Category Archives: amazon

Alexa and its Echo product line come to Japan



If you have not used an Amazon Echo, better known by the moniker of Alexa, then you’re missing out on countless cool things. Listen to music, find out when your favorite sports team plays next, check the weather, satisfy your curiosity by asking a trivia questions, you name it and Alexa can probably do it.

But, the Amazon line isn’t available everywhere, it has some geographical restrictions. One more place in this great big world has now made the list for availability of both the Alexa app and its associated devices.

That newest location takes the setup on a trip to the far east as the whole product line is debuting in Japan.

“Tens of millions of customers already love Alexa and we’re thrilled to introduce her to our customers in Japan today, with an all-new experience designed from the ground up for Japanese customers, including a new Japanese voice, local knowledge, and over 250 skills from Japanese developers”, says Tom Taylor, Senior Vice President, Amazon Alexa. “We’re also excited to expand the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Voice Service, so developers and hardware makers around the world can create Alexa experiences for our Japanese customers”.

The Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Plus are all available now just waiting for your voice to bring them to life.


Amazon Reduces Cost of Prime for People on EBT



Amazon is offering Prime at a reduced cost for people who are receiving government assistance and who use an EBT card. Customers who qualify can get Prime benefits for $5.99 per month.  Amazon is doing this to make Prime more accessible.

Customers who have an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card can qualify for the discounted membership. Membership includes Prime Video, Prime Music, Prime Reading, Prime Photos and unlimited fast, free shipping for $5.99 per month for one year, with the ability to cancel anytime.

Vice President of Amazon Prime, Greg Greeley, said “We designed this membership option for customers receiving government assistance to make our everyday selection and savings more accessible, including the many conveniences and entertainment benefits of Prime.”

At launch, customers will need to qualify with a valid EBT card. An EBT card is commonly used to disperse funds for several government assistance programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program (WIC). EBT cannot be used to pay for membership.

Customers can qualify every 12 months up to 4 times. Amazon will add other ways to qualify in the future for customers participating in government assistance programs that do not utilize EBT. There is no annual commitment and members can cancel at any time.

Offering Prime for a discounted cost to people who use EBT is going to be very helpful for many reasons. Free shipping can help people who are elderly or disabled, and who have difficulty going to a store to shop for groceries and household items.

The free shipping can also help low-income people who live in rural areas and who do not have a grocery store nearby. Sometimes, the cost of the gas they burned to get to a grocery store overwhelms the discounts they would have gotten from coupons. Prime offers 20% off diaper subscriptions. This, combined with the free shipping, can help moms who are on WIC to afford to purchase a healthy amount of diapers for their babies.


HBO Dropping Shows from Amazon Video Streaming



HBO logoIf there’s one trend that’s become a focal point in the age of digital video streaming it’s exclusivity. This has become very apparent in the way established services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video have treated their original shows. Want to watch a show like Orange Is The New Black or The Man In The High Castle? You’ll have to pay for individual accounts on the services responsible for producing those shows. Otherwise, you’re going to miss something.

HBO was hardly on the cutting edge of video streaming when it launched its HBO Now service that allows users to watch HBO shows without a cable subscription. In fact, HBO is as close to a legacy provider as premium paid video gets, with its roots going all the way back to the earliest days of widespread cable television distribution. It was only a matter of time after launching HBO Now that the company would begin to circle the wagons around its own product. And with a recent announcement that HBO will be removing its shows from Amazon Prime Video, the company is doing just that.

If you’re currently getting your Game of Thrones or Sopranos fixes thru Amazon, don’t fret. The move won’t be made right away. HBO shows should still be available on Amazon’s platform until the middle of 2018. But once the change takes hold, the only places HBO shows will still be available will either be on paid satellite TV services or HBO’s official apps.


Amazon is Ending Support for Underground Actually Free Program



Amazon announced that they are going to discontinue the Underground Actually Free program, which began in August of 2015. Amazon didn’t really provide a specific reason why they are ending it.

Amazon will no longer accept new app and game submissions for the Underground Actually Free program as of May 31, 2017.

