What is Amazon Alexa? What devices offer Alexa? Amazon Alexa, also known simply as Alexa, is a virtual assistant technology largely based on a Polish speech synthesizer named Ivona, bought by Amazon in 2013. It was first used in the Amazon Echo smart speaker and the Echo Dot, Echo Studio and Amazon Tap speakers developed by Amazon Lab126.
It is capable of natural language processing (NLP) for tasks such as voice interaction, music playback, creating to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, providing weather, traffic, sports, other real-time information and news. Alexa can also control several smart devices as a home automation system.
Alexa capabilities may be extended by installing “skills” (additional functionality developed by third-party vendors, in other settings more commonly called apps) such as weather programs and audio features. It performs these tasks using automatic speech recognition, NLP, and other forms of weak AI.
Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as Alexa or Amazon); other devices (such as the Amazon mobile app on iOS or Android and Amazon Dash Wand) require the user to click a button to activate Alexa’s listening mode, although, some phones also allow a user to say a command, such as “Alexa” or “Alexa wake”.
What is Amazon Alexa?
For most people, all you really have to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of the voice that comes out of Alexa-enabled speakers. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what Siri is to Apple. Alexa is a voice that you can ask questions to and get answers, such as “What is the weather today in Chicago?” Alexa has been integrated into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products such as the original Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, Echo Show, or Amazon Fire TV.
But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa a question, what you’re doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to get this service to perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, you just have to say the wake word to get a response.
According to Amazon’s Developer site, the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) lives in the cloud. Amazon’s AVS is an intelligent voice recognition and natural language understanding service. The service can be used to voice-enable any connected device that has a microphone and speaker. That’s why you’re starting to see Alexa in headphones and other devices. “Alexa is always getting smarter with new capabilities through machine learning,” Amazon’s Developer site reads.
While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” That’s a useful feature, especially if your name or your partner’s or roommate’s name happens to be Alexa or something that sounds similar.
What devices offer Alexa?
There are two sides to this question – devices that work with Alexa (such as Hue bulbs) – and devices that offer Amazon Voice Services, which is the platform that runs Alexa. First and foremost, Alexa is designed around Amazon’s own Echo devices.
The Amazon Echo range includes the Echo and Echo Dot, which are all speakers, and then the Echo Show models which also feature a display, so can give you visual feedback, like weather widgets, videos or song lyrics. There are several Amazon Alexa gadgets too, like the Echo Wall Clock for example.
The cheapest Echo device is the Echo Dot, which is a good starting point for building an Echo system and getting started. You can see all the Echo devices compared right here. There are plenty of other devices that offer Alexa voice control, such as the Sonos Era 100. You can see a range of Echo alternatives here that offer Alexa too.
All these devices feature far-field microphones that can pick out your voice through background noise and are waiting to take your command when they hear the Alexa wake word. Once you say this, Alexa will swing into action and respond to your commands. But what can Alexa actually do?
What about Alexa in the smart home?
Smart home control has emerged into one of the most significant areas of Alexa’s influence. It’s no longer just about asking for the weather and playing music with fancy voice control – it’s also about connecting to and controlling other devices in your home. You can view your Ring Video Doorbell on your Echo Show, for example, as you can with Arlo cameras.
You can connect Alexa to your Philips Hue or other lightbulbs, like Ikea, to turn them on or off with voice, or link to your heating controls so you can check and change the temperature in your house. In this sense, Alexa is a great smart home controller – and once linked to Alexa, can be accessed through anything that supports Alexa voice commands.
Some Echo devices take this a step further offering Zigbee support and in newer devices, Matter support, which will allow you to directly connect and setup smart home devices without needing a separate app or hub for that device. For example, you can buy a single Philips Hue bulb and set it up with some of the latest Echo devices, without needing a Hue Hub.
How to make any speaker Alexa-compatible
If you’d like to add the Alexa voice assistant to your existing audio setup, there are a couple of ways to get the job done.
Previously, Amazon sold a device called the Echo Input, which has now been discontinued. The Amazon Echo Input is a small, disc-shaped dongle that you can connect to your audio setup over Bluetooth or using the 3.5mm socket. It was designed for folk who aren’t quite ready to wave goodbye to their great, older speakers. If you’re desperate to grab one, you’ll most likely have to buy a used unit online.
Google’s Chromecast Audio was another option at one point, but again that device is no longer on sale.
Nowadays, your best bet is to connect any Amazon Echo Dot to a second speaker by using the 3.5mm audio-in socket. This means you’ll get instant access to thousands of voice commands through Alexa, but your audio will come through your larger, second speaker.
But if all you care about is getting Alexa in every room, you could also consider getting an Alexa plug – the Amazon Echo Flex (shown below). This is a plug-in Alexa gadget that has a mini integrated speaker so you can hear Alexa. It also connects to external speakers via Bluetooth or using the 3.5mm socket.
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