Amazon's Alexa isn't restricted to the Echo, Echo Dot, Tap and Fire TV. You can also access Amazon's smart assistant through a growing number of other third-party devices. Some companies even want to skip the hardware route and add Alexa directly to your smartphone via an app. Lexi, Lexa and Roger all offer some of the AI's smarts, but not all of them. Here's what you do and don't get.
Of course, to use any of these apps, you'll need an Amazon account in good standing, and you'll need to download the Amazon Alexa official app.
Arguably the most robust of the apps that currently offer Alexa support, Roger (iOS and Android) bills itself as a group voice messenger. The free app lets you talk to your friends and family via a single tap, even if they don't have the app; it will send messages via text because you give Roger access to your full contacts list. However, that's not the same as a real time conversation. It's more like a walkie-talkie, where you talk, the message sends, and your recipient replies. Roger integrates with a handicapped Alexa.
The interface is dead simple. Circles at the bottom of the screen allow you to switch between conversations. Alexa appears as one of those. To start a conversation, simply tap the circle in the middle of the screen. A tiny red square to the side indicates how many seconds it will take for Alexa to respond. Roger can access most of Alexa's built-in functionality, meaning it can add items to your shopping list, get restaurant or movie recommendations, tell you a joke or access general knowledge. It also can check today's weather.
But, there's a bunch of things Roger can't do. It doesn't integrate with any third-party skills such as Uber, nor does it work with additional services such as Spotify or Audible that are more directly connected to Alexa. Roger also can't do some of the things that Alexa can do out of the box, including control music playback, buy stuff, read you books or set timers or alarms. Plus, I found the delays annoying, with wait times of up to 30 seconds to get a response. The results of all Alexa requests through Roger end up in the official Alexa app.
Android users who want even less functionality than Roger offers might want to look at Lexa. This free Android app taps into the Amazon Alexa Voice Service (AVS). As with Roger, you tap the big circle in the middle of Lexa's screen to start a conversation, but here Alexa is your only contact capable of chatting. On the plus side, Lexa gets answers faster than Roger. Lexa's Google Play store entry even says this app is really intended "for developers to test the push-to-talk interaction with AVS to get a better sense of how this service can run on their own hardware."
Lexa can answer questions about everything from general knowledge to sports scores and the weather. It can add things to your shopping list, get movie times, find restaurant recommendations and tell you jokes. It can even control your smart home devices from afar, which Roger can't do.
But Lexa still has limitations. It cannot access Alexa's music playback, shop or set timers or alarms. Developer UCIC claims the app can access "various Alexa Skills," but I tried five skills — including Kayak, Airport Security, Eliza, MySomm and Campbell's Kitchen — with no results. I have reached out to the app maker for comment.
iPhone owners who want a crippled version of Alexa will need to pony up $4.99 for the Lexi app. Developer Bluetoo Ventures justifies this cost by pitching the app as a way to try out the Echo without actually owning the $179 smart speaker.
As with Roger and Lexa, the design of this app consists of a big circle in the center of the screen. You tap that to start a conversation. Lexi can do a tad more than Lexa and Roger, like access Alexa third-party Skills and control your smart home devices when you're away from home. It can also check sports scores, read you the news, get restaurant and movie recommendations, add to your shopping list or find random trivia answers. But Lexi still can't control music playback, buy things or read you books.
Sure, $89.99 for an Amazon Echo Dot might be more than you want to pay, but if you want to use Alexa to voice control your music, it's still your best budget-friendly bet. However, if you're content to just access similar skills as Siri, Google Now and Cortana in a separate app, then the above apps might be worthwhile alternatives--if you're willing to live with their limitations. For me, I'll stick with my Amazon Echo and Alexa app for now.