Echoing Frustration [#18]

I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday. I honestly wasn’t expecting to, so it was a really fun and exciting surprise to unwrap; although, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “What am I going to use this for?”.

So, a month on, what do I find myself using the Echo for? Because we do use it, all the time (probably every day, in fact). The obvious use for an Echo is music. It syncs nicely with Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify, Pandora and a bunch of other services. Straight away though, we run into problem number one with the Echo: I live in the UK. So that long list of music services is actually just Amazon and Spotify. Sure, I have a Spotify premium account, so that list suits me just fine, but it is something to keep in mind. If you live in the UK, a lot of the features and services that actually use the Alexa platform just don’t exist.

But, still, Spotify works wonderfully. It took a few days to get used to the way Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, wants you to request songs but once we worked it out it became surprisingly natural. There are some issues, particularly with albums with unusual names such as Watsky’s X Infinity. It should be pronounced “times infinity”, but Alexa only understands “ex infinity”. Still, not the most irritating problem in the world.

No, that title goes to the single largest gripe that I have with the Echo and Amazon’s implementations in general. Because Amazon really want you to use their own music platform on the service, not their direct rival Spotify, the interaction with the service is as stripped back as possible. To be fair, Spotify has been removing features continually for years anyway, but I use most of what’s left pretty consistently. Chief amongst those extras is Last.FM integration which is frustratingly absent from the Echo. This has caused some pretty big issues and a whole lot of irritation.

I initially hoped to hook up a recipe in IFTTT, but Alexa’s API only allows you to know when a song is being played through Amazon Music, not third party services. It also turns out that IFTTT has dropped Last.FM support. That’s a whole other complaint for another time but… dammit, really?!

But, I thought, I’m a Prime subscriber as well. That means I can just use Amazon Music on the Echo and create an IFTTT to record a list to a Google sheet. Not the most elegant solution, but coupled with the Universal Scrobbler, it would be relatively low maintenance. Except, you see, Prime Music and Amazon Music aren’t the same thing. I hadn’t noticed this before, as I use Prime for shipping, storage and TV, but apparently Echo doesn’t work with Prime music itself. Sigh.

So, at the moment I’m stuck in limbo. For a brief time it looked like casting from my PC or phone would work, albeit at the complete loss of voice control, which is pretty much the main selling point of an Echo. Unfortunately, that appears to be hit and miss at best. I’ve temporarily accepted defeat, but I will say this: the moment a competitor comes out with a product that lets me Scrobbl music, I will be switching immediately.

Because, here’s the thing. In spite of this huge, gaping black hole of missing functionality, we use the Echo every day. It sits in our kitchen, where it has completely replaced a collection of speakers, digital radios and iPods with a single, elegant device. It lets you change songs, check the time or convert measurements whilst elbow deep in food preparation or washing up. It’s even replaced our old egg timer, allowing us to time multiple dishes all at once, and looks set to do the same with our shopping list. My initial thought of “What am I going to do with this” has been answered many times over with a wealth of surprising little features. Plus, it sounds great; we pretty much use it as our main audio player in fact. Despite everything I’ve said above, I am a complete convert to voice controlled audio players and cannot wait to see what functionality comes to them in the future. It’s just that, right now, the one piece of functionality I most want is missing. Fingers crossed, not for long!

Trakting My Media

I am an idiot.

Yesterday I wrote about my frustration that no Last.fm style service existed for TV and film. Last night I went home and found two such web apps in less than ten minutes. It turns out, I was Googling wrong.

There may actually be more than two out there, but it was Trakt and Simkl that caught be eye. Idiotic names aside, both appear to be healthy and robust options with exactly the functionality I was after. Simkl is clearly the baby of the two, with less interactivity with third party services and no current mobile applications on offer. Trakt, on the other hand, appears to have undertaken the Spotify model and launched with a robust API, resulting in adoption by dozens of third-party services. Only time will tell if they complete that model, eventually buying out the few they like and pulling the rug out from beneath the others…

Trakt also wins out in the aesthetics department, with a much more modern and refined style, layout and UI. Conversely, Simkl feels like a leftover remnant of the Web 2.0 era. Trakt does lose points for hiding some relatively key features behind a pay wall, such as in depth analytics and IFTTT integration, but all the features you absolutely need only cost your login credentials, so it isn’t a major roadblock.

I conducted some (very) informal testing last night to see which I might prefer long term. Both were pretty easy to setup, search and navigate though though I found Trakt simpler to retroactively scrobble a show to (a pattern begins to emerge). Trakt’s functionality enabling you to set when you watched a show, going back months, means that the hurdle of cinemas/analogue TV becomes fairly manageable. Simkl likely has these features hidden within its less intuitive UI, but I never found them.

Whilst watching a film in the evening, I tried to test out the mobile options. Simkl simply doesn’t have any at the moment, which is a fairly major black mark. Trakt, as mentioned, has a huge variety but none are actually that great. Most of the Android apps only cater for TV, whereas I need a service that does film as well. The remaining options were a mixture of poor design, buggy features and bad reviews. Even when I did work out the best way to search their archives I found all but one (Cathode) failed to actually return the film I was watching, despite it being present in the Trakt database. Even then, once found, I couldn’t retroactively scrobble the film, instead being forced to choose ‘just watched’ or ‘currently watching’.

To be clear, this is definitely not Trakt’s fault. It would be nice if they launched their own mobile app with a focus on their core features, such as scrobbling, but I can understand why they’ve gone this route. For me, it will mean I can use Cathode when I’m at a friend’s house or the cinema to scrobble as I watch; if I forget, I can add it in later from the Trakt interface itself. That’s a fair compromise and offers a level of flexibility I’m surprised isn’t also behind the pay wall.

For now, then, Trakt has won my support. I signed up to both with test accounts to try them out and both get top marks for making it easy and fairly clear how to permanently delete those accounts. I’ve since signed up to Trakt ‘properly’ and back-filled my viewing habits for 2017 so far. You can follow along here, if you’re at all interested.

It also turns out that my “New 52” challenge has already become more taxing than I had anticipated. Allowing myself a whole week should have removed any stress, but come Tuesday morning on week #2 and I was panicking. I didn’t have any ideas and realised that I’m away at the weekend. I felt like I was running out of free time and it’s amazing how that was sufficient to freeze out my rational mind entirely. The result was a rushed out, imperfect article on a non-existent issue. I felt a little stupid when I realised. I was tempted to remove the #2 from the title and stick it on this post instead, but I’m not going to. I’m going to leave that flag there as a reminder to chill out a bit more in the future. Hopefully it helps.