Why it matters to you
Love using Alexa on the Echo? If you’re looking for a way to access the voice assistant on your phone, you now have another option with the HTC U11.
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.
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.
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.
HTC U11 devices should have received a firmware update already enabling some Alexa functions, but the HTC Alexa app is now available on the Google Play Store. U11 owners will be “prompted to download it just like any other app update.” The HTC Alexa app is only compatible with HTC U11.