Out of nowhere, Amazon Alexa has taken the technology world by storm. With over a hundred million devices sold, and an exponentially growing set of skills, it has become the digital voice assistant to beat.
No wonder, Microsoft teamed up with Amazon to bring her to the world of Windows.
Cortana and Alexa both play nicely with each other now, while an official Alexa app has been recently released on the Microsoft Store. Add the range of new Windows 10 laptops and computers that are launching with Alexa functionality baked in, and it’s crystal clear where the wind is blowing.
Let’s take a look at where Amazon Alexa is on Windows 10, and what you can do with it.
You are likely aware of Alexa by Amazon, and what she is capable of. This voice service is a cloud-based program that acts as a virtual private assistant. Not dissimilar to the numerous voice-control tools that are available on the market.
But what sets Alexa apart is her simplicity, and focus on doing things for you in real life. It is a new breed of voice-aware systems that use conversational artificial intelligence. What this really means is that you ask your questions and give your commands using your normal voice and natural language.
Alexa is meant to be interacted with, not controlled.
True, operating systems like Windows and macOS have had voice-controlled tools for decades now. But since they were unreliable, they did not gain much traction. It was only when Apple purchased Siri in 2010, and released it on iOS 5 a year later, that voice control went mainstream.
But the voice ball truly started rolling with the release of the full version of Alexa in 2015.
What exactly can Alexa do?
Why is Alexa so popular? What sets it apart from other digital assistants? The real trick is that while older voice-command tools were geared towards using a computer or smartphone, Alexa doesn’t do any of that. It’s more focused on doing things for you in the real life.
Here’s a selection of what Alexa can do:
- Alexa can play your music, podcasts and audiobooks.
- It tells you the latest news, sports score, weather or traffic.
- You can set up alarms and timers, and check calendars.
- Automate your home, with devices like lights, thermostats and appliances.
- Answer questions, serve as a calculator, speller, dictionary, encyclopedia and search engine.
- Use Alexa skills to order a pizza or your Uber ride, play games or trivia.
- Communicate with people, even if they don’t have an Alexa device.
- Check your cameras and answer the door.
- Buy things from Amazon.
- Alexa can even tell you jokes and stories, and sing you songs.
That last feature may come as surprising, but has played a big part in the mainstream adoption and success of Alexa. Its whimsical nature is as fun as it is useful.
Obviously, not all of these features are available for Windows 10 users right off the bat, as you’ll learn below. But this side of the ecosystem is steadily growing, as manufacturers build Alexa voice-recognition functionality in their newer machines. Companies like Razer that create peripherals and accessories for PCs are also integrating features that let users control their audio and mouse DPI settings, and even start up their games
All these new and upcoming devices are part of another, larger ecosystem.
That of the family of Alexa powered devices.
Meet the Alexa Family
In most cases, Alexa is closely associated with hardware devices. And how close this association is, depends on the device. As of this writing, there are some 20,000 devices that work with Alexa, with hundreds more coming every month.
There are three broad types of Alexa devices:
- Devices with Alexa built-in: As you may expect, Amazon already offers a huge range of products that have Alexa inside. These include devices like Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Spot, Eco Show, Fire TV, and Fire tablets. Beyond that, there is a massive list of third-party devices that offer Alexa functionality, ranging from Windows PCs, TVs, tablets, sounds systems, appliances, even cars.
- Devices that control Alexa directly: These are devices that you can say are Alexa friendly, and can be connected to and controlled via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections. Examples here include thermostats and light bulbs.
- Devices that offer indirect Alexa control: And finally, there also are devices that offer limited control via Alexa. Examples being, smart lamps and plugs.
As a Windows user, you have an array of devices to pick from.
Not only can you get Windows 10 devices that are acoustically tuned specifically for Alexa, and offer you the convenience of the digital assistant built-in, but a new breed of accessories and peripherals are also starting to make their way to the market for users that use PCs, laptops and tablets.
Then you have those “Works with Alexa” products that enable you to turn your abode into a smart home, and enjoy Alexa in more places.
Not to mention, the range of reasonably affordable Echo devices that Amazon itself makes and markets. These range from the $50 Echo Dot to the regular Echo at $100, Echo Plus at $150 and the Echo Show that will run you $230 — your choices are pretty much limitless.
Whatever hardware you own, you can use the Windows 10 app below to connect with and manage many of these devices. Usage is as easy as giving voice commands to ask questions and make requests directly from the application like a regular digital assistant.
The party is just getting started.
Alexa on Windows 10
Up until a few months ago, Amazon Alexa was not available to everyone. Only a select few OEMs were offering her on a handful of Windows 10 devices. Some users got around this via a workaround. But you will be glad to know that it is no longer needed now.
The Amazon Alexa app is officially available for Windows 10 on the Microsoft Store.
