How Do You Solve a 1st-World Problem Like Alexa? 

The closest I’ve come to dabbling in voice automation was an Android version of Siri. But they all needed a button press to wake up, so I figured as long as I’m holding the phone anyway, why do I need a virtual assistant?

So I was taken aback when Tery’s big gift this Xmas was an Alexa speaker from Amazon. She cited “exciting electronics,” but I’m sure the fact you can’t swing a dead cat on Amazon without running into an ad for them was equally to blame (and “blame” is very much the correct word).

Don’t get me wrong; I see the potential for Alexa to be an amazing tool, which is the only thing keeping me from chucking her out the window.

Here’s what she does out of the box all by herself: She can give you the weather forecast. She can connect with your Pandora and Spotify (premium only) and play your music (she can also play music without these services, but unless you have an Amazon music account it’s public domain). She can set reminders, timers and alarms. She can find your phone (with an accompanying app) and a bunch of other small tasks ranging from silly to moderately useful (“skills” development is open source, like Android, so people are adding to them all the time). 

She can answer Google-like questions (with mixed accuracy/success (for instance, she thinks Bruce Willis is still married to Demi, and that Stan Lee is 58). Google and Amazon are competitors, so if you care about getting correct answers, there’s a skill that took me about an hour and a half to enable (here. And yes, it’s as complicated as it looks. That should give you an idea of my level of determination to make Alexa work the way I bloody well feel she should)). (It’s also pretty ironic how Alexa doesn’t get along with Google considering how long I’ve spent on there trying to find solutions to Alexa problems.) 

She allegedly can make phone calls and text for you, but that doesn’t work for my Galaxy (Note3). 

Lastly, she can connect with your phone and be a regular Bluetooth speaker (but can’t navigate within your phone for you).

And that’s it. Hardly worth the price, if you ask me.

Anything else requires a (usually expensive) additional purchase. Like a Harmony Hub if you want voice control of your entertainment center. And an​ Amazon Firestick if you want even more (more later). There are also systems to control lights and even lock your front door, but based on my experience so far, I’m hesitant to entrust even more responsibility to her (see the classic 80’s movie Electric Dreams for why it’s a bad idea to give your virtual assistant too much power). 

Boy, was this film ahead of its time

Here’s my first big complaint about Alexa — if you turn up her music too loud, she can’t hear you screaming commands at her anymore. I won’t pretend to know anything about audio engineering, but it seems crazy she can’t hear over her own noise. 

Here’s my second (and it’s very, very, very big) — if she does hear your commands, whether or not she understands/obeys them is highly arbitrary. It’s taken daily experimentation and training (I’m not sure who is training who) to work out a small list of simple commands, and I’m still at only about a 50-80% success rate. And I’m convinced they change sometimes — at the beginning I swear I just had to call out a channel number to get her to change it (and it took HOURS for me to figure that out). Now she’ll only respond to “turn on ________” (the more intuitive “watch _______” will get you nowhere). And it only works for channels you’ve taught to your Harmony Hub (I feel like 90% of the magic is thanks to Harmony’s hard work rather than Amazon’s). 

​Actually this is spot on accurate

But on obstinate days, you’re more likely to get one of a small variety of error messages (which are only different because probably focus group studies revealed people are more likely to resort to violence if they hear the exact same message over and over. They all mean the same thing: “My software isn’t properly developed so I can’t always do the one thing that’s my biggest selling point”). Sometimes it’s “I’m sorry. Your device isn’t equipped to do that” or “I’m having trouble communicating with your Harmony Hub,” when she carried out that same command with ease a minute ago and will again if you keep asking. Which is still less frustrating than the many, many, too many times she says sweetly “Okay!” and then does absolutely nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rebooted her, reset her, reinstalled skills — she still marches mostly to her own drum, and it’s maddening​. 

Keep pushing me, Alexa. We’ll see who comes to a worse end

(This article claimed over a year ago that Alexa was being trained to sense frustration.  They must not be having much success, or else by now mine would perform flawlessly out of sheer terror.) 

Very underwhelming performance from Amazon’s flagship product. 

She can turn your Blu-ray player on (including changing your TV to the correct input; again, more Harmony than Amazon) but you have to take over from there. She LOVES Roku and will even turn it on by service (e.g. Netflix, Hulu) but you still need the remote to select what you’re watching (however, she can hit pause and play for you, when you catch her in the right mood). 

(One thing she can’t do yet is identify songs Shazam-style.  THAT would be amazing, Amazon.) 

After getting a brief taste of her possibilities (on one unusually good day, when I thought our troubles were behind us), I went a bit mad and ordered a Firestick based on rumors that it would let you request things by title rather than suffering the banality of ever touching a remote again. This was the supremest of disappointments. It worked, sometimes, but if your show was on more than one service she’d always pull up the Amazon option (obviously), which invariably costs money while the same show is included free on Netflix. Nothing will allow you to override this setting (and I’ve looked. For hours). And if the network channel/show you’re asking for from Xfinity is also on Hulu, she tries to force you over there even if you’re not on the Firestick. Extremely annoying. 

But the real dealbreaker was the fact that the Firestick returns to season 1, episode 1 whenever I exit it. Streaming services have had the ability to remember where you left off practically since they were invented (isn’t that a perk of The Cloud?) so I’ve become terribly spoiled and this is unacceptable to me. I’m keeping it in case this gets sorted out. I’m keeping Alexa in case it all gets sorted out. It feels like Amazon is too invested in this technology to NOT get it up to its full (or at least promised) functionality. 

(If you have an Alexa and can offer any tips, please feel free. Because on bad days I feel like I’m trying to break a wild bronco. And on REALLY bad days I start to wonder if Ted Kaczynski wasn’t on to something (with the hatred of technology, not the blowing people up).) (Here’s a good place to very briefly address privacy concerns. Yes, Amazon admits there are some. But since I’m not plotting against the government, and if Alexa could one day be a key witness in my murder then I accept those risks.) 

Here’s the thing: when Alexa does what she’s supposed to, even something as simple as turning on my TV, it feels more fulfilling than you’d expect. When I ask Alexa to play my VNV Nation station (don’t even have to specify Pandora) and the music starts up and I didn’t even have to be in line-of-sight with her, I feel like I’m in an episode of “Black Mirror.” I feel like goddamn Jean-Luc Picard (“Alexa, tea, Earl Grey, hot”). So I’ll hang in there with you, Amazon. But you have GOT to work out these very big bugs.


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