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Alexa Inside: What it’s really like to use Amazon’s voice assistant on a new Windows 10 laptop

Alexa Inside: What it’s really like to use Amazon’s voice assistant on a new Windows 10 laptop

Alexa is all over the place these days, from the fridge to the bathroom mirror, and now on Windows 10 PCs, where Amazon’s voice assistant could teach Microsoft’s Cortana a few things. But for the most part, Alexa feels out of place on a laptop, like a stranger in a foreign land, still trying to settle in and find her way around.

That’s my assessment after a week using a new Acer Spin 5, one of the first computers to come with Amazon Alexa pre-installed.

Acer and other Windows PC makers are increasingly using Amazon’s virtual personality as a selling point for Windows 10 machines, attempting to breathe new life into the traditional computer market. HP, ASUS and Lenovo have also announced Alexa integrations with machines including desktops and PC towers, but Acer touts its new Spin convertible laptops as the first notebook computers to ship with Alexa. The rollout, which started last week, is the initial step in Acer’s plan to integrate Alexa across its PC lineup.

These integrations of Alexa and Windows PCs are the result of partnerships between Amazon and the PC makers. They are separate from efforts by Microsoft and Amazon to make Alexa and Cortana work together. Windows PCs are no longer the booming market they once were, but with Microsoft claiming more than 600 million monthly active Windows 10 devices, traditional PCs still represent a big potential market for Alexa as Amazon competes with Google Assistant, Apple Siri and others.

So what is it like to use Alexa on a PC? I purchased the $799, 13.3-inch Acer Spin 5 on Amazon, naturally, and upon opening the box, Acer immediately made it clear that Alexa was inside. The packaging touts the machine as “Amazon Alexa Enabled” with a prominent logo. On the wrist rest below the keyboard, Alexa gets even more prime real estate than the classic Intel sticker.

To me, at least, that suggested a tight integration of Alexa functionality into the machine. But from the beginning, the experience felt less than native.

After booting up the Spin 5 and letting Cortana lead me through the Windows 10 setup, I arrived on the desktop expecting to see Alexa in some form, in the taskbar or on the desktop, maybe even in an introductory animated video about Alexa on Windows PCs, along the lines of what Amazon provides on its own Alexa-enabled devices with screens.

Instead, the only sign of Amazon’s presence was the pre-installed Amazon shopping app in the Windows 10 taskbar. Priorities, I guess?

It wasn’t until I clicked on the Windows icon to bring up the Start menu that I saw Alexa, pre-installed as promised but almost hidden in a long list of apps.

From there, the process was relatively simple. I logged in with my Amazon account. Alexa downloaded an update, and then appeared as an icon in the system tray.

(Amazon notes in its FAQ, “Other compatible Windows 10 devices use software management tools to help you to install Alexa for PC when you first set-up your device.” For now, Alexa isn’t yet available to download as a Windows 10 app except on devices where Amazon and the PC maker have struck a partnership.)

The first couple times I said “Alexa,” the computer didn’t respond, but after fiddling with the microphone settings in the Windows Control Panel and making sure the “Wake Word” setting was activated in the Alexa app, I said “Alexa” and heard a familiar “bling” sound, then saw the full Alexa app icon in the taskbar, indicating that Alexa was listening.

From there, the experience was very similar to using Alexa on other third-party devices. There was a slight lag in Alexa’s response, when compared to the experience on Amazon’s own Echo devices. And Alexa didn’t respond reliably, requiring me to raise my voice more to be heard by the computer’s microphone array than I would with an Echo device.

But Alexa was able to do almost everything on a Windows PC that it can do on Echo devices, from music to flash briefings to third-party skills, as outlined in this Amazon chart.

I was especially impressed that I was able to easily control a smartbulb from Alexa on the Windows PC, without any additional setup, because I had already enabled the controls for my other Alexa devices. This is one area where Alexa on a PC could be especially useful for home users, and a potential solution for people who don’t have other Alexa devices.

This is also an area where Microsoft’s Cortana is far behind Amazon. Microsoft has started to roll out initial smart home partnerships with a variety of device makers, but my efforts to get Cortana to work with two TP-Link smartbulbs — purportedly supported by Microsoft’s voice assistant — were unsuccessful, despite a couple hours of trying.

I was able to see the names of the bulbs in the Cortana Notebook, and I followed TP-Link’s instructions to the letter, but Cortana would never light up the lamp from the PC. I’m sure I was doing something wrong, but there’s very little online support to help troubleshoot, in contrast with the large amount of documentation and how-to videos available for help with Alexa smart-home integration.

On the down side for Alexa, there’s very little integration with Windows 10 itself. Whereas Cortana lets Windows 10 users open apps by voice, for example, Alexa has no such capabilities.

What struck me most, however, was that the visual experience of the Alexa app was very basic, similar to the Alexa app on a smartphone, showing plain text in many cases rather than the rich graphical interface of an Echo Show or Echo Spot screen. This seems like a missed opportunity for now, but something that Amazon could improve over time.

I contacted the Alexa team this week to make sure this computer or my experience didn’t represent an anomaly in some way.

“What you experienced is consistent with a typical Alexa experience on the Acer Spin 5,” an Amazon spokesperson explained. “Alexa on PC’s lets customers do thousands of things and we’re excited to bring those capabilities natively to PCs. With Alexa, customers can get information, manage calendars, order food, check flight status, lock doors, control their smart home, set timers and alarms, access tens of thousands of skills, and more – hands-free from their PC.”

Does Amazon plan to improve the experience over time, perhaps making the Alexa app on Windows PCs more akin to the Echo Show? “Alexa is always getting smarter and learning new capabilities,” was the response. “We aim for consistency across all Alexa devices, but have nothing else to share related to the visual experience today.”

My bigger question is whether there’s really a role for voice assistants on laptops and computers, given the time-tested appeal of keyboards, mice and trackpads. Phones and smart speakers are a different matter, but is it really worth engaging in conversation with Alexa, Cortana or another digital personality when you can just open a search box and type?

So far, for me, the answer is no, and for that reason and those above, I don’t think Alexa integration is something that should be considered when choosing among new Windows PCs. It will be interesting to see if Amazon cares enough about Windows as a platform to prove me wrong in future updates for Alexa on PC.

Audio/video production and editing by GeekWire’s Clare McGrane and Kaitlyn Wang.

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