Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems
Question: My wife and I were given an Alexa for Christmas and it's been set up for us. I can get it to play the radio, but is there any way of getting music on it for free or do I need to set up a new account? Also, should I be worried about it listening to us in the house?
Free music via Alexa isn't really possible in any reliable, simple way. Most people who want to listen to music through their Amazon Echo speaker (or something else that can use Alexa, like a Sonos speaker) do so by connecting a paid music streaming account.
The two big online streaming services are Spotify and Apple Music, both of which are supported within Alexa (although you have to add them as a 'skill' in the Alexa app on your phone or tablet first). Amazon Music is another option, and you may notice your Alexa-powered device trying to push this on you from time to time.
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But Spotify is generally the one I recommend. Once set up, you can just say "Alexa, play 'Beethoven's Fifth' on Spotify" or "Alexa, play 'Symphony For The Devil' by The Rolling Stones on Spotify" and it will reach into your Spotify account and play those songs. After a while, you probably won't need to say 'on Spotify' at the end of each request.
But this does mean setting up a 'premium' account with Spotify, which costs between €10 (for one person) and €15 (a family account for up to six people) per month (it's a similar pricing structure for either Apple or Amazon).
If you think you're likely to listen to music a lot through the Alexa-enabled speaker, it's probably worth it. If it's only an occasional impulse, it may not be. I have a Spotify account attached to a handful of Echo speakers. For me, it's worth it because I subscribe anyway.
One element I like is that Spotify, like Apple and others, combines with Alexa to do more than just play the specific song or album you ask for. You can ask for "relaxing music" or "energetic music" or simply "classical music" and it will play selections for you.
Spotify and Apple Music are also pretty good at nudging new music at you, too; not necessarily newly-created music, but artists or songs you may not have heard before that are based on your own listening trends.
On your second question, the smart speakers are technically listening, but maybe not in the alarming way that some might have you believe. When I say 'listening', I mean they react to a predefined action word.
For Amazon Echo speakers, the default one is 'Alexa' (but this can be changed to almost any word you want); for Google Home (or Nest) speakers, the default command is 'OK Google' or 'hey Google'.
The web-connected speakers are only designed to acknowledge or use words they hear after that 'action word' is uttered out loud. This is a very different proposition to the idea that the speaker (and hence Amazon or Google) is listening and recording your ordinary conversation outside any specific request around it.
Sometimes confusion arises when the speaker thinks it hears you ask it to do something, such as mistaking a word or phrase you have used for its action word. This has led to worries that the whole system may be more proactive in listening to us than our understanding of what it is supposed to be doing.
In general, it's fairly widely accepted that they're not doing this. Even so, last year, all three leading voice-control systems (Amazon Alexa, Google and Apple's Siri) attracted public controversy when it was revealed that some human employees were reviewing voice commands, ostensibly to help the system correct its understanding of when it got a phrase right or wrong.
The biggest problem about this was that they also heard some misfires, including rows and other sensitive private situations.
If privacy is your worry, Google's smart speaker system may be the platform that could try to use your commands for advertising more than the others, at least when you look at the average internet use for Irish people.
It is possible to generally opt out of the voice platforms using your commands for anything else, but my experience is that you have to go and do that rather than this being the default out of the box.
I want to purchase a camera for my elderly husband; my family are sending us on a cruise and he would like to have one because he hasn't got one at the moment. I can't afford a very expensive one. Can you please recommend one on this basis?
For this situation, I recommend Panasonic's Lumix FZ82 (€249-€279). It's relatively easy to use, isn't too small or fidgety and has a great zoom that also gives you a nice wide angle if you want.
Recommendation: Panasonic Lumix FZ82 (€279 from Conns Cameras or €249 from Currys/PC World).
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