Monday, May 1, 2017

Alexa is a welcome addition to Amazon's tablet


Gizmo Editor Review

What’s the first app you install on a new tablet computer? For me, it’s Amazon’s Kindle app. I have to have my book library close at hand and tablets have become my preferred reading platform. Close behind come Amazon’s music and streaming video apps along with Amazon’s  shopping app.

And now there’s Alexa, the voice-controlled personal assistant that we have added to the household through two stand-alone devices, the Amazon Dot and Tap. Alexa delivers news updates and weather reports, dims the hall lights, plays music and reads my current Kindle book, picking up where I left off.

Clearly, I’m all in with Amazon, which is why I was pleased to get my hands on the Amazon Fire Tablet after Xberts chose me to write this review and provided the product for free. Amazon’s line of Fire tablets are the first tablet devices to include Alexa built into the operating system, making it a tablet you can talk to and one that talks to you.

The Fire Tablet I received is Amazon’s starter model that has a 7-inch high-resolution screen, 8GB of memory and an SD slot for additional memory. It’s the version Amazon sells for $49.99.

How can a tablet with those specs have such a low price tag? One reason is the Fire Tablet contains ads. When you wake the tablet you see a screen selling a variety of products. So far, I’ve seen ads for Band Aids, bottled water, Starbucks’ fancy drinks and a leasing deal on a Genesis, Hyundai’s new luxury car.

But more important than the ads are the myriad offers buy or sample Amazon products like audio books from Amazon-owned Audible or a subscription to The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon’s founder.

The Fire is not designed to be a multi-purpose tablet computer like the iPad Mini or the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Its job is to help you live inside the Amazon ecosystem where it’s easy to play music from your Amazon-housed collection, stream movies and TV shows from Amazon and shop for things like dog food or kitchen appliances. In other words, all of the things we’ve come to rely on Amazon to provide. And it does that job very, very well.

Setting up the Fire Tablet took a little longer than I had expected. It had previously been registered to someone else - perhaps it was a returned or refurbished item - so I had to start by re-registering with my own Amazon account. That instantly got my books and other Amazon stuff loaded into the tablet.

The Fire Tablet runs Google’s Android operating system, but you would barely know that by looking at it. The home screen is populated Amazon apps and as you swipe left, you drill deeper into your Amazon world.

Each swipe shows pages that display your books, music, videos, games, audiobooks and the digital newspapers or magazines that you have subscribed to. The book or movie you’ve most recently accessed is featured on each page along with related content that Amazon’s algorithms think you might want to purchase.

There’s no Google Play store on the Fire Tablet. To get new apps, you go to the Amazon’s app store where you can download Pandora, Netflix, YouTube and other popular apps.      

That was fine so far, but where was Alexa? The app was not pre-loaded with all the other Amazon apps as I expected. It turned out that the operating system needed to be updated - twice, actually - before Alexa was ready to ready to run.

With Amazon’s Dot and Echo, the devices are always listening for someone to say “Alexa” to launch the service. On the Fire Tablet, the process is slightly different. Alexa appears when you press and hold the Home icon for two seconds. When you hear a chime and see a blue line at the bottom of the screen, Alexa is ready to hear your question or command. You don’t have to say her name to get her attention.

Users who are new to Alexa can use the Alexa app to personalize the service by selecting applets from a library of skills. If you’re already an Alexa user, your library of skills will be linked to Alexa on the tablet. One feature that I particularly like is how Alexa will read any of my Kindle books that allow that functionality. I just have to say “Read 1984” and Alexa picks up where I left off.

Alexa is a welcome and useful addition to the Fire Tablet. It’s an non-threatening introduction to voice control that greatly expands the tablet’s usefulness. Now I have another way to get my daily news briefing, tune in to my local NPR radio station, play goofy music for the little kids and get answers to like “How hot is the sun?” And, of course, buy more dog food.


Written by

Follow me on Twitter @ricmanning and read my technology columns at My Well Being.


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