Tech comes home for the holidays

Date Published: 
February 10, 2017

While it wasn’t my intention, I had a tech-heavy 2016 holiday season, dealing with a number of new devices and systems, despite having aimed for a relatively simple, scaled-back holiday.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised — I usually spend a good bit of any visit with my parents providing tech support, and I did buy one high-tech item for them this year. But the sum total of what I ended up doing over my holiday, technology-wise, was much more than I expected — and pretty fun, for all that.

Last year had already offered at least one big surprise on the technology front, as far as my parents were concerned. I gave them each an Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablet for their birthdays. They were a relative steal, at around $40 each, on sale, with a reduced price for including Amazon’s built-in advertising on their start-up screens.

My father has been using an early-model Kindle e-book reader for years, and he has an iPhone, which he uses mostly for email and phone calls. He’s also used an iPad for his work. While the Kindle Fire doesn’t have nearly the battery life of the e-ink readers, which can last for weeks without needing a recharge, they offer a much larger range of games, productivity and entertainment apps, and general functionality, including photos and video.

My mother, meanwhile, has for years staunchly resisted any suggestion of using a device beyond her laptop computer. She’s fond of dead-tree books, which she hands on to others when she’s done reading them, and she likes getting her magazines in the mail, rather than over Wi-Fi. I’d listened to and heeded her refusals in the past, but for $40, I thought it was worth a shot to let her try a tablet.

I don’t know if either of us could have been more surprised at how quickly and enthusiastically she’s taken to that Kindle Fire. I set it up with her email, a few solitaire games and a baseball app to track her beloved Nats. I figured she’d play solitaire a few times and maybe check a Nationals score once in a while.

But, instead, she’s moved much of her email reading and replying to the Kindle, reveling in the ability to step away from her laptop and the desk she keeps it on, and to instead sit on the sofa or in her comfy chair in the living room, tablet in hand, keeping up to date with everything and everyone.

She tells me nearly every time she talks to me how glad she is I got it for her, making me glad I took the chance on getting it, and it was the only device besides her decade-old flip phone that she brought with her on a recent visit.

(Dad, meanwhile, hasn’t taken his out of the box yet, making do with the old Kindle and his iPhone — which is a story I’ll get to in a bit.)

Over the holiday, my mother noted that she’d spotted a new icon on her Kindle — Alexa. She didn’t know what it was and was a little nervous about what it might mean. I myself hadn’t looked into the Alexa app on my own Kindle Fire yet, so we took the chance while I was there to see what Amazon was up to.

For those who didn’t see all the near-ubiquitous Alexa TV commercials over the holiday season, Alexa is Amazon’s voice assistant — similar to Siri in the iPhone and iPad, or Cortana in Microsoft products, or Google’s “voice assistant” (formerly Google Now, but now officially Voice Assistant) found in its phones, computers and browser.

It’s a software application that lives inside of various hardware devices and can do everything from conducting a hands-free internet search to marking down appointments, setting alarms, launching apps, playing interactive games and controlling home-automation devices, such as lighting and thermostats.

If you’re fond of the futuristic scenes in sci-fi shows that depict the characters just talking to their computers and their homes, this is the beginning of the real thing.

On the Kindle Fire, Alexa has to be invoked by holding down the software Home button, much like with Siri and the hardware home button on an i-device (at least until the advent of “Hey, Siri” a couple years ago). Hold down the button for a few seconds, and Alexa (or Siri) will await your request or question.

Mom got a kick out of looking up the Capitals’ score from the night before and hearing when the next match would be, via Alexa’s voice, without her typing a thing. She showed off her new skill to my father when he got home, spurring a little curiosity in him about his long-ignored Kindle Fire, as well as voice assistants.

Siri says ‘Welcome to the future’

Meanwhile, Dad was finally entering 2015, getting to know his new iPhone, which was, after much delay, upgraded from an iPhone 4 to a 6S+ — an upgrade he’d been considering for a while, unbeknownst to me.

I was the one who had advised him not to upgrade his iPhone operating system in recent years, to avoid confusion over where Apple had moved feature X, Y or Z. He didn’t really need the new features the iPhone 4 had gotten since 2010, and it was better to stick with what he knew.

However, it turned out that the iPhone+ line (6 and 6S) had caught his attention, with their bigger and better screens offering better ease of use for aging eyes (which could in the very near future be a major reason I consider my own 6S+ a good thing).

