Living with Alexa : an Amazon Echo Review (Part 1)
The time? Back in early December, 2015. The place? Amazon. I remember it well – it was the day I took the first step that set into motion a series of events that would change my life forever…
Okay, melodrama aside, I got an email in my inbox from Amazon touting their new (out of the blue) product – Amazon Echo. What could best be described as “Siri for your home”, it was a multi-function little gadget that could, at least, do quick searches for you, play music, and overall bring us one step closer to a Star Wars scenario where we all owned robots. The best part? Thanks to my Prime membership, it was being offered at $99 instead of the regular $199 sticker price. I, naturally, signed up, hoping to get myself an early Christmas present.
Instead, I got a wait. Weeks and months went by with no news – I knew that at least one wave of the beta product had gone out and skipped my name, but no luck so far. I had actually gotten annoyed at Amazon around February – with the amount of money I pump through their site, at LEAST they could give me the chance to pump more, right?
The middle of February, I get another, short little email. This one, however, said I had a limited window to purchase an Echo of my own, so I JUMPED ON THAT LIKE IT WAS GOLD. $99 down and spirits high, I submitted the order… And saw that delivery was five months away. Five. Freaking. Months. I bit the bullet and just went with it.
Time passed, and now it’s five freaking months later – just last week, I received a simple but elegant black box from Amazon, and sure enough, there was my new toy. I’ll be 100% honest – a lot of the hype and excitement had been killed by the long wait (bad PR, Amazon – never make someone wait half a year to buy an untested product), but I plugged it in, installed an Android app, and within a couple of minutes my little Amazon Echo was good to go.
I’ve lived with Alexa (the chosen ‘wake-word’ for the system, and what my mind now defaults to whenever I think of it) for a week now – the impressions are mixed, but here’s a few thoughts.
The Amazon Echo is a simple, modern design – a tall black ‘can’ with speakers all around, a light ring on top, and a couple nondescript buttons. It’s not really a mobile device in that it needs to be always plugged into the wall, but it only takes a minute or so to boot, so one could move it if they really wanted. Either way, the simple appearance is definitely pleasing to look at, and the packaging was beyond Apple-quality. It certainly looks and feels like a high-end device, so it holds up in this area.
As with any new toy, I tried all the immediate tricks – asking Alexa about the weather, having her play some music, and getting her to open the pod bay doors. These all worked flawlessly, but then it hit me… Well, what else can it do?
This is a hard thing to cover, as I don’t want to umbrella everything into one good/bad result. I’ll break this down.
As of now, I hate to say it, but there’s not much it can offer that my PC can’t. For the sake of transparency, I had her sitting at the far end of my workstation and could pretty easily forget she was there – although I could ask her to play some music, she’s only capable of playing Prime Music (a poor man’s Spotify) or syncing with my phone via Bluetooth – it’s much faster to just pop up the program and play it on my PC. If I wanted to know the weather, I could look out the window or do a quick weather.com search – it was almost out of sympathy that I’d occasionally throw her a bone and play music or ask a question.
What the Amazon Echo does well
It sure impresses the hell out of me, every time I look at it. It’s the future, guys.
One of the features I was most impressed about was the sound quality, as initial reviews had given it poor reviews. I’m no audiophile, but to me the sound quality was incredible – and it could get LOUD, all without distortion. As a Bluetooth speaker, the Echo really blows my $50 Jam out of the water.
Alexa is also particularly good at voice recognition. Naturally, voice recognition software is a fickle thing – even the best can only do so well (I’m looking at you, Dragon 12 – for a program solely for voice commands, bad show), but the Echo never really got anything wrong. Even across the room with background noise it picked up my voice, and there was only one or two scenarios where I had to use the remote (which has a built in microphone) to get her to understand – typically when she was playing high-volume music.
Where the Amazon Echo falls short
I want to be clear at the start – I’m satisfied with the Echo in general, but there are some glaring issues that repeatedly rear their heads, and need to be mentioned. As an important note, the Echo WILL have an API for third party programs which should fix most of these issues, but for now it’s still a prototype product.
As a Productivity Tool, the Echo is mostly useless. Since there’s no way to connect her to Google, I can’t see if any new mail has come up, add anything to my calendar, or even have her remind me if something is coming up or I’m missing a meeting. There’s a single feature that can be neat – you can add items to a grocery or to-do list which appears in your Amazon Echo app, though I’d argue that I’d rather have that in Evernote.
As a Personal/Home utility, it’s a little better, but still lacking. One of the immediate (but obvious once you think about it) frustrations is that Alexa responds to any voice, not just the owner – nothing is more annoying than to have someone randomly change the radio or add a bunch of crap to your shopping list.
As an Information unit, it’s mixed at best. It can certainly answer the basics, but unlike Siri, Cortana, or Google Voice Recognition, it has no way to default to a web search. I was surprised when it continually answered “I’m not sure” to questions – I was hoping with the phone app it would at least pull up search results I can scroll through there, but no such luck.
As an Entertainment unit, it’s particularly crippled. The music selection is poor. You’re stuck to Amazon Prime music, which is limited. The saving grace is that you can play music through your phone, but until this can sync with my Audible account or play Spotify on its own, it’s definitely missing out.
It’s only week one, and I see the honeymoon phase waxing already. This is not to say that the Amazon Echo was a bad purchase – it’s just that it’s not very matured yet. It definitely needs some developers to jump on board before it can really shine.
I’ve moved Alexa from the desk to the bedroom (winky blinky), so we’ll see how the position shift from a productivity tool to a personal assistant goes – I’ll follow up with more information in a week or so. Stay tuned!
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