HTC’s U11 has the best smartphone implementation of Amazon’s Alexa

Alexa arrives on the HTC U11 in the U.K., and just wants to be squeezed

HTC U11 Alexa
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Following the footsteps of Huawei’s Mate 9, HTC and Amazon have partnered up to inject the voice assistant Alexa in the U11, HTC’s 2017 flagship smartphone. For those keeping count, it means there are three assistants available in HTC’s phone. Should you choose to use Alexa over the others? Here’s what you need to know.

How to get Alexa on the HTC U11

HTC U11 devices should have received a firmware update already enabling some Alexa functions, but you need the HTC Alexa app for the full experience, and it is now available on the Google Play Store. Initially only available for U11 owners in the United States, the Alexa app became available for U11 owners in the United Kingdom on July 24. To ensure compatibility, the U11 must be up to date, so check under Settings and then Software for any updates which need applying before downloading the Alexa app from Google Play.

The HTC Alexa app is only compatible with HTC U11.

Squeeze me

Alexa is the voice assistant powering Amazon’s Echo products. Like Siri and Google Assistant, it can tell you the weather, answer search queries, control smart home products, and even help you shop. Amazon has been working with manufacturers to create more Alexa-enabled devices as an supplements to its own Echo products, and the first Alexa-enabled smartphone was the Huawei Mate 9. Now HTC is joining the party, and that means there are three assistants on the U11 smartphone — Alexa, Google Assistant, and HTC’s own Sense Companion.

We’ve had the chance to play around with Alexa on the U11, and it’s easily the best implementation on a smartphone yet. The pitfalls we found with Alexa on the Mate 9 are that you cannot use your voice to trigger Alexa — you have to go to the Huawei Alexa app and tap on a button. Huawei said it’s working to add support for this, but we’ve yet to see it implemented.

The U11 has a feature called Edge Sense — the edges of the phone have pressure sensors, making it “squeezable.” You can set various functions for a short or long squeeze, such as triggering Google Assistant, the flashlight, or turning your Wi-Fi off. With the new update, you now have the option to trigger Alexa by squeezing the phone, or with your voice by saying “Alexa.” This makes accessing Alexa a lot easier.

Unlike the Huawei Alexa app, the HTC Alexa app takes up a little less than half the screen when you open it — incredibly similar to how Google Assistant pops up. Here you can tap the large microphone to turn the mic on or off, and you can also permanently turn off the ability to speak to Alexa by tapping the mic icon on the right side. The Information icon offers a few examples on phrases you can use with Alexa, and the gear icon lets you toggle language, the voice trigger, and some account settings.

HTC U11 Alexa
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It’s a little disappointing to see Alexa on the smartphone not taking advantage of the display to offer visuals — it seems like the perfect device to add a visual component, especially considering Amazon just released the Echo Show. HTC’s vice president of product planning, Nigel Newby-House, said users would still need to access the Amazon Alexa app for “richer management.”

“What we’ve done with HTC Alexa is not a complete, potted, Alexa or Echo experience — it’s really about the voice integration into Alexa services,” Newby-House told Digital Trends.

Voice control

So how did the voice functions fare? Pretty well. Alexa responded reasonably with the voice trigger — you’ll have to speak louder in noisier environments — but we largely used it with the Edge Sense squeeze function. We did encounter an occasional bug where squeezing the phone would trigger Alexa, but no visual cue would appear on the screen.

Alexa responds quickly to our queries and requests, but it clearly is a little more limited than we hoped. For example, you can’t place calls or send messages; and you can’t ask it to open apps or navigate you home. It’s better for asking search queries, like “what’s the weather,” or using it to control your smart home appliances. You can also use Alexa to listen to Amazon Music and Audible, get flash news briefings, manage shopping and to do lists, and utilize the 15,000-plus skills in the Alexa Skills store.

At its current level, unless you’re heavily entrenched in the Alexa ecosystem, it makes more sense to use Google Assistant, which is also available on the U11. For one thing, it can perform all of the aforementioned tasks. But the Alexa implementation here is promising for Amazon’s efforts to have its voice assistant exist on a smartphone.

Update: The HTC Alexa app is now also available for U11 owners in the United Kingdom.

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