Amazon really wants people to use voice command to buy stuff. So much so that the new Echo Dot, the smaller, cheaper version of the Amazon Echo that can use an existing speaker can only be bought through voice commands, specifically on an existing Amazon Echo unit or through Amazon's Fire TV platform. At least, that's what the launch announcement says. It turns out you can get one through the Amazon Android storefront app just as easily, no extra hardware required (though you do need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber). Here we go:
Amazon launched the Echo a while back as the first device with its Alexa voice control system. Now there are two more, each with a different take on the Echo's functionality at a lower price. The Echo Dot is a small connected speaker/mic that can add smarts to your existing speakers, and the Amazon Tap is a portable Bluetooth Speaker with Alexa voice commands.
Google's various flavors of voice control are neat, not to mention extremely useful thanks to deep integration with Android. But Mountain View doesn't have a monopoly on speech interpretation: Microsoft has made a pretty compelling case for its cross-platform Cortana system, to say nothing of the similar entries from Apple and Amazon. SoundHound threw its hat in the ring last year with the semi-proprietary Hound app, though you had to be part of the beta to check it out. Today Hound gets a public launch, and everyone can play with it with no prerequisites.
Cyanogen, the company that's grown out of the most popular third-party ROM for Android phones and tablets, is now a partner of Microsoft. CEO Kirt McMaster (who you might remember from some rather colorful statements earlier this year) says that the first fruit of that union will be the integration of Cortana with future versions of the modified Android ROM.
McMaster revealed that Cyanogen is working with Microsoft to deeply integrate Cortana into the next version of Cyanogen OS. This is key to catapulting Cyanogen into the mass market, he asserts: Cortana is currently available as an app on Android, but in order for it to make a real difference, it needs to be able to be integrated at the OS level so that its full potential can be leveraged.
Readers, we have a confession to make. This update to the Amazon shopping app actually came out on June 30th, over two weeks ago. Sorry about that. We spotted it, both on the Play Store and on APK Mirror, but didn't notice anything particularly new about it because Amazon neglected to upload a change log. They've done so today, and the new version (22.214.171.124 on my Nexus 6) actually adds some important new features to the app.
First of all, you can now use the official Amazon shopping app in Mexico thanks to the Amazon.mx expansion announced last month. If you've received an Amazon gift card (paradoxically available at many retailers which Amazon actively competes with), you can now scan it with your smartphone's camera to add the credit instead of laboriously punching in numbers.
Amazon's voice-controlled, web-connected life manager thing, the Echo, is about as close as you can get to a conceptual product while still asking people to pay for it. But to its credit, Amazon seems to be constantly improving Echo by expanding its functionality. The latest update makes Echo compatible with Google Calendar (one of the web services offered by Google that Amazon doesn't directly compete with) thanks to a selection of voice commands.
According to an email sent to Echo owners, you can now ask Echo (or Alexa, if you've allowed your semi-sentient monolith to retail a sense of identity) "What's on my calendar" to get a quick overview of your upcoming events.
You probably know that you can use the "OK Google" command in Google Now (and just recently, anywhere else in Android) to do some cool things like set an alarm or check a flight number. But up to now, it hasn't been able to do much with the actual hardware on your phone. There's no easy way to expand Google Now functionality with third-party apps, but at least one developer found a work-around: meet Commandr, the new in-between service for flipping hardware switches in Google Now.
Commandr can toggle your phone or tablet's Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or GPS, turn the LED flashlight on or off, and even pause or advance music - you know, all those things you normally use widgets for - via Google Now voice commands.
There are a few noteworthy changes in the latest Google Search update, but we've spotted one more that deserves some exploration. Ever since Google rolled out its new voice interactions as part of Google Now, settings control has been strangely absent. With v3.4 it's kind of there.
Update 6/30/14: Search v3.5 seems to have added Bluetooth support, but it still doesn't do what you really want it to.
In the new Google Search, you can say things like "turn WiFi off," and the device will automatically open the correct settings menu. It does not, as you might hope, actually toggle the setting.
Gary Busey has carefully crafted a reputation as a lunatic. True, a good part of that might just be his Hollywood persona, but you've got to admit it's entertaining. Someone at Amazon agrees, because they enlisted Mr. Busey's services for one of the first promotions of the new Android-powered FireTV set-top box. In this one-minute spot, Gary Busey talks to a lamp.
Amazon takes the initiative here, using a crazy shouting man to illustrate the fact that the competing Roku set-top boxes don't have voice control. (Unless you use the Android app, which they kind of glossed over.
Okay, so that camera voice command Google pointed out the other day wasn't terribly useful, but the new music command is pretty cool. Just pull up voice search in whatever way you prefer, and tell your device to "play some music." That's it – the tunes will flow.