons of Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon Prime Video; enjoyed the classic horror/comedy adventure Gremlins on that service; and plowed through most of the first season of Netflix‘s original series The Crown. Suffice to say, other than this blog entry, I got very little done.

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On THE CROWN, I keep waiting for Prince Philip (DOCTOR WHO’S Matt Smith, left) to get out his Sonic Screwdriver and uncover alien monsters at Buckingham Palace. But I’m not through with the first season yet, so please don’t spoil it if he does. (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

Watching original programming like those shows is easy to do: the services advertise them on their main screens, boasting award nominations and all-star casts. Even Gremlins, an older film, showed up in Amazon’s “Recommended Movies” section–but I’m guessing they did that because it’s set at Christmas time, as were many of the films in that Amazon section. So those are easy to come by. But what if I had a film I specifically wanted to watch, but I didn’t know where to find it?

Searching each of the sites individually can be a very tedious procedure, especially when you have to enter in each letter of the film or show’s name one at a time with your remote control. Now let’s say I wanted to watch Gremlins, but in this scenario, I didn’t have an Amazon Prime membership, only Netflix. So I type in “Gremlins” on the Netflix search screen, and the results are creative, if unhelpful. I suppose it’s useful to learn the value of compromise. After all, as the Rolling Stones sing, “You can’t always get what you want.” But then, they also sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

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It’s not my place to tell you what films are appropriate to show your kids. Just be prepared for JAWS to ruin your plans for a beach trip… and for SOUTH PARK to teach your kids some colorful new words.

The trick isn’t just knowing what you want, but how to get it. Not long ago, I discovered a website dedicated to streamlining (if you’ll forgive the pun) the streaming content search. Can I Stream It? (CISI) is a search engine for finding a specific show or film across a wide variety of services. In their own words:

CanIStream.It is a free service created by Urban Pixels that allows you to search across the most popular streaming, rental, and purchase services to find where a movie is available. If the movie you’re looking for is not available, just sign-up, set a reminder and voila we will shoot you an email when your chosen service makes the movie available. It’s simple and fast.

Can I Stream It? breaks down the services into five categories:

Instant Streaming: Subscription based and free instant streaming services.

Streaming Rental: Services that offer time limited rentals (24-48 hours) for a small fee.

Digital Purchase: Services that offer the ability to purchase a movie forever.

DVD / Bluray: Services that allow you to purchase or rent a physical dvd/blu-ray disc.

XFINITY Subscribers: Cable Subscription services with online viewing brought to you by Xfinity.

I applauded the thorough depth of CISI’s search. For example, when I searched for Gremlins, it found several sites like iTunes and Vudu, who had the film for rent. But something was missing, and it’s why I don’t use CISI as my primary search method anymore.

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CanIStream.it’s search results page. Notice anything missing? Hint: it rhymes with “shmamazon.”

 

If you’ll recall, I was able to stream Gremlins on Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. Now, either the movie came to Amazon so recently that CISI hasn’t yet added it to their search results; or it’s been on Amazon for a while, and CISI just missed it. Unfortunately, it looks like the former is the case, thanks to the Celebuzz.com article, “10 Movies from the 1980’s to Stream on Amazon Prime Video” … from November 2015.

CISI also has an app, but two of the three reviews on its iTunes front page are one-star:

Don’t trust this app for being correct
     

When checking for titles it seems to be almost uniform that the title is available on “XFinity” and not available on other services.
As example just having checked for the TV series “Crossing Lines” it showed that none of the subscription services had it but it was available on XFinity. Yet in checking directly with Netflix Streaming subscription it was available.

Be careful this app can be misleading and lead you to pay for a video you have in one of your subscription services.

…More

And here’s another gem:

Freezes, lags, and crashes…
     

This app has great potential, but unfortunately, as soon as you start typing it freezes, when you hit search it freezes, when you click the title it freezes. Sometimes it crashes instead freezes, which is nice for a change of pace, but then you have to start all over again.

So it’s not a great site, and its app isn’t winning any prizes. What is one to do?

Luckily I subsequently discovered a superior site/app, JustWatch.com. The website is much cleaner, with more accurate results than CISI; and its app is much more well-reviewed, holding firmly at an average of 4 stars out of 5 on iTunes.

Thanks to JustWatch, now I know that not only can I stream Gremlins on Amazon; but in addition to the handful of services CISI recommended, it’s available for rent from Microsoft, PlayStation, and Fandango Now.

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See at the bottom? THERE’S Amazon, both streaming for Prime subscribers, and available to rent for non-subscribers!

The biggest issue so far is the limitation to which all search engines are prone: I need to know what to type. I recently spoke with my father (whom you may recall from an earlier blog post, is also a streaming video connoisseur), and he was recommending a film he saw about D-Day. It was on Amazon or Netflix–he knew that much. But damned if he could recall the title–or which service had it– off the top of his head. Typing in just “D-Day” on CanIStream.It and JustWatch.com each came up fruitless… but at least JustWatch brought up as its top result, 2004’s Ike: Countdown to D-Day. I’m embarrassed for CISI to reveal that their top result was the anime classic, Vampire Hunter D (Banpaia hanta D) (1985). Come on, guys, really? Suffice to say, that film has nothing to do with Normandy.

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There weren’t NEARLY enough vampire hunters at Omaha Beach.

For the record, the film my dad saw was D-Day 6.6.1944 (from 2004, just like the Ike film). Ironically, that title is the first result when you type in “D-Day” on the search field on IMDB.com. Typing “D-Day 6.6.1944” into either CISI or JustWatch’s search fields brings up nothing but incorrect results. As it turns out (thanks to my dad’s tenacious hunting), it was indeed Netflix who had it, as just D-Day… and only if you search for just that. The longer, correct title brings up Netflix’s “your search did not have any matches” screen.

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Looks good. Shame it’s so hard to find.

The emerging home AI boom (and stand by for a future blog post about that) has us shouting all sorts of random requests to Alexa, Google, and Siri. Hopefully that technology will be perfected soon enough that I can shout to my AppleTV, “Hey Siri, I want to watch that movie about D-Day,” and she’ll cue it up from whatever service has it, without my needing to know a specific title, or where to find it.

Or maybe I’ll just watch Gremlins, again. ■