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
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.
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.
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.