Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

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My iPhone Home Screen for 2016

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Last year turned out to have quite a lot of changes for my iPhone, thanks in parts to the entry of the 2 major video streaming services into India. That along with some amount of app rationalisation on my part due to the constraints of a 16 GB iPhone led to a bit of diversity on the home screen unlike the last two years.

I was also quite tempted by the iPhone 7 plus and its dual lens camera (not to mention the 128 GB storage tier) as a replacement for my iPhone 5s, but a change of battery a few months back gave it a new lease of life. Plus I got an Apple Watch a few months ago (review coming up hopefully) to replace my Pebble Time (turned out to be just a month before the Pebble sale to Fitbit).

Coming to the apps:

  • No change in the first row, but the second row see some major changes with the Reminders app being relegated to a separate screen. Todoist continues to feature on the second row thanks to its IFTTT & cross platform support, and is now augmented by the Apple Watch app that makes it easy to refer to reminders on the go.
  • Alarmed finally moves off the screen making way for Due that’s a very similar app and has an Apple Watch app. This turned out to be the major reason for the switch. While Alarmed did expose the notification actions on the Apple Watch, there was no way to add reminders or act on dismissed notifications. Due fully support adding reminders through the Apple Watch and also gives access to the timers on the wrist.
  • I got rid of Inbox and consolidated my Gmail account into the Outlook app, mainly due to the space constraints. But, it doesn’t hurt to have the emails and calendars consolidated into one app, and it supports the Apple Watch as well with a full fledged app and complication.
  • Whatsapp also swaps places with Outlook based on my more frequent usage of Whatsapp due to the introduction of voice calls last year.
  • Messages continues to stick around along with Day One though the usage of both has reduced over the year. There was also a new version of Day One launched with web and IFTTT support, but I am sticking to the original version for the time being.
  • While I continue to use One Note as my primary note taking app, I have found the performance of the app to be quite poor on both the iPhone and Mi 4, and finally moved it out of my home screen. The Apple Watch app is also quite handy though it is of limited utility for note taking on the wrist. An honorable mention for the Zoho Notebook app that is cross platform just like One Note and also supports the Apple Watch, but not IFTTT. It also allows you to make audio notes from the wrist.
  • My trio of travel apps – Google Maps, Uber and Ola – remain in the same places and my reliance on each of them remains unchanged as well. That said, the apps themselves have changed quite a bit over the last year with Uber undergoing a major rebranding exercise and a complete overhaul of their iOS app. Ola has also expanded its range of services over the last year.
  • Oura is one of the new entrants to the home screen and it is the companion app to the Oura ring that I got in May 2016. I use it through the day to track my activities, starting off with my sleep first thing in the morning.
  • Streaks continues to remain on the home screen and I have tweaked the activities that I’m tracking to make them more automated where possible like the ones that read data from the Health app for steps, sleep and weight. It again has an Apple Watch to make it easier to track habits.
  • Netflix and Amazon Video don’t need much of an introduction of course and 2016 saw the entry of both the services in India albeit at either end of the year. I even upgraded my data plan so that I could watch shows on the go. Here again, the 16 GB storage of my iPhone 5s prevents me from downloading any shows though both apps support offline videos. Good thing I have my Mi 4, but Netflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on itNetflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on it.
  • The Money Pro app also finally displaces the MoneyBook app for my finance tracking. The main advantage was the search feature, making it easier to track expenses. The Apple Watch app also helps in making quick entries. It has a macOS app as well along with iCloud sync support.

A few other apps that don’t feature on the home screen but get used regularly are PayTM (was using it long before the demonetisation), Workflow, Pedometer++, Data Counter and Copied (a clipboard manager with a keyboard and widget) some of which I use through widgets or the Watch apps.

