Alexa takes control of Roku boxes and TVs

Alexa keeps getting better and better. Now, she can control Roku set top boxes and TVs.

The Alexa ecosystem keeps growing by virtue of Alexa's skills system. Vendors can add skills that perform different tasks or interface with smart home hardware. I use an Alexa skill integrated with Philips' Hue bulbs, another Alexa skill that talks to Samsung's SmartThings hub, one that connects to my Nest thermostats, and one that connects to TP-Link's smart sockets.

I'll admit, seeing Roku support came as something of a surprise. For a while, Amazon refused to sell Apple TVs and Chromecast devices, presumably because they competed with FireTV. While Amazon never stopped selling Roku, there was a time when it wasn't clear whether Amazon wanted to create a universal voice ecosystem, or push other vendors aside in favor of its own hardware.

It's becoming more and more clear that Amazon sees the value of being at the center of a universal voice ecosystem and is learning to work and play well with others. Apple Music can be played through Alexa speakers and now Roku can be controlled with Alexa.

Hands on with the Roku skill

I connected the skill to my living room TV. It's cool, but it's definitely rough around the edges.

On the plus side, you can connect a specific Roku box or TV to specific Alexas. That means that if you have a Roku and an Alexa in the bedroom, and another pair in the living room, when you say "Alexa, do something on Roku," Alexa knows which Roku to control based on which Alexa heard the instruction.

Also: The 50 most useful Alexa skills 

But some commands are weak. "Alexa, set volume to 27 on Roku" results in "Sorry, something went wrong." By contrast, "Alexa, lower volume on Roku" worked just fine. Keep in mind the usual Alexa limitation: if you're blasting noise, Alexa may have some difficulty hearing you and executing your commands.

You can use Alexa to change Roku "channels," or what Roku calls its apps. If you want to watch something on Hulu, simply instruct, "Alexa, open Hulu on Roku." Alexa does get confused with "Alexa, open HBO on Roku." It's not sure if you want HBO Go or HBO Now. To get the streaming service, you have to precisely say "Alexa, open HBO Now on Roku."

Unfortunately, Alexa won't select programming on the channels. So, while you can say "Alexa, open CBS All Access on Roku," you can't say "Alexa, open Star Trek Discovery on CBS All Access on Roku." You also can't switch to CBS All Access and then say "Alexa open Star Trek Discovery." The skill will switch to the app, but won't let you control the app itself.

One of my favorite features of the Roku TV is how it treats inputs as simply more Roku channels. Unfortunately, the Roku skill doesn't. Inputs use "switch to" while channels use "open." To switch to the first input, you'd say "Alexa, switch to HDMI 1 on Roku."

Also: Amazon doubled its Alexa Skills count over the last year TechRepublic

Also, the Roku skill doesn't know the text names for those inputs. We have three named inputs, "Computer," "Xbox," and "PlayStation." Unfortunately, "Alexa, switch to Xbox on Roku" results in "Sorry, I'm not sure." You have to say "Alexa, switch to HDMI 1 on Roku" for it to work.

Finally, you can turn your Roku TV on and off with Alexa. Turning it off is easy, with an "Alexa, turn off Roku." To turn on the Roku TV, you'll need to make sure your system power setting "Fast TV start" is enabled. Only then can you say, "Alexa, turn on Roku" and have her listen and do it.

So, what's my final verdict? Well, the feature is cool. But since you'll still need to pick up the remote to do most things, it's more of a novelty skill than something truly useful. Hopefully, Roku will improve the skill and then, it'll be very nice, indeed.


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