Alexa for PC invades your notebook, signs a truce with Cortana

alexa for pc tested on acer spin 5
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Digital assistants have historically kept to their own turfs, with a great deal of competition between them by platform but much less on a given device itself. Siri owned iOS and MacOS, Google Assistant was the default Android choice, and so on.

That’s rapidly changing.

You can now install Cortana on iOS and Android, and Alexa has been making its way to Android smartphones. The most recent development sees Alexa popping up on Windows 10 notebooks, with Lenovo, HP, Acer, and Asus being notable examples of PC makers baking Alexa into their machines.

We recently reviewed Acer’s Spin 5 convertible 2-in-1, which owns the distinction of being the first notebook that can run Alexa out of the box. As we spoke to Alexa on a Windows 10 machine, one big question swirled: Should you add her to your list of PC requirements?

Competing with Cortana?

To begin with, let’s get one thing straight: Cortana remains Windows 10’s primary digital assistant. She’s built into Windows 10 at a low level, providing notifications, search and command capabilities, and integration with iOS and Android. You can turn Cortana off, but she’s turned on by default — she’s even the first thing that will greet you when setting up a new Windows 10 PC.

Alexa for PC is different. First, you have to explicitly set up her desktop application and connect her to your Amazon account. That extra step makes her seem like a trespasser; running as a separate app gives Alexa a tacked-on feel. She’s not an innate aspect of a PC’s intelligence.

Second, all of her capabilities are external to the PC itself, which is probably where she’s most different from Cortana. Alexa has no local control whatsoever, other than the ability to access the PC’s microphone and speaker, and everything she does is contained within the Alexa app. Close that app and she disappears.

There’s no doubt that Alexa is an alien presence

That’s a stark contrast from Cortana, who can open other apps; lock, shut down, and restart a PC; search for local files; and provide notifications that pop up in the Action Center.

For the most part, Alexa coexists with Cortana just fine, without a lot of overlap in capabilities to foment any rivalry. But there’s no doubt that Alexa is an alien presence.

Almost indistinguishable from an Amazon Echo

So what can Alexa do on a Windows 10 PC? The short answer is, she can do just about everything she can do on an Amazon Echo device. In fact, the experience will be entirely familiar if you’re already accustomed to using an Echo for things like getting weather updates, ordering Amazon products, checking your calendar (as long as you’ve connected to Google Calendar or Outlook), controlling smart home devices, and more.

With a couple of Echo devices scattered around the house and a Fire TV Cube on the family room TV, it’s easy to use Alexa extensively. We rely on her to stay updated on the weather and to run skills like grabbing quick recipes from Allrecipes and listing movie times from Fandango, and she’s a great music curator when accessing Amazon Music Unlimited.

Get around to installing that smart thermostat (Nest vs Ecobee — how to choose?) and some automated lighting, and you can use Alexa for that as well. Having Alexa on the notebook you carry around would mean there’s no need to pick up extra Echos.

Note that Alexa for PC does have some limitations compared to the full Echo feature set. One notable absence is that calling and messaging aren’t currently supported on PCs, and music support is currently limited to Amazon Music, SiriusXM, and iHeartRadio. Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn Radio users are out of luck for now.

But other than those limitations, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between interacting with Alexa on a Windows 10 PC and on an Echo. You say the wake word — the PC does need to be fully awake already — and then your command, and she responds accordingly. The Spin 5 specifically utilizes four near-field microphones to support Alexa voice commands from across a room, and it works well. Depending on the notebook, music quality can be better or worse than with an Echo.

alexa for pc tested on acer spin 5 ui
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Tell Alexa to play a 1980’s pop playlist and she will, responding to volume and playback commands along the way. Tell her to turn up the lights or turn off the coffee maker, and she’ll do those things as well. And you can access the tens of thousands of Alexa Skills on the Windows 10 version — as with all of the cloud-based digital assistants, she’s constantly being updated with new capabilities and skills in the background.

alexa for pc tested on acer spin 5 music control
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Yes, but is Alexa for PC worth it?