My iPhone Home Screen for 2015

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It’s the start of a new year and it’s time to review the apps on my iPhone home screen, an exercise I started last year. Many of the apps remain the same, while a few make it back into the home screen while a couple of others for replaced due to apps getting discontinued. Here goes a brief summary of the apps starting from the top:

  • The first 6 apps remain the same as last year which are the Apple defaults.
  • Todoist: The cross platform support including desktop apps and the convenient IFTTT channel made me pick Todoist as my preferred to do manager. This slot was occupied by the location based reminder Checkmark 2 last year, but I more or less gave up on the concept due to its relative unreliability with reminders not getting triggered in the right locations.
  • Alarmed: It retains its spot as my preferred reminder and timer management app. I had briefly switched to 2Do but that turned out to be a bit of an overkill and not as easy to use for me. Moreover Alarmed finally got an update for iOS 8 notification actions towards the middle of the year to get on with the times.
  • Messages & Whatsapp: The messaging apps remain the same and with more people in office getting iPhones Messages is getting a good workout. Whatsapp also got an update for iOS notification replies and other tweaks over the year to become more convenient to use.
  • Inbox: Dropbox dropped a bomb towards the end of the year with its discontinuation of Mailbox and I promptly made the switch to Google’s own Inbox which seems to be the way forward for Gmail and has many of my regularly used features of Mailbox like swipe based actions.
  • OneNote: This is my preferred note taking app thanks to its cross platform support and I’ve been using it even more thanks to the IFTTT integration that allows me to create stubs based on triggers from other services. E.g. I have my Office365 meetings from the calendar create stubs to record meeting notes.
  • Google Maps, Uber & Ola: The must have travel related services for me. Google Maps continues to be an excellent source to monitor traffic conditions and the locations in India are a lot more up to date than Apple Maps. You can also download maps for offline use now, but that’s going to be difficult on a 16 GB phone like mine. I’ve also done my bit by editing a few places where I found inaccuracies. For the taxi services, Uber joins Ola as my go to services and I’ve been using these 2 services almost exclusively for the last 6 months for my day to day travels instead of the local kaali peeli taxis in Mumbai ever since the strikes started in June.
  • Day One: I’ve managed to continue my journal habits though I’ve toned down the mundane stuff. Not much to add over last year.
  • Safari: It replaces Chrome as my preferred browser on the iPhone due to its support for ad blockers introduced in iOS 9 (I’ve retained the copy of the discontinued Peace). Since I use a MacBook at work, the handoff and continuity features give me the cross platform browsing support I need.
  • Streaks: I’ve been using this app to maintain some habits like hitting step targets, reading a book daily, going to bed in time, leaving office in time etc.
  • Hours: A simple time tracking app for different projects. Had a bit of a buyer’s remorse when the app got a big price cut right after I bought it and then went free within a month. It’s a bit buggy as well. Still, a useful app to have to track my time distribution at work.
  • Left to Spend: A simple app to track a daily budget manually. In my case I use it to track the office food court prepaid card balance.
  • Phone: For voice calls, duh!
  • Outlook: My preferred email client for work and the new avatar of Accompli that Microsoft acquired to create the mobile Outlook app. This retains the best of Accompli’s features like the integrated calendar view and provides better support for other services.
  • Moneybook: I continue to track my expenses manually on this app. I tried a few other options briefly including switching to the Android based Mi 4 with its automated expense trackers, but end up returning to this every time thanks to the simple interface and the ability to perform simple arithmetic operations during entries. This would be the perfect expense tracker for me if only it had a search feature.
  • Camera: Tried a few replacements, but stuck to this as the default.

A few of the home screen apps from last year like Camera+, Shazam and Wikipanion have moved on to the second screen while I removed Paper and Argus due to the limited developments. I also deliberately moved away the social network apps to the second screen to reduce the time spent on them (not very successful yet). Overall, not a big change in the type of apps though I see a few apps moving around over the next year. Also looking forward to the new entries this year.

Activity tracking with Misfit and Pebble Time: OneHandedReview

It’s been over 2 weeks since I got my Pebble Time, and one of the main things I wanted to try with it was the activity tracking functionality. I’ve been using the Misfit app for this purpose for the last 2 weeks. I prefer to wear watches on my left hand as most right handed people do, but having my left arm in a sling has forced me to wear the device on my right hand. This has given me some interesting perspective on the way the app and device work.