We’ll get to the app below, in a minute. But as for its usage, if you have a compatible computer, you will be able to use Alexa handsfree. If not, accessing the service is simply a matter of clicking a button or hitting a keyboard shortcut to active the voice assistant. Only compatible Windows 10 devices support Alexa wake word functionality, though.
You should also be aware of a few caveats when setting your Echo device.
You’ll have to set it up using your desktop browser. Some outlier choices like Opera don’t work as well here. But Edge is supported, and will work just fine. Go to the alexa.amazon.com and log in. Then plug in and turn on your Echo. Go to settings, then select the setup option, choose the type of Echo you have, finally select your Wi-Fi network in the web app.
Click connect, and your Echo will be set up and you can begin talking to it.
The Alexa app
The Alexa app may look barebones right now, but even this early version comes with a decently good feature set, if you look beyond the interface. The UI may be nothing worth writing home about, but you get almost all of the basics here for the service itself, along with music control.
Here’s how the official Alexa application on Windows 10 looks right now:
You’ll need to spend some time to learn the various commands that you will give Alexa to get things done. These will then activate the service and have her fetch the required information. Commands can be anywhere from “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing” to “Alexa, add peanut butter to my shopping list”.
You can download Alexa for Windows 10 here.
The app is only available in the US, UK, and Germany right now, but availability is slated to expand in the coming months. Amazon services and products tend to expand quickly worldwide, so that is a plus. Still, you can give the Alexa app a try if you are outside supported region or country by changing your location in your account settings.
What Alexa can do on Windows 10?
The basic premise of Amazon Alexa is to allow you to use the voice assistant right on the Windows 10 PC, without the need of Echo devices. At this initial stage, the platform provides users with convenience, especially those who use Alexa for things like shopping and controlling their smart gadgets.
And then there is the small matter of the massive library of Alexa Skills available that let you do all kinds of stuff with a range of services.
The app includes access to Now Playing to control music, and like any other Alexa app, it can also control smart devices. Those of you with compatible PCs can use Alexa handsfree. For everyone else, it comes down to clicking or tapping the button or pressing the keyboard shortcut to activate the voice assistant.
Once activated, you can carry out most of the tasks that you would expect to do so on a digital voice assistant, including controlling your devices, asking her questions, have her translate phrases in different languages, asking for the weather forecast, checking your calendar, and adding items to your lists.
Amazon also lets you modify many of your Amazon Alexa settings from this page, which are then automatically reflected on the Windows 10 app.
What Alexa can’t do on Windows 10?
Now comes the interesting part. As you might expect from a new launch, there are a number of features and capabilities missing from Alexa on Windows 10 that are available on other platforms.
For starters, Alexa on Windows 10 cannot control some apps like Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn. It also doesn’t let you launch movies or videos that are tied to your Amazon Prime account. Same goes for calling and messaging, which are not available on the platform yet.
This does mean that Alexa has a lot of room to grow on Windows 10.
And Amazon recently confirmed that it plans to add PC specific features to Alexa on the platform and make the service work directly with these machines. Capabilities like controlling your PC, accessing its content, and opening applications is the bare minimum one can expect going forward.
Until that happens, a device like Echo is probably going to offer a better assistant experience for Alexa, while Cortana will continue to deliver a better overall experience on laptops and computers.
Where does this leave Cortana?
Naturally, the biggest question now is where does all this leave Cortana? Microsoft launched her with great fanfare on Window 10 and Windows 10 Mobile in 2014. And over the years, it even made appearances on a variety of devices like Xbox One, Microsoft Band, Surface Headphones, Windows Mixed Reality, to go with competing mobile platforms like iOS and Android.
Yet over time, it became clear to the company that integration with other voice platforms will be the best way forward for this technology.
This change of heart is the reason why Microsoft and Amazon are collaborating on integrating their two smart assistants. You can launch Cortana and ask her to give Alexa a command, and likewise for Alexa giving Cortana something to do.
With the official Alexa app now available, it’s hard to imagine users doing this much, going forward. The novelty factor is nice, but calling Alexa from Cortana disables many of her native skills like playing songs from Amazon Music or listening to an audiobook from Audible.
But where Cortana will specialize is in its integration with Windows and Office. And this seems to be a direction that Microsoft is taking. The idea being, to allow PC users choice of using Cortana alongside any other digital assistant, which themselves would use Cortana skills to access and manage Microsoft software — a one-stop shop for Office, Outlook, To-Do, instead of separate skills for each.
In other words, we may be entering a world where no one voice assistant rules them all, but all voice assistants work together.
Amazon Alexa has put one foot in on the PC. The app functions are limited for now, but Amazon has promised to add new features and functionalities that are exclusive to the platform. The first batch of these should arrive in early 2019.
It may not beat Cortana when it comes to deep integration with Windows 10, Office and other Microsoft software. But for everything else, it seems like Alexa has got you covered.