Tag Archives: amazon prime

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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Amazon’s Got This Delivery Thing Locked

Running a home-based business, I face a dilemma: I need my business mail and packages, but I’m not comfortable sharing my home address with everyone. Plus, my home mailbox is right out in the open, and my neighborhood suffers the occasional mail theft. Most of the time, I’m able to rely on my mail stop, a local branch of PostalAnnex+. This serves as my business mailing address, and I can count on the staff there to sign for any packages I have delivered. Most of the time, this works like a charm. But today’s blog post is about those times when my needs exceed even a dedicated mail stop’s capabilities.

The first time I encountered a gap in the system was this past New Year’s Eve. I had ordered some Ergotech monitor arms (remember?) on December 29, and, impatient as I am, I requested rush delivery. FedEx set out to deliver the arms on Saturday the 31st. Unfortunately, the mail stop kept shortened hours on New Year’s Eve—opening late and closing early— and FedEx showed up too early to have somebody sign for the package.

Seeing that the package was still on the truck, (thanks, online tracking!) I called and requested that it be held at the local FedEx depot. They told me they would do that, so I made my way over to receive the boxes. When I got there, the FedEx clerks explained that the driver decided to be helpful and try to deliver again. This time, he had succeeded, and the boxes were in the safe hands of PostalAnnex+. This was all explained to me after waiting at FedEx well into the afternoon. Once I knew where my box was, I high-tailed it to the mail stop… only to see that they had closed for the weekend, and, as nobody was delivering on Monday, January 2, they wouldn’t be open until Tuesday. Infuriating.

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I suppose there are worse things that could have happened to my FedEx package…

The next time I needed a package in a hurry was just this past weekend. I discovered late on Friday that I needed a special tool for disassembling a mac mini, and nobody locally had it in stock. Amazon sells a kit that contained this tool, and they even had it available for Sunday delivery.

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This is the special tool required to remove a Mac mini’s logic board. No, seriously. (Source: thebookyard.com)

This is where my New Year’s PTSD kicked in: PostalAnnex+ isn’t open on Sundays, and I was hoping to get this repair finished before the start of business Monday. I could have told Amazon to ship it to my home address, but I was going to be out most of the day Sunday, and I wasn’t about to trust a package to be left at my front door for who knows how long. So I couldn’t get it at my mail stop, and I didn’t want it at my home address. If only there were a third option…

As it turns out, there was!

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An example of an Amazon Locker, with compartments for small and medium-sized packages. (Source: PCWorld.com. Click the photo for their opinion piece, “Why Amazon Locker is better than home delivery”)

In September 2011, Amazon Lockers opened in New York City, Seattle, and London. In 2013, as the service expanded to cities across the US and UK, Amazon pitched the concept in this light-hearted cartoon:

From Amazon’s site:

Amazon Lockers are self-service delivery locations where customers can pick up and return Amazon.com packages. Lockers are available in and around major cities, and allow customers to pick up their packages at a time and place that’s convenient for them.

Amazon Lockers live in shopping centers, retail stores, transit stations, and other access points in areas with high package density. Customers select an Amazon Locker as their shipping address, receive a pickup code when the package is delivered, and collect their package at their convenience up to three business days after delivery.

The exciting part for me was the locker nearest to me that could accommodate this package (sometimes they fill up and you have to pick a different location) was located in a 7-11, the famously always-open convenience store. Once I got my notification that the package had arrived in its locker, I made my way over to 7-11 on Sunday to try this service out for the first time.

Amazon’s email notification included a bar code. I brought up the message on my phone, and held the screen under the Locker’s laser scanner. I didn’t have to type in any codes, or passwords, or anything. The scanner recognized the code, and a door on one of the small lockers popped open. I took my Amazon box out of the locker, closed the little door, and walked out without ever having to talk to anyone!

Perhaps I’m too enthusiastic about what this could mean for the delivery industry. I know Amazon’s next eventual phase is drone delivery, and even today, Amazon Prime members can take advantage of same-day delivery in 29 cities. (Sadly, they’re still using cars and trucks for now.)

This degree of instant gratification, combined with whenever-you-want package pickup, is promising; but of course there are concerns about what this could mean for those employed by companies like PostalAnnex, the UPS Store, etc.

We’re already seeing machines replace people in grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Forgive the political reference, but the current nominee for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder, is a big believer in the automation revolution: “[Machines are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he told Business Insider in 2016.

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This man (The Labor Nominee!) doesn’t want anyone to come between you and your burger, not even to serve it to you. (Source: Getty Images)

I certainly don’t want Amazon to put even more people out of jobs (pour one out for Borders bookstores and the like); but unless the companies who maintain mail boxes can find a way to compete and innovate so that people can get their packages whenever they want, I’m afraid they’re going to get locked out. In this age of one-click purchases and same-day delivery, if you’re closed on Sunday, don’t bother opening up on Monday. ■

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. ■