Is she worth it? That’s the real question, right? And the only answer is this: If you love Alexa on your Echo devices and Android smartphones, as many do, then you’ll love having Alexa live on your notebook as well. For one thing, that gives you access to Alexa capabilities wherever you are, and saves you the investment in Echo devices for that one lone room of your house she hasn’t yet reached. Or outside your house, for when you’re working remotely.

Don’t tell Cortana, but she’d take a backseat on our PCs.

If you’re not a big Alexa user, though, then you’ll probably skip the configuration steps altogether. And if you do, then you’ll still have Cortana to keep you company.

Emerging Tech

Microsoft’s friendly new A.I wants to figure out what you want — before you ask

Move over Siri and Alexa! Microsoft wants to build a new type of virtual assistant that wants to be your friend. Already making waves in Asia, could this be the future of A.I. BFFs?
Smart Home

The best Alexa-enabled devices you can utilize with Amazon's Echo lineup

Ever since Amazon added the Dot, Tap, and Show to its Echo lineup, Alexa-enabled devices have exploded. Here's a guide to everything Alexa can control in your smart home, from lights to locks to appliances.
Smart Home

Plus, Dot, Spot, Show? Which Amazon Echo is the way to go?

Not sure just what Amazon Echo device with Alexa voice assistant you're looking for? Whether you're looking for great sound, smart home control, or a screened device, we've got you covered. Here are all the Amazon Echo devices, what they…
Product Review

It's not a spy, but you still won't want to friend Facebook's Portal+

Facebook has jumped into the smart home game with the Portal+, a video-calling device featuring an Amazon Alexa speaker and a screen. While it has lots of cool calling features, we’re weary of Facebook taking up counter space in our home.
Gaming

Playing ‘Battlefield V’ on an $800 Nvidia card is stunning. And disappointing

‘Battlefield V’ is the first game to use Nvidia’s ray tracing support, now available with the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti graphics cards. The feature can, in an ideal scenario, make the game look better, but the performance hit may not be…
Smart Home

All the best Amazon Black Friday deals for 2018

Amazon may be an online-only retailer, but that doesn’t mean its Black Friday sales are anything to sniff at. In fact, due to its online status, Amazon has huge flexibility with the range of products and deals it can offer. Here's our…
Computing

HP takes $100 off of leather-clad Spectre Folio 13 bundle for Black Friday

HP is offering a discount to Black Friday shoppers for a bundle that includes its leather-wrapped answer to Apple's MacBook Air. HP is offering a $100 discount on the Spectre Folio 13 when bundled with a mouse and leather sleeve.
Computing

Save a heap with these Black Friday 2018 graphics card deals

The Black Friday 2018 sales period is finally here and it's brought with it a tonne of great component deals. We've been scouring websites and catalogs for days to find you the best graphics cards deals for Black Friday 2018.
Deals

The best Target Black Friday deals for 2018

The mega-retailer opens its doors to the most competitive shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 22, and signs indicate that the retailer means business this year. We've sifted through all of the deals, from consumer electronics to small…
Computing

Still miss Windows 7? Here's how to make Windows 10 look more like it

There's no simple way of switching on a Windows 7 mode in Windows 10. Instead, you can install third-party software, manually tweak settings, and edit the registry. We provide instructions for using these tweaks and tools.
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Computing

Ditch the passwords and buy Xbox games with just your face

Passwords are the past. The latest version of Windows 10 allows you to sign in with your Microsoft account on the web through Microsoft Edge using Windows Hello or a FIDO 2 Yubikey. 
Web

Canceling Amazon Prime is easy, and you might get a refund

Don't be intimidated. Learning how to cancel Amazon Prime is easier than you might think. You might even get a partial or full refund on the cost, depending on how much you've used it. Check out our quick-hit guide for doing so.
Computing

Editing a PDF is easy when you have the right tools in hand

Editing PDF files can be a real pain, but there are a few tricks to make the process a bit easier. This guide will give you three easy methods for how to edit a PDF, two of which work without needing Adobe Acrobat.