In the announcement, Amazon states that existing Amazon Underground developers can continue to get paid for every minute that customers spend in their Amazon Underground apps, as provided by their developer agreement. Amazon Underground developers can also continue to submit and publish updates to their existing apps until 2019.

Access to the Underground Actually Free store through Amazon’s Appstore for Android devices will end in the summer of 2017. All support for the program will end in 2019.

Until then, current Fire tablet customers can continue to enjoy previously installed Underground apps and access the Underground Actually Free store. There is a limitation, however. Fire tablet access to the Underground store will not extend beyond currently supported devices. Amazon customers will continue to have access to the Amazon Underground app to shop for physical goods and access Prime Video content, and can enjoy previously installed Underground Actually Free apps.


Brightech – SKY LED Torchiere Floor Lamp




I never thought I would see the day I’d find myself excited by lightbulbs. The LED lighting revolution has come of age.

After recently replacing every remaining incandescent bulb in my house with LED bulbs that perfectly mimic their respective incandescent counterparts, I decided it was time to get rid of a potentially dangerous halogen-powered torchiere floor lamp, and replace it with an LED-capable version of the up-firing ceiling bounce light of the same floor lamp style. After looking at torchiere style lamps for sale in local stores and not being happy with how top-heavy they were, I ended up ordering a Brightech – SKY LED Torchiere Floor Lamp from Amazon.

The lamp is extremely easy to assemble by simply screwing the parts together and plugging a couple of wires together. The heaviest part of the lamp assembly is the base that sits on the floor, which does a great job of stabilizing the lamp even on thick carpeting. The LED light array on the up-firing top disc produces a claimed 3,000 lumens on the brightest setting, one of four light levels. The light is controlled by tapping a touch surface about two-thirds the way up from the floor in about the same place that the old rotary on/off switch was on the old halogen floor lamp it replaced.

The lamp sells on Amazon for $89.50. I don’t know why local stores don’t have lamps like these. I do think they would sell them if they bothered to have them in stock. I wish that brick and mortar stores could somehow grasp that there are some really excellent, innovative products that people want. Unfortunately for the brick and mortars these products seem to be available online only. I don’t expect local stores to stock everything, but it seems to me they could become a bit more savvy about stocking products that forces shoppers to go online.

The touch surface is properly positioned and performs well when repeatedly touched, cycling through the various brightness levels as well as off. The transformer that plugs into the wall outlet gets slightly warm to the touch, coming in at 83 degrees Fahrenheit with an infrared thermometer in a 72 degree room. The top of the lamp generates a bit more heat, coming in at 96 degrees Fahrenheit.


Todoist is Now Integrated with Alexa



alexa-todoist-dialogueTodoist has announced that is is now integrated with Alexa. The new integration will enable Alexa to help you add and remember your Todoist tasks from any room in your house without you having to reach for your phone.

Alexa, as you may know, is the smart voice service that powers Amazon’s hands-free voice-controlled Echo and Echo Dot devices. It does not appear that Todoist has any plans to integrate with Siri or Cortana. There is potential that this could change in the future.

It is now possible to tell Alexia to add tasks to your to-do list. Todoist gives an example. Say something like “Alexa, add pick up the kids to my to-do list”. That task will be automatically added to your Todoist inbox with today’s due date. You can also have Alexa add reoccurring tasks to your to-do list. Those tasks will automatically appear on your to-do list each month.

You can tell Alexa what items to add to your shopping list, and those items will automatically appear on a shopping list in Todoist. Another thing you can do is say: “Alexa, what’s on my to-do list?” Alexa will respond by telling you what tasks are on your to-do list.

Todoist says that the first thing you need to do is to enable Todoist in the Alexa app available on iOS, Android, and Fire tablets. Next, link your Todoist account. Your Alexa To-do and Shopping lists will be automatically synced with your Todoist.

  • All the Todoist tasks you have due today will be added to your Alexa To-do list each morning.
  • All the tasks on your Alexa To-do list will be added to your Todoist inbox with today’s due date.
  • All the tasks in your Todoist “Alexa Shopping List” project will automatically be added to your Alexa Shopping list, and vice versa.
  • Any tasks you edit, complete, or delete in Todoist will be automatically updated on your Alexa To-do list, and vice versa.

