Amazon Echo: Review
A while back, Amazon sent me an invitation to purchase the Echo at some secret time in the future. I said, oh! A new gadget!!! Sign me up! And so, I waited…. and waited… and then shortly before Christmas, my invitation arrived. I 1-clicked and was told my Echo would arrive on January 14, 2015.
What is the Echo? Here’s the official Amazon page. The Echo is, more or less, Siri for your home. It’s a bluetooth enabled, wireless device that allows you to give commands and instructions to it. If you are a Prime member, the Echo is currently $99. If you’re not a Prime member, it’s $199. I’m a Prime member and $99 seemed like quite a reasonable price. I would have hesitated at $199. But for $99? My holiday budget had enough in it to not have to worry.
I love the Echo and I expect to love it even more when there’s an API for developers. For $99 this is a total win.
How my Affair Began
The Echo arrived early: on January 10, 2015.
Herewith, the unboxing and a review.
The Echo Unboxed
A slick black box. Looks awesome already. I was pretty excited…
What you see above is the box with a sleeve. I removed it to find…. A box!
Oooh. It says “Amazon” on it. In black lettering.
Oh. The bright orange interior is neat looking. There on the left is the Echo….
Here are the contents. You can see the Echo, the instructions, the power cord, the white box containing the remote batteries, and the remote…. I was worried about the remote on account of my frustration with attempting to open the Fire TV remote. The Echo design team was wise enough to pay close attention to the Fire TV remote because they designed the exact opposite. It’s immediately apparent how to open the back of the remote so you can put in the batteries.
And so, the assembly begins. I put in the Amazon branded batteries. As you can see, there was immediate user error. One of the batteries is in backward. I fixed that my ownself. Note the color coordination with the packaging. Orange stripe, black lettering. Nice touch.
The remote comes with a cradle, if you will, and an adhesive strip in case you want to put the remote holder on something that isn’t magnetic. This makes it harder (but never impossible) to lose the remote. It should be placed in the room where you would be farthest from the Echo, or the noisiest. It allows you to speak instructions when you are farther away or else in a noisy room.
I placed the remote on the side of the fridge. It’s still there. I’ve only used it once.
I elected to place the unit midway between the places we spend the most time; the kitchen, the living/TV room and my office.
Once the Echo is plugged in, you are instructed to download the app from a tablet or smart phone. And so I did…
You connect it to your wireless network, and …. done.
Seriously. Done. Time spent reading instructions: 3 seconds. Pretty much they weren’t needed.
Time from unboxing to set up and ready to use: About 15 minutes.
The unit invites you to do some voice-training, which I did. That took only a few minutes and was also entertaining enough not to be boring. The voice training slyly introduces you to some of the things the Echo does. Since I haven’t had any trouble making the Echo understand me, I haven’t done any additional voice training. I set up several things that seemed interesting, including Flash briefings. More on that later.
You can also set up other household members for the Echo such that they would have their own customization abilities.
The default name of the Echo is Alexa. Thus, as with an iThing, to which you say, “Siri, [some question or something]” with the Echo, you say “Alexa, [Some question or instruction]. You can change the default name, but I haven’t decided what I want to call it. I was outvoted for “Spawn of The Devil.” That seems strange to me, but whatever. You change the name at an Echo webpage. There you can also do some additional customization, such as setting your zip code so that saying, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” results in the weather at that zip code.
To stop the Echo from doing something or other, you say “Alexa, stop.”
The sound quality is excellent. NPR, for example, is indistinguishable from the radio. The speech is completely clear and natural.
It’s easy to imagine that people with limited mobility could get a lot of use from the Echo.
Using The Echo
You can use the Echo to set alarms and timers, tell you the current weather, or give you a weather forecast. You can ask for Wikipedia searches and other information. If the Echo doesn’t understand you, it places the item on a reminder list. Since this occurred during the NFL playoffs, I asked Alexa for the playoff results. Alas, she did not understand. I tested with my iPhone and Siri was able to tell me the playoff results. Thus, score 1 for Siri. You can configure the Echo to purchase from Amazon and do a great deal more that would make this post even longer.
Note: I just asked for the score of our local basketball team’s game (without leaving my office chair) and Alexa correctly reported the score of yesterday’s game.
If you say, “Alexa, tea, Earl Gray, hot.” The Echo replies, “I am not a replicator.” Bummer. Next Generation, maybe?
Flash Briefings are one of my favorite things. You say, “Alexa, Flash Briefing” and the unit relates the current news headlines for the sources and topics of interest you set up for yourself. NPR and the BBC are two of them, so you can get good quality news. Another household member might have a very different Flash Briefing.
You can also stream music from the cloud, your own, or Prime music. As you may be aware, internet here at JSON HQ is a precious, limited resource and therefore, my test of the music portion was limited. I can tell you there is Chopin, but not Beethoven in Amazon Prime music. I just now, again, without leaving my chair, asked Alexa to play Nirvana. I also asked for several songs from my library.
Here are three very short videos. In Real Life, the audio quality is even better. For the weather question, Alexa first wanted to know a city in Fiji. I did not know a city in Fiji so I very cleverly asked her the capital of Fiji. And so, the weather report for the capital of Fiji.
What to Like about the Echo
The kitchen is probably about 10 yards from where I placed the Echo. At the furthest point from that, which happens to be right at the wall where the stove and oven are, I can say, with only a slightly raised voice, “Alexa, set a timer for [Some period of time].” This is way easier than pushing buttons on a watch or stove timer. I say it, and the timer is set. Zero friction.
For me to get ready for work in a timely fashion and to arrive at my place of employment with all the things I should have with me means a certain level of routine. Like never ever removing my phone from my laptop case. Because if I do I am highly likely to put it down and leave the house without it. I usually perform a check before I start the car, but then again, there have been times when I am so certain I did not deviate from my routine that I don’t check and that is inevitably the day I did, in fact, deviate.
Therefore, when I am preparing my morning coffee and my braincells are not operating anywhere near peak levels of caffeine, setting a timer by voice is extremely convenient. The kind of convenient where you are soon wondering how you ever managed any other way. (I use a stove top coffee maker because if my coffee isn’t jet-fueled, there’s no point.) The thing is, as most of us are, I get busy. I think, right, I’ll just set a timer… and then forget. Or think I’ll remember to check something. The convenience of simply saying out loud, Alexa, set a timer… has made me love the Echo. Just for that.
Also in the mornings as I prepare to begin the day, I can ask for a Flash Briefing. I get up before the paper is delivered (yes, we subscribe to a home delivered newspaper) and while the coffee is on and I’m going through other morning routines, I can hear the morning news. Or ask about traffic.
A Few Shortcomings
No API. Seriously Amazon. WTF?
The API should be available soon. It’s insane not to have one.
Not knowing the NFL playoff results? Siri knew. I’m just saying.
Given our bizarre internet here, I would also love to be able to tell the Echo to switch to different access. But the good news is that even with our rotten internet, the Echo has had no problems.
Amazon could certainly find out a lot about me. Is it a good sign that when I said, “Alexa, say hello to the NSA,” she had no answer? I’m not sure.
I’d be happy to hear any suggestions for a new name for Alexa. If you watched the thrilling videos, you know the voice is female. Given that humans lose hearing in the lower registers first, it’s probably a good thing to have the voice be higher. Nevertheless, both “Satan” and variations on “Spawn of the Devil” were rejected as alternative names.