The first real Alexa phone is here - here's what it's like
To that end, it's made it a point to put the voice assistant in everything that will take it, from its ever-growing line of Echo speakers to an army of third-party appliances. But as ubiquitous as Alexa is becoming, it still hasn't managed to penetrate the most common gadget of them all: the smartphone.
That could soon change, as HTC is formally updating its commendable U11 smartphone on Monday to support Amazon's digital helper. HTC says all US variants of the phone will start gaining access to the "HTC Alexa" app beginning on Monday. It'll be available in the UK in July, and in Germany in August.
The U11 technically isn't the first smartphone to support Alexa: the Huawei Mate 9 integrated with the assistant earlier this year. But Huawei's implementation required you to manually open an app whenever you wanted to use it, which defeated the purpose of a "hands-free" assistant in the first place.
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I've been testing Alexa on the HTC U11 for the past week or so. The short summary is that it's an exciting step, but more so for Amazon than for consumers right now. Here's a quick rundown of what it can and can't do:
- The U11's array of microphones is strong, but not on the Echo's level. That means you'll have to shout at the phone a couple of times to get Alexa to hear you every now and then. Voice assistants remain wholly uncomfortable to use in public - a big reason why the Echo has succeeded in the home.
- Everything about the integration here becomes less useful if you use a PIN or some other sort of screen lock. In that case, you can activate Alexa, but you have to pick up and unlock your phone before you can actually use the assistant to do anything. That security trade-off might not be worth it for you.
- You really have to download the HTC Alexa app and Amazon's own Alexa app to get the most out of this, so there's still some barrier to entry here.
- You can call on Alexa in three ways: Saying "Alexa" (which is best), tapping on the HTC Alexa app icon, or tying the assistant to the U11's "Edge Sense" feature, which lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to launch an app. Edge Sense works well, even if it is a bit goofy.
- Once you activate Alexa, it manifests itself as a little card that takes up the bottom third of the screen. It has the same voice you'd hear on an Echo. But it only relays information through voice; there are none of the full-screen graphics or visual info cards you'd see on an Echo Show or Fire TV. You'll have to go into Amazon's Alexa app to see further details.
- I don't think that's too big a deal in itself. The problem is that touching anywhere on the screen while Alexa is talking automatically cuts it off. You can't keep browsing or open another app at the same time. So when you ask Alexa for something, you're stuck looking at a microphone icon until Alexa is finished. This is due in part to technical limitations, but it's not like that means anything to consumers.
- Most of Alexa's 15,000 or so "skills" still work here. Most of those voice-based apps are still garbage. But the assistant is at its best when you use the handful that work well, and, crucially, don't have a peer with Google Assistant, which is baked into Android, not layered on top of it.
- That, in essence, comes down to smart home stuff: Amazon plays nicer with many more devices than Google there, and being able to dim your smart lights, lock your garage door, or whatever else from one place on your phone is neat. All of this assumes you don't already own an Echo, however, and that you're interested in smart home tech in the first place.
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- Naturally, Alexa works very well with other Amazon things - doubly so if you're a Prime member. Ask it to play some Kanye West and it'll do so from your Amazon purchases or the Amazon Music streaming service. You can also have it buy something off Amazon, but that's a bit silly when you can just use the Amazon app on your phone. If you've placed an order already, though, you can have it track your shipment status. There's nothing new here, but it's nice to have on you at all times.
- It can't play audio from Spotify, Pandora, or other third-party apps, however. That's a big loss.
- If you're caught up in the Alexa nexus already, you can use the assistant to create calendar events and to-do lists. It can read those back to you as well. The usual weather updates and flash news briefings work always, too, but Google Assistant is already more than capable with stuff like that.
- Again, the assistant isn't integrated on a system level, so it doesn't take advantage of being in a smartphone environment as well as it could. Some of these shortcomings are basic: It can't set alarms, reminders, or timers; it can't open apps; it can't call people in any form; and it can't message anyone. HTC exec Nigel Newby-House says the ability to set timers and alarms will arrive "pretty soon," but these are all things Google Assistant can do right now.
- Beyond that, Alexa also can't dig into your settings and, say, change the screen brightness, or schedule your phone to go into a battery saving mode once it hits a certain level of power, or find specific photos from the default camera app. There's still a lot of opportunity left on the table here. HTC wants to make this sort of tighter integration happen in the long-term, Newby-House said, but it won't be possible on the U11.
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- What you're left with is a mix-and-match situation: Alexa works best for its smart home integration and myriad other skills; Google Assistant is better at the "getting around the phone" stuff. You can use either for getting the weather and asking general questions, but since studies have found Alexa to be dumber than its peers, you'll probably want to stick to Google Assistant for that.
- Newby-House said HTC plans to send push notifications to the U11 for the next couple of weeks that will prompt owners to download and make use of the Alexa app. It won't force the app onto anyone, but that could get a tad annoying.
I don't mind Alexa existing on the U11. It'll be a genuine help to people who already own Alexa-compatible gadgets. And if there's one thing we know about voice assistants right now, it's that they're all pretty bad. None of the major players can do everything, so having the option to use whichever works best for what you need is as much as you can really ask for.
But Alexa's shortcomings on the U11 are a reminder of how messy the state of voice assistants is right now. This is a good step for Amazon in its quest to make Alexa unavoidable, but it's more about laying the foundation than smoothing out the bumps in the road.