Right now, Todoist is doing a giveaway of one Amazon Echo and two Amazon Echo Dots. For full details, check out the Todoist announcement.


Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote Review



Amazon Fire TVWhen it comes to media streaming via hardware, it’s a four way fight for your eyeballs between Roku, Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast. The most recent entrant, Amazon and the Fire TV, came to the UK in October 2014 and I reviewed one of the boxes back in January 2015. Over eighteen months later, Amazon’s Instant Video and Fire TV are more well known, with a large element of this courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson and the ex-Top Gear crew. To see what’s changed since then, Amazon kindly sent me a the updated Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote. Let’s take a look.

Fire TV Stick Box  Fire TV Stick in Box

The Fire TV stick comes in the usual flip open box used by Amazon for its electronics. Inside the box, there’s the Fire TV stick itself, the Voice Remote with batteries, USB power supply with cable, an HDMI gender changer and some slim instructions. As it’s generally expected that the Fire TV will connect straight into an HDMI socket, there’s no HDMI cable. There’s an unboxing video below if you’re interested.

Before getting started, my tip of the day would be to plug the microUSB end of the power cable into the Fire TV stick BEFORE you push the Fire TV into a spare HDMI socket. This saves too much faffing around the back (or side) of the TV and alerts you early to a potential problem. As the power connector is on the side of the stick and the cable comes out at right angles, it’s possible that this will foul against an adjacent HDMI connector. On my TV it was apparent that the Fire TV was always going to sit in the topmost socket. Alternatively, I could have used an HDMI cable along with the gender changer to locate the stick away from the sockets and avoid interference. YMMV, as they say.

The other end of the USB cable goes into the power supply and once all connected and powered up, it’s simply a case of switching to the right HDMI input and following the prompts. The setup begins with pairing the remote to the stick and then connecting to wifi. As with all devices bought from Amazon, it comes pre-configured with your account details.

Fire TV Stick Fire TV Stick Wireless

To make life even easier, there’s a set of cartoons to take you through some of the features of the Fire TV stick.

Fire TV Stick Cartoon Fire TV Stick Cartoon

With that all done, you’re dropped into Amazon’s Fire interface. It’s largely unchanged since I first reviewed the Fire TV but that’s not a bad thing given that it’s big, bright and intuitive. Click up and down with the remote to move between the media areas….TV shows, Movies, Games, Apps, Music and so on. Click right and left to scroll through the chosen area. The Home area summarises recent activity so it’s easy to get back to something that you recently viewed. The interface is generally responsive but there can be a little lag when going into a new area, such as Photos, where it’s checking to see if there are any new media. I assume that the lag will be inversely proportional to your network connection speed.

Fire TV Menu

There’s no doubt that the Fire TV is best used with Amazon Prime and other Amazon services – much of the promoted material is for Prime shows – but other media services like Netflix and Spotify are present via apps, and there’s a full range of catch-up services for UK’s terrestrial services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5). When I first reviewed the Fire TV a few of these were missing from the lineup so it’s good to see the extras. In addition to film and TV, the interface presents music purchased through Amazon as CDs and Amazon Music. If you use Amazon’s storage for photos, they’ll appear in a section too.

Amazon Fire TV StickVideo playback on the Fire TV can’t be faulted. I watched a number of shows through a variety of services, including Netflix, and the picture quality was unfailingly good. Programmes started quickly and got into HD picture quality within a few seconds. No problems here.

The Fire TV Stick supports apps as well, and these mostly offer other media services, such as YouTube, or games, such as…..well, loads including Crossy Road! It’s actually good fun playing mobile games on the big screen, though some require the Fire Game Controller (GB£44.99) rather than just the remote. Some games are tricky enough with just the remote, so if you are gamer, expect to stump up for the game controller. There’s something for everyone, as they say, and I played a fair bit of Lego Star Wars – The Yoda Chronicles. Overall, I felt there was a much greater range of games than last time and more of the headline titles were available.

