Amazon updates their Echo voice assistant and speaker to add direct read of Audible books
This has been a big request. Earlier, people had to pair phones or tablets with bluetooth to have their Audible books read through the convenient and very clear Echo speaker system.
' Listening to audiobooks from your Audible library is easy. Here's how:
- Start any book you own with "Alexa, read [Audible book title]"
- Resume the current book you're reading by saying "Alexa, read my book."
- Control playback with "Alexa, go back/forward."[You can, of course, also pause it as needed.]Echo also supports Whispersync for Voice, which allows you to seamlessly switch between reading and listening with your eligible Kindle books. You can read on your Kindle, tablet, or smartphone and then continue listening on your Echo, right where you left off. '
While Amazon is offering "complimentary extended samples from popular titles and a free trial," there are ongoing monthly Kindle Book specials that feature inexpensive Audible narrations paired with some of the Kindle books featured at larger discounts for the month. The product page for that month will sayk, "Add narration for a reduced price of ____ when you buy the Kindle book."
For June's specially discounted Kindle books ($1.99 to $3.99), you can find the listing of 104 Kindle books that are paired, for June, with reduced-cost Whispersync for Voice here. (In March there were only 53, so they seem to be expanding these.)
And for those who want to try a free Audible example with a free Kindle book to see how Whispersync works, here's the only one available currently.
Here's the help page for using Whispersync with more information.
Amazon's latest Echo features that allow you to escape its semi-walled garden
The Verge's Josh Lowensohn reported, in early May, on the Echo's new ability to work with Twitter, Gmail, and Evernote, "...plus a few others, thanks to the If This Then That" ("ITTT)" feature. I'm repeating this section for those who had no interest in the Echo at the time but may be interested in some of the newer features.
Lowensohn mentioned the recent updates already reported here, "things like Pandora, traffic reports, sports scores, and support for Belkin's WeMo and Phillips's Hue products" and describes the new features' capabilities:
' ... the IFTTT 'recipes' for Alexa let you send your shopping and to-do lists out to third-party services like Google Drive, Evernote, and Todoist
... There are 54 combinations in total. Enabling them requires signing up for IFTTT, then linking it up with your Amazon account. You also need to go through the motions of activating the various third-party app channels, and approving your accounts there so IFTTT can link everything up behind the scenes. Some of the really good examples so far are:
. Adding your Echo shopping list items to Evernote
. Sending someone a short email with your voice
. Sending someone an SMS with your voice
. Adding Echo shopping list items to the iOS Reminders app
. Adding Alexa to-dos to Microsoft's OneNote '
See the Verge's full article for illustrations and more details on what's involved in using the feature.
Amazon Echo was recently updated to control Wemo switches and Philips Hue smart bulbs in the home, to turn lights on or off in named rooms or to dim or brighten them.
Pandora was added, in May (in addition to iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio features).
The updates are coming quickly lately with more meat to them, and Amazon's obviously serious about making it a key device, as Boston Business Journal's David Harris pointed to Amazon's dedicating an entire floor of its Cambridge, Mass. Kendall Square office "to working on the Echo" and is still recruiting more staff for it, with "a hiring event on May 14, 2015 for roles that run the “gamut of distributed systems, speech/voice recognition, and big data.”
My own use of the Echo
I'm music and info-oriented, so while the device is not super knowledgeable about the universe, I tell 'Alexa' to "Wiki [subject]" which has it go to Wikipedia to read me the first couple of paragraphs, and then it sends the rest of the article to my tablet (or phone). This is helpful when I'm not near my computer and think of something. It's also good for adding to my Echo Todo and/or Shopping lists when I think of things in the kitchen, and I can just say "Alexa, add [whatever] to my todo list" [or to my shopping list].
