HTC U11 adds Amazon Alexa support, turning it into a portable Echo

HTC triples up on its artificial intelligence offering.

The HTC U11 launched in June with Google Assistant as its primary artificial intelligence service, though the promise was that at a later date we'd receive Amazon Alexa as a secondary choice. Now the time has come — with a new software update and an app install, you can use your U11 almost identically to the way you'd use an Amazon Echo sitting on your kitchen counter.

Alexa can live right alongside Google Assistant on your U11.

The first interesting thing about the Alexa offering is that it can actually live right alongside Google Assistant. Long-pressing the U11's home button still launches Google Assistant, and as of now you can't actually remap that function to launching Alexa (though you can turn off Assistant there). So there are three ways to activate Alexa: by simply saying "Alexa" near the phone, by making Alexa an Edge Sense trigger for when you squeeze the phone, or simply by tapping the "HTC Alexa" app icon. Once you've activated the app once, you'll also get a notification with suggested things to ask Alexa and a microphone activation button.

Once you activate it, Alexa on the U11 works precisely like it does on an Echo in your home. You can configure it just like any other Echo using the Amazon Alexa app — by default it'll simply be called your "HTC Alexa" even. You can use any of the skills you're used to using, control smart home devices, buy items from Amazon, check on Amazon shipments, ask it knowledge-base questions, get your Flash Briefing and more.

The fact that Alexa on the phone works just like your Echo at home is a big deal for those who are already familiar with it, but there are also clear limitations to this setup.

This is simply an Echo virtualized on your phone — there's room to improve.

Nothing about Alexa on the phone takes advantage of the fact that it's on the phone. Unlike Google Assistant, Alexa can't control items on your phone like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, can't give you directions to things that open up Google Maps, can't transition to showing you things on the screen and perhaps most importantly can't let you just type to it. It really is just an Echo virtualized into an app on your U11 — and that means at launch it lags behind Google Assistant in terms of raw capabilities and features that feel native to the phone.

Right now there are just a few limitations with Alexa on your phone compared to an Echo speaker. At launch you can't train the voice model for waking up Alexa, nor can you do some specific functions like create reminders or make calls. Presumably the gaps should close as Amazon works on its APIs to tailor to a mobile experience.

As with many Amazon products this is U.S.-only for now, but it should be localized for both the UK and Germany soon as well.

Further driving home the point that you're just using a virtualized Echo on your phone, you'll need to use the Amazon Alexa app to configure all of the things Alexa can do on your U11 ... which isn't the best app in the world, as you may have already experienced. You add skills, rename the phone, configure "do not disturb" hours and just about everything else right alongside your settings for Echos you may have.

If you're someone who's already into the Echo/Alexa ecosystem in your home and you want that familiarity on your U11, it's simple to do and worth checking out. You just have to have the latest firmware update for the U11, which is rolling out now (version 1.16.617.6 for unlocked, 1.13.651.6 for Sprint), and install the "HTC Alexa" app from Google Play. If you're not invested in Amazon and just want a general-purpose assistant for your phone, Google Assistant is still the go-to choice until Alexa can improve its on-phone experience.