Voice-controlled devices, home automation, phone battery life
Bob's Tech Talk
Q. Is it possible to talk with Siri on non-Apple devices?
A. The short answer is no, Siri is a feature only available from Apple. For readers who may not be familiar with that name, Siri is the voice-controlled Intelligent Personal Assistant installed on Apple devices.
Controlling devices with voice commands is hot right now, and Apple Siri has plenty of company. Microsoft has Cortana. Google has Google Voice. Samsung has Viv. Amazon has Alexa. There are many others. Each of them has a common set of abilities, along with capabilities unique to that assistant. For example, any of them can tell you the weather, but only Siri can play content on AppleTV, and only Alexa can order products from Amazon.
There is also a wide variety of devices to support these assistants. In addition to laptops, tablets, and phones, a new category of desktop device has appeared in the last year. Among these devices, the only one so far to get much traction is Amazon Echo, which is a line of devices ranging from $50 to $150. We are still in the early-adopter stage of desktop voice assistants, but there are already abundance of interesting developments to explore.
Note that while Siri is Apple-only, most of the other assistants are available on multiple models via an app.
Q. I have a small room inside my house where the light switch is in an inconvenient place. I have to awkwardly fumble around to reach it. Can home automation help?
A. Because you mentioned “home automation,” I need to start with a warning. Home automation is a loosely defined term that includes a mix of products and services. Many of them show great promise, but they are not fully baked yet. There are incompatible standards, a device from company A is unlikely to work with a device from company B. Some vendors have gone out of business, stranding users. Often a device will solve one problem only to create two new, different problems. I will write about home automation in the coming months, but at the moment, my advice is to steer clear. Wait until the products mature and some clear winners emerge.
Now back to your light switch.
When I was very young, my grandmother fell down the cellar steps because the switch inside the cellar door was in an odd place. Fortunately, she escaped with only a few bruises. It may seem like overkill for some, but I think switch placement is about safety as much as convenience, especially in homes built before the modern electrical code. I had a similar safety issue in my garage, and I solved it with the help of a licensed electrician and a wall switch with a built-in occupancy sensor. These switches sense movement in the room and turn on the power when needed. Better models include two sensors, one for motion and one for ambient light, so the light only turns on when the room is both occupied and dark.
In the right situation, sensor switches are a worthwhile investment.
Q. My phone’s battery no longer lasts an entire day. The battery seems to go from 20 percent to empty very quickly. What can I do besides replace the phone?
A. Try restarting the phone. A simple off-on cycle never hurts and often helps. If after a few days the problem remains, the next step is to look for an app that consumes too much power. Newer phones have a Battery Setting screen that lists which apps use the most power. Armed with this information, you may be able to put your phone’s power consumption on a diet.
When the above software fixes do not work, it is time to look at hardware. Is the phone still under warranty? If the phone is old enough to be out of warranty, the battery is probably near the end of its life. Generally when a battery ages, the battery meter becomes less dependable. There are apps that reveal a phone’s battery cycle count, which is a good indicator to determine if the battery has developed a fault, or has merely been used up.
If you work though the steps above and still do not have enough power, the solution is to add a bigger battery. Mophie (mophie.com) makes a line of “Juice Pack” phone cases that incorporate a battery. They come in different sizes, everything from small enough to add just a few hours to very large multi-day workhorses. A good battery case will add a few hours of usability each day, and it will add many months to the overall lifetime of the phone itself.
A tech enthusiast his entire life, Bob can be contacted at email@example.com.
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