Step counting

Brushing teeth can be really vigorous
Brushing teeth can be really vigorous

Wrist worn activity trackers do have some limitations particularly when it comes to step counting accuracy as elaborated in The Wirecutter fitness tracker recommendation, and my experience has been no different. I found that I was hitting the goal of 600 points (approx 6000 steps) just sitting at home with my arm in a sling, all thanks to the app failing to reject mundane activities like brushing teeth from the count. Granted that I was wearing the device on my dominant hand, but the iPhone 5s is a much better step counter in this regard. The whole purpose of using a wrist worn device rather than a smartphone for step counting is to cover those times when you don’t have your phone with you, but the accuracy in this case leaves a lot to be desired.

Sleep tracking

This is one area where the Misfit app seems to do quite well, particularly since the detection is automatic and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to switch to the sleep mode. Since the Pebble Time does not have any sensor to detect whether it is worn, there were times when I removed the Pebble from my wrist and the app thought that I was sleeping. These false activities can of course be deleted from the Misfit app on the phone. There were also times when I got up for a while and then decided to sleep in and the app handled these activities quite gracefully.

I also did a mini experiment over the last couple of days by wearing the Pebble on my left hand which is bound in the sling at bedtime, and found that the awake periods came down significantly over my previous recordings using my right hand. I wonder whether it will make a difference if I put the Pebble in the pillow cover which should be a similar scenario as my sling bound arm.

Conclusion

The Misfit app for the Pebble is pretty decent overall and particularly good for sleep tracking. The battery life is also pretty decent at 3-4 days, when compared to dedicated fitness trackers and miles ahead of other smartwatches. However, if step counting is your primary objective or you want to use it with Android (only the iOS version of the Misfit app supports the Pebble), then look elsewhere. That said, I have found the app pretty useful though I plan to try out some of the other activity tracking apps for the Pebble like Jawbone, FitCat and Morpheuz.

A Tale of 3 App Stores

I setup my company’s app store accounts for iOS, Android and Windows last year and have been managing them for over a year now. The journey has been quite interesting, starting from signing up for the accounts to switching to a MacBook Air last April for iOS development. Here are a few observations on the journey so far:

  • The signup process is pretty simple for Android and Windows and the cost is also minimal. Apple on the other hand has a comprehensive process if you opt to setup a company account that allows you to have development team members. Plus they are the costliest of the lot at $99 per year.
  • For all the flak that Android draws for its developmental difficulties, its app store management tools are the best. you can easily setup a decentralized account granting access on a per app basis to different team members. This makes it very convenient and easy to work with multiple development partners in case of an enterprise.
  • Windows Store unfortunately is on the other end of the spectrum with no support for any kind of team members. So, the account manager is left to do all the app listings and package uploads.
  • Apple is somewhere in between, allowing team members, but not providing app level access controls. So, one development partner could potentially look at the others’ work. Plus, the main account P12 certificate needs to be shared if you want to allow anyone other than the account owner to upload apps.
  • Alpha and beta testing is also very simple on Android where you can just upload the package, setup a Google Group to manage the testers and setup the process.
  • Testing for iOS is also fairly easy now that TestFlight is integrated into iTunes Connect. However, if you want to allow external testers then your app needs to go through a review process.
  • Windows Store does not seem to offer any testing support at the moment.
  • On the store management app front, Apple seems to be the only one offering an iTunes Connect app that lets you monitor your account. Nothing equivalent for Android or Windows so far.

Overall, Android or more specifically the Google Play Store seems to be the easiest to manage with a decentralized enterprise account while Windows Store involves a lot of administrative overhead, with iOS closer to the Play Store. Let’s see if the situation improves with Windows 10 over the next one year.