Once he voiced interest in moving up to an iPhone 6+ (free of charge, in fact, with a new contract with his carrier), I talked up one other feature I knew he’d find useful, once it was set up: Touch ID, Apple’s built-in password alternative for unlocking the phone and making use of things such as built-in passwords and purchasing mechanisms for apps and more.

With the touch of a finger (or thumb) to the home button, you can eliminate the need to remember extensive lists of passwords (all of which should ideally be different from each other, for improved security) by saving them within the operating system and browser, or using a third-party password vault app — both of which I set up for him on his new phone.

I won’t mislead you by saying you can eliminate passwords altogether with Touch ID. You still need to at least keep one password that will let you securely access your phone when it has restarted, such as when it runs out of charge. You may sporadically need to enter that.

But with Touch ID set up on a phone, you can just use a fingerprint to open up your favorite password app, securing your most secure information conveniently with you while you’re on the go, and, ideally, keeping that backup list of passwords locked up somewhere completely safe.

We spent a while making sure his backup list was updated, entering everything into his password app, signing in to email and such, so he’d generally only need his fingerprint to do everything he can do on his phone. Unless you have a photographic memory, at some point, having your password be your fingerprint is going to come in handy.

I also introduced him to Siri, who helped him use the GPS in his phone to navigate somewhere for the first time. He argued with her, of course, as to which route was the best, but it is a lot easier than launching an app and trying to type in a destination address — especially if you’ve already put the car in motion — and they both would have gotten us there just fine.

She didn’t properly answer my question about author J.R.R. Tolkien, demonstrating (instead of her prowess) that Siri and her cousins still have a ways to go before they’ll be beating me on trivia night. But the ability to answer questions, just as Alexa did via my mother’s tablet, without the need for typing or launching apps, is one major way in which these devices are now making life easier for everyone, young and not-so-young.

We ended up finding an iPhone 6S+ (one model newer than the 6+, but not the current-model iPhone 7+) for just 1 cent with his contract renewal, in the process spurring another brief conversation about voice assistants as he headed off in the direction of a Google Home display, full of curiosity, while I waited in a long post-holiday customer-service line.

Instant family
sharing, on the mantel

Back at his house, I also proceeded to install on his new phone the app for the tech present I did buy them this Christmas — a new WiFi-connected digital photo frame, to replace the one I had gotten them many years ago that no longer operated without its charger heating up alarmingly.

The technology has improved substantially over the years, even if the prices haven’t come down much. These frames now sport high-resolution screens in sizes large and small, a plethora of customization settings ranging from photo transitions to motion-based standby modes to photo captions, and connections to “cloud” storage services, as well as their own emails and apps for uploading images from your phone or a friend’s computer.

The NixPlay device I had picked out for them offered all of these features, in about the same size device, for about the same cost as nearly a decade ago. But the quality — way better, as is the ease of use.

Before I left my own home, I had set up an account for the device and pre-loaded it with photos of my son, right from my phone, captions and all. Now, they can tell which year that photo from Disney World was taken, that he was 5 in that photo on the beach, and remember that he lost his last baby tooth in 2016.

While at their house, I set up the app on my dad’s phone, showing them how to use it to upload photos and change settings, and I connected it to their WiFi network so I can continue to add photos to it from wherever I may be. Every time I do, the frame lets them know I’ve sent them a photo, right from its perch on the mantel.

If I wanted to, I could even set up a routine through the IFTTT internet service that would automatically send them any new photos I took, all without me (or them) lifting a finger. (I confess that I like being in control a little too much to do that quite yet…)

With their cloud accounts and unique email addresses, these connected frames make it very simple and quick for parents to send photos to grandparents without having to deal with the hassles of downloading, network connections, flash drives and camera cards, file sizes and types, and more. It’s just a matter of selecting a photo to send and using a standard email program or app to get it on its way.

And that same email address and app can allow family friends to share in the fun, no matter how far away they live.

Voice assistants come home

His introduction to Alexa on the tablet and Siri on his phone wasn’t the only time my dad expressed curiosity about voice assistants while I was visiting. Both at home and during two outings that put us in electronics-focused stores, he had asked what all this Alexa/Google Home stuff was about.

I couldn’t actually tell him exactly what they were like, because while I had ordered an Amazon Echo device on pre-holiday sale in mid-December, it was backordered and wouldn’t be delivered until early January. But now that I’ve had a chance to set it up and put it through its paces, I’m no less enthusiastic about its function, nor about its potential.

