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Alexa, why aren't you working? No – I didn't say twerking. I, oh God...

Amazon's unhelpful assistant also sleeps through its wakeup word on HTC mobe

By Andrew Orlowski, 24 Jul 2017

Hands-on No wonder Silicon Valley is excited about the Amazon Echo.

Let's be honest. These voice-controlled assistants have been the only hit the Valley's had in years: the only successful new consumer electronics category. 3D telly, smartwatches, they all came and went, but always-on assistants are a smash.

Well, Amazon’s Alexa has escaped the web giant's Echo hardware, and is now live on HTC’s U11 flagship smartphone.

HTC had promised that the U11 would provide the same kind of always-on response that Echo offers: four microphones are built into the device, listening for the “Alexa” wakeup word. And despite all that, it was as if the assistant kept hitting the snooze button and sleeping through its wakeup word. After putting it through its paces, we reckon Amazon and HTC have more work to do.

The U11 is a very fine phone that impressed us when we reviewed the shipped version here recently. HTC promised that it will be “voice assistant agnostic,” so Google or Amazon or anyone else have equal billing. Google Assistant grabs the home button long press by default on devices shipping today. Alexa wasn’t actually ready at launch, but became available last week in the US, and the UK is the second market to get the treatment.

HTC Alexa, as the app is called, should work even when the screen is off. Unfortunately any attempt by this Brit vulture to invoke Alexa from the “wake” word failed – even when Alexa was already running.

The installation process drops an HTC Alexa icon on the screen and invites you to set the U11’s squeeze control to invoke Alexa. It isn’t too heavy-handed about it, but thanks all the same, we’d rather have that button set to fire up the camera.

The edition still reports temperatures in Fahrenheit. And yes, that’s with the language set to “English (United Kingdom).” Celsius would be nice.

“Do you say Autumn or do you say Fall?” drew a blank. Typically when voice assistants are stumped they throw you out to the web. Alexa just apologized and did nothing.

“Remind me to eat tea at 6pm” gave me the reply – after 3 or 4 seconds – that “Reminders are not currently supported on this device.”

“Play a song” gave me the reply: “Here’s a station you might like: DIRE STRAITS.”

No, Alexa, no. I can’t stand Dire Straits.

Some use ... At least you can check your lippy using the back of the U11

I asked Alexa to place a call. “I’m not quite sure how to help you with that.” And a text?

“Sorry, I can’t connect or control Bluetooth on device yet,” Alexa replied to one question. Asking the same question again – why not? – Alexa told me:

“You don’t have any smart home devices to get started. Go to the smart home section of the Alexa app.”

And in response to “Alexa turn off NFC,” Alexa just gave me the silent, insolent treatment: after a couple of seconds the microphone icon just returned to its default state. Just like a teenager. Come to think of it, teenagers are difficult to wake up too.

User interface ... What Alexa looks like on an HTC handheld

How about the basics, which Microsoft Cortana and Google Now mastered years ago? There shouldn’t be a problem with that, surely?

“What is my calendar today?”

“I don’t see a calendar set up.”

“Alexa, set up my calendar.”

“I’m not quite sure how to help you with that.”

“Alexa, how do I set up my calendar?”

“I’m not sure what went wrong.”

Thanks a bundle, m’dear. And you want to drive cars? “Alexa, can you drive a car?”

“That’s not one of the things I can do.”

There aren’t many things Alexa can do. How you set up a calendar isn’t explained, for example.

It’s a pity, for Alexa is in large part a British invention, with the speech team still in Cambridge. Alexa has wowed the world, but on my HTC, it’s time for some remedial treatment, I think.

We’ll check in with HTC to see if there’s something up. Let’s hope they’re not using Alexa to fix Alexa. ®

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