HTC U11 Alexa hands-on: Should the Google Assistant be worried?


For decades, the idea of interacting with a computer via voice commands was presented as something from out of science fiction, and with good reason: while both voice-recognition and voice-synthesis technology existed, they were very much still in their infancy. Slowly but surely, that tech got better, and a few years ago we finally saw systems mature to the point where fully voice-driven personal assistants became feasible.

While Google Now and Siri may have let the world know that this tech had moved beyond sci-fi fantasy to the realm of smartphone-powered reality, they're not the only players in this game, and Amazon's been making inroads for itself with its own Alexa system.

Alexa first got a foothold with the help of connected-home hardware in the form of Amazon's Echo, but recently it's been pushing beyond even that to make its presence felt on smartphones. But for all the interesting things Alexa can do, it has one big obstacle to overcome. Google Now (and later, the Google Assistant) is so convenient thanks in no small part to its hotword detection: how you don't have to start an app or tap an icon to begin interacting with it; you can just start talking.

Now with a new update that hit the HTC U11 earlier this week, Alexa's finally on even footing with Google: thanks to the dual-hotword support of the U11's silicon, owners of the phone can switch between saying “OK Google” and “Alexa” to call up the voice assistant of their choice.

That's a huge step for Alexa, but is the service finally ready to go head-to-head with Google? We spent some time using both systems on the HTC U11 to find out.



Integration


Sure enough, U11 owners can now begin conversations with Alexa just as easily as they can with the Google Assistant. And with the phone's Edge Sense feature, they also have the option to trigger Alexa with a squeeze. Doing so brings up the HTC Alexa app, filling the bottom two-fifths of the screen with a simple listening interface: visual indications for when Alexa is gathering your input, processing it, and responding. You also have icons for muting the microphone when you'd like a little privacy, as well as bringing up Alexa settings.

For people used to the Google Assistant and its word-for-word transcription of your session, Alexa's interface is going to feel a bit spartan. The lack of text feedback also threatens to hurt usability in noisy environments – though to be fair, that's not going to be great for speech input, either.

Then there's the issue of the separate Amazon Alexa app. Say you ask Alexa for some nearby restaurants; she'll rattle off a list of them for you, but unless you're taking notes, you're going to want to pull up the Amazon Alexa app to actually see the list. Having to juggle between a voice assistant and this visual record of your queries is less than elegant, but it does feel like something that shouldn't be too difficult to ultimately resolve.


Functionality


Both Alexa and the Google Assistant have the power of the internet's vast store of knowledge behind them, and neither has any big problem pulling up data for you, whether you need a fact checked, want to hear the latest sports scores, or hope to catch up on the day's big headlines.

But when you want to start using these services to get things done on the U11 itself, they respond with varying degrees of success. Google's far more at home with local tasks: things like setting reminders, starting timers, or opening apps. And while those first two are very much things the Alexa service is capable of, they're not yet available as commands on the U11 – get used to hearing “so-and-so is not currently supported on this device” over and over.

That's made doubly frustrating by the Amazon Alexa app suggesting some of these non-U11-supported features as users browse the otherwise helpful list of available functionality. Like our issues with the interface, this is something that very much feels like it will get better, but for the moment it stands to hurt Alexa's adoption.

A lot of these stumbling blocks are understandable in the context of Alexa's evolution, and the way the service is moving from smart appliances to phones, rather than vice-versa for Google. But at least Amazon knows shopping, so Alexa should be well-equipped to handle that, right?

Well, kind of. While Google will only point you in the direction of where to buy things when you ask it, Alexa will happily pick the best option and add it to your Amazon cart, ready to be reviewed (and purchased) at your convenience. But while Alexa does support fully voice-based purchasing, that mode's restricted to Prime users, revealing another limitation: to get the most out of Alexa, you're going to have to pay for the privilege.

While Prime's already an attractive proposition for many Amazon users, we worry that restricting Alexa features in this manner is only going to frustrate people, rather than convince them to sign up.

Going forward


There's a ton of ton potential in Alexa, and based on what works, it seems clear that Amazon has the know-how to expand the service into useful new areas. But right now, Google's a more polished, easier-to-use, less frustrating option on smartphones – even with the U11's new hotword support. This is almost certainly a situation that can improve, but that's going to require making Alexa on phones a priority, rather than an afterthought in an Echo-based ecosystem. And more than just Amazon, that's also going to take the cooperation of phone-makers like HTC, interested in giving their users a choice of voice assistants.

Alexa on the U11 is a very important early effort, but there's still a lot of work left to be done.

Related phones

U11
  • Display 5.5" 1440 x 2560 pixels
  • Camera 12 MP / 16 MP front
  • Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, Octa-core, 2450 MHz
  • Storage 64 GB + microSDXC
  • Battery 3000 mAh(24.5h 3G talk time)

FEATURED VIDEO

7 Comments

1. Finalflash

Posts: 4063; Member since: Jul 23, 2013

As long as they can be shut down and have no intrusive background services, this is perfectly fine. Competition is always welcome since it pushes everyone forwards.

4. sgodsell

Posts: 7577; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

You still have the choice to run either/or. So by holding the down the home button you can still call up Google Assistant. So the phone has the best of both worlds.

2. TBomb

Posts: 1666; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

As long as it keeps HTC afloat... I have faith they will be able to turn around their company.

3. surethom

Posts: 1730; Member since: Mar 04, 2009

Misleading, U misses the NUMBER 1 fundamental point virtually every one has a password & most of the voice prompts won't work with a lock screen so younjabe to unlock first defeating some of the usefulness hence why people buy the amazon echo or Google Home.

5. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

Well, if you want to use an AI Assistant to unlock your handset, then you definitely need to disable your lockscreen's password and set your lockscreen security to "None", so that you can use a 3rd party solution, like Alexa.

6. LionStone

Posts: 1048; Member since: Dec 10, 2010

Usually people have another device connected like their laptop or watch that you can add as a 'trusted device' then when you are connected it will work using just the voice.

7. LionStone

Posts: 1048; Member since: Dec 10, 2010

I don't look at Alexa as trying to overthrow Google Assist. It allows seamless connectivity and it excels in certain things, just like Google Assist. does. They work together but where I couldn't connect to certain devices and control them before, now with Alexa I can and do very easily. From the middle off the country or other side of the house, I can check the front door and if needed I can lock it. Total connectivity, without any hindrance, total win.

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at https://www.parsintl.com/phonearena or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit https://www.parsintl.com/ for samples and additional information.