Echo and Google Home are hardware devices intended to be used around the home, making use of the respective voice assistants and serving as Bluetooth speaker devices for music and more. They’re “voice assistants in a box,” making them useful around the home, without the need to have a smartphone or even larger device at hand.

Amazon got out to an early lead in the hardware market, having launched Echo in late 2014, though its availability was initially restricted to Amazon Prime subscribers, with a waiting list, until mid-2015.

Since then, the hardware hasn’t changed, but its functions have expanded, adding home-automation features that let it control light fixtures, outlets and more; extending its music-playing capabilities to include Pandora, Spotify, Amazon’s own Prime Music and several other music streaming services; allowing it to access Google’s calendar service; and more.

Through Echo, Alexa can now read text-to-speech-enabled books from your Amazon Kindle collection, as well as offering integration with any Audible audiobooks you’ve purchased. It will also stream music from the owner’s Amazon music library or from Amazon’s streaming service (with an even wider range of music available for an additional monthly fee), as well as several other well-known music streaming services.

In the mood for some classic rock? Just tell Alexa, “Alexa, play classic rock.” She’ll find a streaming channel to set you up with some Eagles, to start with. Say, “Alexa, play upbeat classical music,” and you might get “The Marriage of Figaro” to kick things off. If aggressive punk rock suits your mood better, just ask.

You could also set up a routine to dim the lights in the living room, shift them to a warm rose shade, turn on your WiFi-enabled fireplace (yes, they do exist) and stream some Luther Vandross for that romantic night at home. Make use of devices and Alexa “skills” that can turn on your TV and start a movie streaming, and you could be telling Alexa “Netflix and chill” while you open up that nice bottle of wine.

Alexa’s functions are called “skills,” and most are created by third-party developers and will need to be enabled for your device before you can use them (Alexa can enable them for you, too). There’s everything from an official “Jeopardy” game (using six un-used answers from the prior night’s showing) to a skill that keeps track of whether the dog has been fed to one that will order pizza for you, as well as skills for meditation, exercise, podcasts, recipes, news and more.

Alexa has some built-in functions that are useful — everything from telling you the time or getting directions to offering up a joke.

What these devices (and the related voice-assistant services) can do varies, both in selection and in quality. Want Alexa to tell you what a whale sounds like, as demonstrated in the Google Home TV ads? You’ll get a related whale joke instead. Ask for cat sounds, and you’ll get a lovely poem about your feline friend’s purring.

But Google Home can’t read you that book you purchased on Amazon, and it certainly doesn’t offer you exclusive deals or allow you to re-order your favorite nutrition bar from your Amazon order history.

And Siri can easily play anything from your Apple music collection, provided you have a Siri-enabled device nearby, but if you prefer Google Play’s music service or keep your music collection on Amazon, you could be out of luck there, depending on how eclectic your tastes are.

Selecting a voice assistant isn’t quite VHS vs. Betamax, as there’s a good chance all three of these systems will keep going well into the future. (Apple reportedly has plans to develop its own “box” to stick Siri in, so it will likely be very soon that you’ll have at least those three options for in-home devices. Meanwhile, Cortana’s home connectivity is a work in progress, with compatible software updates not expected until this spring and devices shipping sometime after that.)

Options for every home

In my house, Siri and Alexa co-exist just fine. They’re not rushing to answer questions before the other can — mostly because they both have to be “invoked” with their namesake call-out: “Alexa” or “Hey, Siri” (or “OK, Google,” in the case of Google Home). (Alexa can, in fact, have its “wake word” changed to “Amazon” or “Echo,” just in case you have a daughter who shares her name or prefer one of the other monikers.)

I know Siri can’t activate my Lightify lightbulb, because it’s not yet compatible with Apple’s HomeKit app, so I ask Alexa to do that. Alexa can, however, control my iDevices HomeKit-compatible switch to turn on my foyer light, so I can ask either of them to do that. If I’m not anywhere near my Echo device (or its baby sister, Dot) or if the internet is down at home, chances are I have my iPhone on me, so Siri can do the job.

Alexa responds to the call-outs for her enabled skills or natural language for her built-in functions, while Siri has its own built-in functions that may or may not be able to be triggered (accurately or otherwise) by the natural language you use.

Many know the pain of trying to get Siri to accurately understand speech, such as when getting her to send a text message for you. She’s gotten much better at it but still has a ways to go to make things frustration-free. But if she’s programmed to do it and understands what you’re asking, she’ll give it a try. (And she’ll do many things with more personality than her peers, offering up quips, sass and snarky retorts if you’re rude to her, though she doesn’t get sarcasm — yet.)