My iPhone Home Screen for 2014

Home Screen

2014 was the year I finally switched to an iPhone all thanks to the broken screen on my much loved Lumia 720. I got an iPhone 5s in June and my iOS app collection from my iPod Touch (2nd gen), iPad 2 & iPad mini made the switch pretty much seamless. I’m making this post inspired by a similar annual exercise by M G Siegler, and hope to study my usage over time. I do still have my Galaxy S3, but that hasn’t managed to become my primary phone in 2.5 years

So, here goes my list of apps used on the iPhone (in the order featured in the screenshot):

  • The first party Apple icons are self explanatory as expected. That said, I also use Dropbox, Google+ and OneDrive for my photo backups in addition to iCloud.
  • Checkmark 2 is mainly for my location based reminders (Apple’s solution is pretty poor in this regard), and also for general lists
  • Alarmed (a free clone of Due) is one of my favourite reminder apps due to its extensive options for setting event repeats (x days from completion being the killer feature for me). Plus it also supports creation of timers and iCloud sync (hasn’t been updated for iOS 8 though).
  • Whatsapp is my preferred mode of exchanging online messages with my friends & family.
  • Mailbox is mainly for managing Gmail (and no, I don’t have an Inbox invite).
  • Paper for browsing facebook, though I still have the main app as lots of apps use it for login.
  • Wikipanion to look up stuff on wikipedia, an app I’ve carried over from my iPad. The history feature makes it more convenient than the integrated Spotlight search or using the browser.
  • Olacabs is pretty much the Indian take on Uber, and their recent support for the Mumbai Kaali Peeli taxis has made the app more useful than ever. Plus their mini AC cab service is a just hair costlier than the Kaali Peeli and they don’t have any premium for night time rides.
  • Google Maps is pretty much the defacto map app for India, and I use it to check traffic before leaving office every day to choose the route to take home.
  • Day One is my go to app for daily journal entries, and it is one of the reasons why my online posts (blog, facebook, twitter) has actually gone down. This is a paid app, but I picked it up during Apple’s app store celebration giveaway. That said, I did purchase the Mac version for my office MacBook, albeit at a discount.
  • Chrome pips Safari to the browser slot due to its cross platform capabilities since I do use the Galaxy S3 and a Windows laptop at home where its sync functionality comes in handy.
  • Argus is a decent fitness app, but I just use to track my daily step count against a goal of 5000 steps. I had also purchased MotionX 24/7 for this purpose and did find its idle reminder handy, but it turned out to be a bit of a drain on the battery in spite of the M7. I’ve also tried quite a few other similar apps like Move, Breeze, Human etc, and each has their strong points. With the Apple Watch coming out soon, I have a suspicion that this area is going to get an overhaul.
  • Camera+ is my secondary camera app after Apple’s, mainly for those backlighting situations, and when I want to get the horizon level.
  • Shazam has taken over from Soundhound for song identification due to its better record with Hindi songs. I still have Soundhound though, and its active lyrics can be pretty handy.
  • Accompli has taken over from Mail & Cloudmagic as my office mail client that’s based on Exchange. The integrated calendar feature is quite handy, and so is the attachment section. Microsoft’s purchase of the software only increases the likelihood that it’s going to become even more handy as an Exchange client.
  • MoneyBook is probably the oldest of the lot and one of the first apps that I purchased (for my iPod touch). It’s a pretty simple expense tracker with a nice interface and online backup capabilities.

This of course leaves out the tons of games that I’ve played on my iPad, but does overlap with some apps on my Galaxy S3. A shoutout to some of my other useful apps like Zomato, OneNote, Swarm, Numerous that I use on specific occasions. I’m sure this list will look somewhat different as more apps start leveraging the iOS 8 features and then there’s of course Apple Watch.

Forget Uber, here’s Ola kaali peeli

As an office goer in Mumbai, who commutes by taxis, I’ve had my fair share of trip refusals and ended waiting for upto am hour to get a willing cab. The recently launched Ola Cabs feature of hailing a good old kaali peeli in Mumbai has been a real time and hassle saver for me this past week. I’ve used it 3-4 times already & the experience has been quite smooth. Hope it flourishes from here as it solves problems for both the commuter and the taxi driver. Just hope that it doesn’t run afoul of regulators and unions.

One caveat of you’re using their windows phone app which doesn’t seem to have this feature yet.

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