Alexa on the Huawei Mate 9 isn't worth the effort (yet)

Too many features don’t work right now.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

It's time to call it: Amazon has conquered the smart home industry. From connected appliance makers and game creators to television networks and even financial institutions, everyone is jumping aboard the Alexa train. But Amazon is eyeing a new domain: your smartphone. And its bid for a presence in phones faces stiff competition from existing assistants. Still, when Huawei announced at CES that it would bring Alexa to its Mate 9 flagship, we were intrigued. But we didn't know quite what to expect, since details at the time were scant. Now that the update has begun rolling out in the US, though, we have a clearer picture of what Alexa can do here. Turns out, the benefits of having Amazon's helper on a phone are limited and require too much effort to be practical.

Let's start with the biggest flaw: Each time you want to talk to Alexa on the Mate 9, you first have to open the Huawei Alexa app by tapping it. For a service that Huawei itself calls "a primarily voice-driven experience," the lack of hotword support is puzzling. I'm used to hollering at Siri from across the room, asking her to take notes or give me weather updates when my hands are occupied. When I wanted to get the Mate 9's Alexa to turn on a switch in my apartment, I had to walk over to the phone, unlock it, find the app, tap it and then say "Alexa, turn on closet WeMo." I could have walked over to the switch and turned it on thrice in the time it took me to ask Alexa to do so. An always-listening assistant would have saved me four steps.

Plus, having a continued conversation with Alexa becomes frustrating if there are long pauses between your commands because the phone goes to sleep after its preset time (between 15 seconds and 10 minutes) and you'll have to unlock if you want to talk to the assistant again. You could work around this by setting your Mate 9 to only go to sleep after 30 minutes of inactivity (the maximum period allowed), but that's a compromise security-minded folks won't likely tolerate.

Still, it's a flaw I'm willing to overlook since having Alexa on a smartphone is not just about hands-free convenience. Amazon's helper currently has a more robust set of functions than its rivals, with more than 10,000 skills that enable voice control for a plethora of services. Many of these are available on the Mate 9, but a few big ones are missing. In particular, not being able to play music or set alarms and reminders feel like major oversights, considering these are the tools I use most frequently on the Echo. Thankfully, at least, you can still use Google Assistant or Siri for those tasks.

Despite these shortcomings, the Alexa integration still offers a few conveniences. If the phone is already in your hands or within reach, and you want to do more than simply turn on a light, it's easy to just open the app and say, "Alexa, change the lights to movie mode." For Mate 9 owners who want to link their smart home devices to Amazon's helper but don't want to shell out for the Echo or Echo Dot, this is a nice bonus. Alexa on the Mate 9 also responded quickly to my commands and understood me most of the time even with noisy coworkers in the background.

But it's not a feature that will convince shoppers to buy a Mate 9. Android users can lean on the Google Assistant to carry out similar tasks. Many smart home devices already work with Google Home, and more are expected to join in, making the Assistant potentially as capable as Alexa.

On iOS, you can choose between Siri or Alexa via the Amazon app. Just as it is on the Mate 9, hotword support is missing for Alexa on iPhones, although that's less of a surprise considering Apple's notoriously closed-off OS. You can ask Alexa to stream music from stations in Amazon's iOS app, though, so the Mate 9's inability to do so is strange indeed.

To be fair, music playback may roll out to the Mate 9 in the future, along with some other features. During a phone briefing last month, vice president of Huawei Device USA Vincent Wen told reporters that setting alarms with Alexa is "coming very soon," and to "stay tuned to future versions" for music support. No specific time frame was given for these updates. Huawei and Amazon's partnership on this project feels rushed, and I wish they had waited until the integration was more complete before pushing it out.

Ultimately, Alexa on the Mate 9 is a telling and underwhelming preview of what Amazon might have in the works for its assistant on smartphones. On both iOS and the Mate 9, voice activation is missing. There isn't an official Android version of Alexa yet, but always-listening is also rare on third-party offerings. Amazon needs to find a way to enable that capability and support the most commonly used skills for Alexa on smartphones to truly be helpful. Meanwhile, there are plenty of standalone devices other than the Echo speakers that offer Alexa support. Huawei's flagship is a capable phablet with its own artificial intelligence baked in and doesn't benefit from the Alexa implementation in its current form.