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HTC U11 Becomes an ‘Alexa Phone’

The HTC U11 smartphone joins the Alexa family today, with a software update that brings "always on" Alexa functionality to HTC's top device. I've been using it for a few days on an unlocked U11.

I'm putting "always on" in quotes because it's a bit buggy and doesn't work all the time. Sometimes, I say "Alexa" and the phone wakes up just like that; sometimes, I have to say it two or three times, and I haven't been able to figure out what makes it work sometimes and not others. "OK Google" is still more reliable.

Alexa on HTC U11But it's definitely full Alexa functionality. It has all of the skills that are loaded into my account, and it can even play music through Amazon Music without the Amazon Music app loaded onto my phone.

Alexa co-exists with OK Google on the U11. You can say one phrase or the other. You can also set the U11 to activate Alexa by squeezing the phone. You can't change the Alexa wake word on the phone, though.

As I tried Alexa on the U11 over a few days, I started to mentally sort what I wanted to ask Google to do and what I wanted to ask Alexa to do. Alexa's specialties tended to be home control and third-party skills; Google was for setting timers and web searches.

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I've been trying the Alexa app pre-launch, and HTC says it's working on improving reliability. The U11 has a history of getting last-minute patches that improve how it works. When we tested the Sprint U11 before launch, it had a bug in the modem code that restricted download speeds; after a software update, according to Ookla's Speediest Intelligence, the phones are much faster on Sprint's network than they were when we reviewed them.

The U11 isn't the first phone with Alexa preloaded, but it's the first where Alexa works like it's supposed to. Huawei's Mate 9 came with Alexa on board, but you had to tap an icon to make it work, which in my mind defeats the whole point of Alexa. The U11's ability to wake up to both "OK Google" and "Alexa" comes from a feature in the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset called "dual wake words," which the Mate 9 doesn't have.

The U11 is currently available from Sprint for $696 or $29/month, or unlocked for the three other carriers for $649 from HTC. To get the Alexa functionality, search for "HTC Alexa" on the Google Play store.

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