NEW YORK CITY — When Amazon put the Echo Dots on sale for $US35 during Prime Day, my reaction was probably like a lot of others: “Should I buy another Echo, and if I do, where would I put it?”
Then, with a little help from a funny moment involving my six-year-old daughter, it hit me — Why not put an Echo Dot in my car!
Sure enough, I ordered another Dot, installed it in my car, and so far it has turned out to be the best $US35 I have spent in a long time.
Below I will walk you through how I installed it (it’s easy), what I use it for (just about everything), and why it is the best car infotainment system I have ever used (it turned out to be better than I imagined it would).
[Editor’s note — Amazon is known to be working on bringing the Alexa platform to Australia as part of its rollout Down Under.]
Our family already had 3 Echos -- a regular Echo in the living room and Dots in the office and master bedroom -- which we used for music, controlling various Hue lights and Nest thermostats, maintaining shopping and to-do lists, re-ordering Amazon items, and other general goofiness. In other words, we were already tight with 'Alexa,' the Echo digital assistant.
So when Amazon dropped the price of the Echo Dot on Prime Day, it was tempting to order another. But where would we use it? (sorry, kids, you're not ready for an Alexa in your room).
Then I recalled a funny moment in the car when our six-year-old tried to ask the radio to play her favourite song. Nothing happened and we laughed. But while staring at the $35 price tag on the Echo Dot it hit me, 'Why couldn't we put one in a car and use it as a media device where everybody would have easy access?'
11 hours later, Amazon's free one-day shipping had an Echo Dot on our doorstep, ready to be installed in the truck.
I do have a bit of advantage here as the owner of a 2015 Chevy Silverado. It has several USB ports, a Bluetooth stereo, and built-in WiFi.
While few will have all three features, it is easy to imagine this would also work with a lighter socket adaptor, the Echo Dot's own speaker, and tethering to a phone as a hotspot.
Installing it was a snap. Just plug in the Dot, turn on the car, go through the regular Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth setup like you would with any Echo, and voilà!
I currently have the Dot sitting on top of the center console for easy access to anybody in the front or back seats.
Interestingly, the Dot also fits perfectly into a standard cup holder if you want to hide it and still have constant voice access. However, I was nervous I would forget and place a sweaty drink on top of it.
One thing that concerned me was the lag when starting the car and turning on the Dot. Inside the house, the Echos are always on. I was worried this would be a nuisance. It turns out, the Dot boots even quicker than I imagined it would, about 45 seconds, or before everybody is in their seats and have their seat belts on.
The other huge advantage is that it always auto-connects to the Bluetooth. In fact, the Bluetooth is fully connected even before the Dot has finished booting. So there is never any additional lag between turning it on and connecting to the car's media center.
One of the worst things about using a phone as a media device in the car is how often there are connection problems. Sometimes it worked seamlessly. Other times it got confused, especially if we had two phones in the car or if one was using the USB ports to charge. This never happens with the Dot, probably because the car is its only external connection and signals aren't crossing.
Using the Dot in the car couldn't be more fun. So far we have used it for the obvious things like playing music ('Alexa, play the girls' favourite songs playlist'), and podcasts ('Alexa, play 'The Bill Simmons Podcast''). If it is not obvious, the sound here is coming from the car's speakers.
We can make truly hands-free phone calls ('Alexa, call Laura') or send messages ('Alexa, send a message to mum').
We can get quick updates on the news ('Alexa, What's my Flash Briefing?'), add things to to-do lists we suddenly remember while driving, or listen to audiobooks.
We can control the house lights ('Alexa, turn on the downstairs lights') and temperature ('Alexa, set the house thermostats to 'Away'') if we forget before we leave.
And our daughters just love goofing around with Alexa, whether it is jokes ('Alexa, tell us a joke') or games ('Alexa, open The Magic Door').
But the best part of all of this is that everything is now truly hands-free. You never have to look at the display. You never have to reach for the radio or even find that one button on the steering wheel that you can never quite find without looking. It just feels safer.
While the Dot is great as an infotainment system, it is not perfect. For example, unlike music on my phone, the car's media display does not show the name of the song and if you want to know, you have to interrupt Alexa to ask.
Alexa is also not giving you turn-by-turn directions like Google Maps or Waze. This truck does have in-dash navigation but it does not give audio instructions which requires looking away from the road. So for this, we are going to have to stick to the phone.
Podcasts work, but they are not perfect. By default, the Dot uses TuneIn radio for podcasts, and it can be hit or miss on whether TuneIn has your favourite pods. It is also heavily limited on settings, such as fast-forwarding, rewinding, or playing at a faster speed, and it is a bit cumbersome to find the exact episode you are looking for if it is not the most recent one.
Alexa does have the AnyPod skill which helps with some of these issues, but this makes the command a little clunkier (e.g. 'Alexa, tell AnyPod to fast-forward two minutes')
My guess is that it is only a matter of time before Alexa integrates a better podcast player. But at this point, some will prefer to stick to their phones for podcasts.
But overall, the pros far outweigh the cons and for the first time I feel like I have a truly hands-free experience with media in the car. In fact, it seems inevitable at this point that in the near future all cars will have Alexa, or something similar, built into the car.
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