While having loads of media is a good thing, it’s even better when there’s a search function to quickly find what you want to see. This is the Voice Remote version of the TV Stick and as such, the remote has a button at the top with a microphone symbol. When pressed and held, you can simply say what TV or film you are interested in, and the Stick will work it out and show you the options. Owners without the Voice Remote will have to laboriously type in the name of the programme. The voice recognition is accurate and the subsequent search recommendations are valid. Press the mic button, say “The Fall”, and the first programme it offers is the BBC drama (the one I wanted) followed by other films or TV programmes with the word “fall” in their title, such as “Downfall”.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like search has moved on too much. It is good at finding stuff but it still seems to only reference Amazon-hosted material. Take the above mentioned “The Fall”, which is currently showing the third series on BBC and aired episodes can be viewed for free on iPlayer. However, search on the Fire TV Stick would have you pay £2.49 for the HD version of episode 1 without mentioning the freebie option at all. More on this in a moment….

Amazon Fire TV ContentsBack in January 2015, I said, “Overall the Amazon Fire TV compares well with the competition and if you are into Amazon’s ecosystem, then the Fire TV is a no-brainer buy at the current price of £64 giving easy access to familiar photos, music, movies and games. Even if you aren’t a fully paid-up member of the Amazon fan club, there’s still plenty to recommend with the current selection of apps and games which will undoubtedly grow over time as more broadcasters and app developers get on-board.” Here in October 2016, there’s not much to add except that it’s even better now than it was then; there are more broadcasters on-board, there are more games and the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote is cheaper at £44.99. It drops to only £34.99 with the standard remote.

But….since starting the review of this Fire TV stick, a new version has been announced, at least in the US, which addresses some of the remaining deficiencies, namely cross-media search. Obviously it’s not clear right now when that will arrive in the UK or which apps will be searched in addition to Amazon media. Interestingly, the new Fire TV Stick comes with Alexa so the voice interaction won’t be limited to only search but other queries too. I’m looking forward to it already.

Thanks to Amazon UK for providing the Fire TV Stick for review.


Twitch and Amazon Announce Twitch Prime



twitch-prime-logoTwitch Prime is a collaboration between Amazon and Twitch. It is a premium experience on Twitch that is included with Amazon Prime. It is intended to be something that combines the best parts of Twitch with the best parts of Amazon.

If you are already subscribed to Amazon Prime, you get Twitch Prime instantly for no additional cost by linking your Twitch account to it. If you already subscribe to both Twitch Turbo and Amazon Prime, you might want to consider cancelling Twitch Turbo. All the benefits of Twitch Turbo are included in Twitch Prime.

Twitch Prime offers “free in-game loot every month, plus surprises”. This can include skins, characters, and boosts and can also include free games. It offers free Twitch channel subscription every 30 days with ad-free viewing. Those who have Twitch Prime will get exclusive emotes, more chat colors, and a chat badge of royalty.

Right now, Twitch Prime is having a Hearthstone event that will last through November 6, 2016. Hearthstone is a virtual card game made by Blizzard Entertainment. All Twitch Prime members will get the newest Hearthstone hero, Tyrande Whisperwind. They also get a custom cardback.

In October, Twitch Prime subscribers will get a free PC game called Streamline, and an exclusive skin in Smite. New free loot will be offered every month.

An Amazon Prime membership comes with member discounts on new release box games, pre-orders of games, and collector’s editions. Amazon Prime allows subscribers to instantly stream thousands of movies and TV shows. It also offers ad free streaming of over 1 million songs, playlists, and stations. Those who have an Amazon Prime subscription get free two-day shipping on over 20 million eligible items from Amazon.com.

If you already have Amazon Prime, and you like playing video games, it won’t cost you anything to get Twitch Prime. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, you can take advantage of a 30-day free trial of it. Twitch Prime is currently available in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.


Amazon Kindle (2016) Review



Amazon Kindle LogoEbooks and ereaders have come a long way since I first purchased novels from Peanut Press to read on my Palm III. Neither Peanut Press or Palm are in existence today – the former eventually disappeared into Barnes and Noble, and the latter was wasted by HP – but nearly two decades on, ebooks are part of everyday life, largely thanks to Amazon and the Kindle. On review here is Amazon‘s latest iteration of its entry level Kindle. Released back in June, this is the 8th generation of ereader but brings the much-missed white finish back to the family…and that’s what we have on review here. Let’s take a look.