For music, I ask it to "play playlist [name]" and I get about an hour of my favorite music, depending on the genre I feel like listening to. If interested in an artist, I ask it to play [artist] from Prime (which is free Amazon music for Prime members) or I ask it just to "play [artist] and it asks if I want to listen to the musician on iHeart Radio or Prime, sometimes it chooses TuneIn. I signed up for Pandora but haven't used it with Echo yet. The local classical music station sounds surprisingly good on it, though this isn't true of some other stations.
The speaker is very clear, is loud enough that I can't use it at max for most material, has more bass than I thought it would for its size, but it's best with really well-recorded tracks. If the treble range is edgy, it's very edgy on the Echo. I'd like loudness compensation added in the next version for late night listening at lower volume.
It's great for my kitchen where I have no speakers and no computer. They've added news-sources for flash news but I'm waiting for them to allow direct-access to specific sources instead of my having to say "Next" a few times when not interested in the current source.
I really like that I can control the volume by just saying "alexa, louder" or "alexa, not so loud" when I'm working in the kitchen. Or asking it, "what's playing?" or "who's singing?" and it tells me the artist and album. If you like a track, you can of course buy it (but you need a confirmation code to do it), and I've added a lot of good, free Prime tracks to my library while listening, by just saying "add this to my library."
Others are interested in being able to get current sports scores or scores for ealier games, and in getting traffic reports, when we give it starting and ending addresses. (I haven't used it, as I have lifetime traffic status and recommended alternate routes on my Garmin Nuvi, which is a bargain for what it does, well.)
A post on the Kindle Forums mentioned that TuneIn offers a lot of nearby scanner stations if you use the Echo app to enter, in the Search field at the top,
'fire and police' -- but it doesn't work well by voice. Just a curiosity. TuneIn offers local, national, and int'l radio stations (music, talk) with clear, easy access.
What's struck me most about the Alexa voice is that its answers are often lightning fast, which I wouldn't expect when it needs to go to the servers, access whatever, and then get back to me with an answer, and even then the speech is so natural, I have found myself saying, 'Thank you.'
I also found that I sort of enjoy ordering something around :-) ... "Do this, do that, get me this, or that. What, you don't know? Take a class, get trained!"
I do shut off its hearing often, by pressing the microphone icon down, because I don't want it to waste electricity waiting for the word-string 'alexa' to fly by so it can say "Your command is my wish."
I often just use the remote and press the mic and talk without needing to say her name. She tries to obey, does what she can, and then stops listening for anything unless I press the remote button. When will Amazon give us a male voice that takes orders from us?
Echo now does Google Calendar
This is one I waited for, except that i started to use a small printed calendar lately. Why? I don't know, but it's sort of convenient :-)
I had a bit of difficulty finding out how to do the linking, but finally found this help page on how to link your Google calendar to Echo, and its instructions are very clear.
Richi Gupta, with octafinance.com has good details on what you can and can't do with Google calendar, from Echo.
Some Echo tips from the Kindle forums
' Beauty Fool says:
Wow... I just discovered you can get the latest episodes of various NPR, APM, etc shows by simply asking for them.
Case-in-point: "Alexa, play Splendid Table."
Reply: "Getting the latest episode of The Splendid Table from Tune-In."
If you ask, "what's the weather or forecast" she will give you only today's weather. Ask "what's the extended forecast" she will give you the next 7 days...
Cheryl Jones says:
as for the weather you can ask her for 10 days. so you can ask for the weather next sat or the weather for may 30 etc. or you can ask if it will rain next sat.... '
Recent mainstream reviews from mainstream tech writers who use it quite a bit
• "Five months in, it's the most used gadget in my home" - James Kendrick, ZDNet, May 15, 2015
• "It sucks. It's awesome. It sucks. We want two more" - David Gewirtz for DIY-IT - May 21, 2015
• "Amazon Echo review" - Margaret Dornbusch - Gadgeteer, May 31, 2015
• "Amazon Echo talks to Google Calendar (and you)" - (more tips) David Gewirtz for DIY-IT, June 1
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