Jefferson Graham takes a look at two products that bring Alexa and voice-activated controls to the auto, Garmin Speak and Roav Viv.
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif.—”Alexa, find the nearest gas station!”
It’s a request you’d probably love to get the answer to, especially if you’re low on the gas and behind the wheel on a dark, deserted highway.
Or, you’re hungry and determined to go to Chipotle. “Alexa, direct me to the nearest Chipotle.”
Maybe it’s just that you’re in a mood for music. Specific music that’s not going to come up on your radio. You want to have Pandora, Spotify or Amazon Music play you songs by Drake, Jason Mraz or Diana Krall and you don’t feel like pulling over to start tapping on your smartphone to make these things happen.
What if we could ask Alexa to do it instead, while we drive?
Good news. Two low-cost, easy-to-install units from Anker and Garmin now make this a reality, with little of the negatives usually associated with cheap devices. Unless you count more excessive battery drain on your phone because you’ll be using them – more safely – for longer periods.
Prices range from the Roav Viva from Anker for $49 to $99 for the entry-level Garmin Speak. Both simply plug into the 12 volt receptacle, or car cigarette lighter, connect to the smartphone’s internet connection and beam Alexa and the results through the car stereo.
This is a vital need, way more important in a car than in the home, as we really don’t want to use our hands or eyes for anything but driving. I have Bluetooth in my 2012 Hyundai, and it’s good for making calls and playing music or podcasts that I’ve called up on my phone. I can’t use it for on-command music, news, podcasts or any other driving essential. And the system messes up with using voice features on my phone, making it inoperable for anything beyond “Call mom.”
Amazon itself has promised to release its own unit, Echo Auto, working much in the same way as the Viva and Speak but selling for a more economical $25. However, the unit is available by “invitation” only, and Amazon is mum about when we’ll see a consumer release for the product.
And for fans of the Google Assistant, know that both Anker and JBL have plans to release similar products that respond to “Hey, Google.” Anker’s Roav Bolt ($49.99) is slated for April, while JBL’s Link Drive ($60) is coming later in the year.
Both the Viva and Speak have two distinctive selling propositions. With the Viva, you can make phone calls and do the usual mix of on-command music, news, podcasts, calendar reciting and additions and general trivia. It doesn’t offer turn-by-turn directions, but there’s an easy workaround. (Open up Waze or Google Maps on your smartphone, announce your destination and the turn-by-turn directions now play via the units, into the car stereo.)
The Speak doesn’t make calls but offers turn by turn directions, spoken aloud, and offers as a visual on its screen.
How to set up
Plug the units into the cigarette lighter, download the companion app, connect the units, and go to the Amazon Alexa app to add additional skills. (We had to go to the Alexa app to add the voice-calling skill for the Viva, for instance.)
Note that the Speak unit is meant to be attached to the windshield and comes with a super long, and annoying cord that Garmin suggests wrapping around the windshield. That’s easier said than done. (Several states have rules outlawing suction cups on your windshield, so you might have to vamp and place it on the dash.)
When you enter the car, open the Drive and Viva apps to connect to the devices, and then start asking Alexa to do things as you begin your drive. Note that Alexa responds at a slower speed than in the house, and there will be a lag time before you get an answer.
What I could do
Play music on command from Amazon Music and Pandora. (We’re not Spotify subscribers; the free version doesn’t work on command.) You can also get music from Apple Music, radio and podcasts from Tunein and iHeartRadio. Check calendar and add events to it, the time, weather and add to or create a shopping list, get directions.
What didn’t work well
When playing podcasts, they didn’t pick up from where I left off after stopping the car for gas and starting the drive again. Garmin suggested using the Anypod skill as an alternative, “Ask Anypod to play Talking Tech,” but that didn’t do the trick for us.
Note that these units will really eat at your battery. Mine was pretty drained after driving around with the Garmin Speak, which doesn’t have a charging slot. (My friend Bret notes that “every” car has a USB slot, and thus, this complaint is irrelevant.) Do you have that slot?
The Viva has two open slots for charging built into the unit.
A unit that costs $50, brings Alexa functionality, simply, that has two charging outlets as well and can make phone calls? The Speak gives functionality and useful traffic information, but the long cord and the fact it doesn’t make calls make it less appealing. So it’s the Viva, hands down.
Readers, have questions about the Alexa experience in the car? Send in your questions to me on Twitter, where I’m @jeffersongraham.
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