 

The Kindle comes in Amazon’s easy-to-open packaging. In the box there’s only the Kindle and a USB-to-microUSB cable plus a few bits of paper. Taking the Kindle out of the clear plastic wrapper, it remains true to the form-factor. At 115 mm wide, 160 mm tall and only a smidge over 9 mm deep, there’s enough of a border round the 6″ screen to hold the ereader between thumb and forefinger. The case is a matt plastic with curved edges along with a microSD socket, power button and LED along the bottom edge. There’s some printing on the back and an embossed Amazon logo too. The matt finish helps with holding the Kindle as it’s not slippy at all.

Amazon Kindle with Box

Powering up the device, the Kindle takes the owner through the setup procedure, including connecting to wifi. The Kindle is usually preconfigured to the owner out-of-the-box so after running through a few pages of what’s on offer, his or her library will be on show on the home screen along with some “you might also likes”. There’s 4 GB of internal storage to keep books on the device which for an ereader is plenty of space.

The previous generation of Kindle introduced the touchscreen to the entry level model so there are no buttons to turn pages or go to the home screen. Tapping on a book or icon will open the selected thing but once in a book, the page is divided into three and tapping in the different areas generates different actions. Right side, next page; left side, previous page; top, menu options. The areas aren’t equal and the next page takes up around four-fifths of the page, from the bottom right. Generally the touching the screen works fine, but the back area on the left could do with being a little bigger – as man with fat fingers I did find that I needed to be fairly precise otherwise the book moved forward a page rather than back. It’s pity there’s not an option to adjust where the dividing line is on the page as I would prefer the split to more 50:50.

Amazon Kindle 2016

The eInk screen is the main differentiator between the entry level model and the next one up, the Paperwhite. To start with, the eInk screen is 167 ppi which is about half the 300 ppi of the Paperwhite, and more significantly, this Kindle is not backlit, so there’s no reading while the light’s out. As with all other ereaders, reading in sunlight is glare-free with the eInk screen. Page turns are nippy and the screen refreshes cleanly. As the screen is now a touchscreen, entering text is much easier with a tappable on-screen keyboard displayed whenever needed.

For the visually impaired, the Kindle supports VoiceView which will read books to the owner via a Bluetooth headset as there’s no headphone jack. It’s a bit convoluted to setup involving the power button and two fingers on the screen, which I understand might be easier for some who has a vision problem, but how hard would it have been to have an additional menu option for Bluetooth pairing? VoiceView is purely text-to-speech and won’t play music or audiobooks. Bah!

The Kindle software provides a number of “value-adds” over a paper book, including bookmarking and search features. Amazon’s X-Ray provides more information on the book, plot and people, and GoodReads book recommendations are prominent. Inevitably, social media now features with sharing to Facebook and Twitter.

Battery life is “weeks” and certainly in my use, it took a good deal of page-turning to bring the battery down. Not sure you’d get a whole week’s worth of holiday reading out of a single charge but if you’re bringing a charger for your mobile phone, it’s probably not a problem (unless you have an Apple iPhone).

As an Amazon product, the Kindle is designed to encourage purchases from the Amazon store so getting ebooks from other sources onto your Kindle can be tricky. If you want to borrow ebooks from your local library, check compatibility as I think Overdrive only supports Kindle books in the USA.

The 2016 and 8th generation of Kindle continues Amazon’s gradual refinement of the ereader. With the touchscreen introduced last time, there’s no big headline change over the previous model other than being neater and lighter, though the inclusion of Bluetooth perhaps hints at future features. And there’s a white version. At a penny under GB£60 with “Special Offers” and £70 without ads, the 2016 Kindle is an easy buy that’s unlikely to disappoint.

Thanks to Amazon for the loan of the Kindle.


Amazon Echo Coming To UK on 16 September 2016? No…



echoIs the Amazon Echo coming to the UK on 16 September 2016? Nothing official from Amazon but a Bing search throws up the following link to a pre-order page on Amazon.co.uk which currently doesn’t seem to be live.

Update: Nah…..looks like Bing actually picked up on the release date of a CD called Echoes by the Young Guns, not Amazon Echo. Sorry, that’s entirely my fault as I was so looking forward to getting Alexa.

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