On the other hand, Alexa seems to struggle when you’re not close enough or when you don’t speak clearly, saying she doesn’t have an answer, but if you say the programmed call-out words for a skill, she knows what you’re asking for and can do it. Her natural language abilities seem a little more limited than Siri’s or that of Google Home, but she’s got those enabled skills down pat. If you can remember the skill’s wording, she’ll get it right every time.

You’ll have to enable the Lightify “skill” to control lights from the Siemens spin-off company. Once that’s done, “Alexa, turn on the living room light” will light your way into a dark house.

Similarly, Siri on your phone or tablet can make use of a number of connected switches, lights and thermostats to welcome you home, though the compatibility varies between the device manufacturers and the voice-assistant companies.

You’ll want to look for Apple HomeKit connectivity if you want to guarantee Siri can control a given device, or Alexa or Google Home compatibility for those devices. Many can be controlled by two or three of the assistants, as well as various apps that don’t use voice control, and compatibility is expanding as smart-home technology becomes more common. (And there are some work-arounds for some devices that aren’t officially compatible quite yet.)

One factor in choosing a voice assistant is where and how you’ll access it. If you’re always with your cell phone, Siri will be convenient. But if you tend to leave it on the kitchen table when you’re in a bedroom on the other side of the house, an Echo or Dot in the bedroom could be ideal.

As for Dot — Echo is not inexpensive, at around $180 full price (watch for sales and consider Amazon’s no-interest five-payment plan if that’s available to you), but it offers an excellent 360-degree Bluetooth speaker for music playback. If you want something smaller or less expensive, consider Dot, which is a little larger than a hockey puck but offers all of Echo’s features for just $50.

Dot’s sound quality isn’t quite as good as Echo, but it’s very usable for music streaming, and it can also be plugged in to a separate speaker for higher-quality audio. Dot’s ideal if you want to extend the Alexa function around your house, making it considerably less expensive to put a Dot in each bedroom or the kitchen, while Echo resides in the living room, for example.

Amazon is also offering Tap, which is essentially a battery-powered version of Echo, for about $130. Tap loses the voice activation of Echo, however, in order to save battery power by not being always in a state of listening for its “Alexa” voice activation trigger. Instead, you tap on the device’s wake button to put it into listening mode (much like Siri was once only able to be triggered by holding down an iPhone’s home button, instead of today’s “Hey, Siri” voice trigger).

Alexa is also present in Amazon’s Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote, which runs around $40 and functions primarily as a streaming media device for your TV, with access to Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and more, as well as games and apps. Alexa shines on this device when used as a voice search across these streaming platforms.

Google offers just one version of Google Home, running around $130. Your device options are limited to a variety of colored bases, for around $20 each, so you can color-coordinate with your home décor. (Echo and Dot both come in black or white, with both Amazon-produced fabric and leather cases and third-party options in a wide variety of patterns and colors. There are also third-party battery base options that bridge Echo’s quality and Dot’s miniscule size with Tap’s portability.)

Google’s emphasis for Home is its full integration with Google’s various platforms, including its original search function, Google Play Music, YouTube, Google Calendar, and Google Maps and its traffic feature, as well as Google Chromecast streaming media devices.

You’ll get the added benefit of hearing that whale song when you ask it what a whale sounds like, because that’s baked into the integration between Google search and Google Home. It’s also a robust device for the smarthome, with a variety of manufacturers offering control of thermostats, switches, lightbulbs and more. (Again — check compatibility for each smarthome device and voice assistant, so you know you’ll be able to use them once you get them all in place at home.)

Cortana, for now, is still stuck inside your computer, though she’s free with the latest versions of Windows. Dad got to meet her last week, when his years-old Windows 7 laptop finally gave up the ghost. My post-holiday tech support duties weren’t entirely done, it turned out.

But, thanks to having stored his important files on Dropbox’s cloud service and the remote-control functions of TeamViewer, we were able to get the new computer up and running for him in a matter of hours, with a few remote tech-support sessions since then to tweak it to his liking.

He’s still having to learn how to make Windows 10 work (something I haven’t yet mastered myself), but Cortana has made even that a little easier by reducing the tedious click-click-click of searching for specific Windows settings and programs.

I expect it won’t be too long before he’s saying, “Hey, Cortana — what’s the weather?” or “Hey, Cortana — play solitaire.” And, as long as she’s asking to take notes for him and not, “Would you like to play a game?” I think he’ll merge relatively smoothly into the future of smart tech.