Due to an apparently insatiable need to try new technology and a big incentive from Amazon for its Prime members, I decided months ago to sign up as an early adopter of the new Amazon Echo. It arrived Monday and it’s been a good experience overall so far.
Sure, not much time has passed, but as with any new device, I spent a lot of time focused on it the first couple of days to run it through its paces, much more than it will usually see out of me in a normal 24-hour period.
For those of you who don’t know, the Echo is…well, it’s tough to describe. I suppose you could call it a personal assistant of sorts. Although, since my wife asked it to do the dishes and it couldn’t, I guess she’s stuck with me for the manual household chores. (In a bit of Star Trek-nerd type fun from the programmers, when she asked it to make dinner, the device replied, “I’m not a replicator.”)
So, back to what Echo is. Maybe if Siri and Google Now got busy and had a kid, it would look and act like the Echo. It does a lot of what they do, albeit not always as well in some instances. Its search system relies on Bing instead of Google; one strike against it in my book. But it has features that make it handier than either of the iPhone and Android assistants. For example, the always-on microphones make for a much more real hands-free “hands-free experience” than you will get with most mobile phones. You can revel in the full Amazon sales pitch if you’re interested in more.
I found set up simple enough. The device requires a plug as it is not rechargeable. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about that because it makes it less portable. But I see something like the Echo serving a family’s needs better in a kitchen or living room anyway, not being toted about as some sort of imaginary friend in a tube. Besides, having one less thing to worry about recharging in our house is a welcome relief.
Once plugged in, the Echo boots up and asks for a WiFi connection through an app you need to download to your Android or iOS device. The app then becomes your home away from home for Echo, for those times when it needs help to help you, or if you want to check on the history of what you and it have chatted about. (It’s also used to help train Echo to understand you — although that’s more about regional dialect than some sort of security.) You also access your shopping and to-do lists via the app, as well as give feedback to Amazon by answering the question, “This is what Echo heard you say…did it hear you correctly?”
Once it’s up and running, that’s it. It just sits there, waiting for your request. You can ask for the weather, or a news briefing, or to play some music from the Amazon Prime Music catalogue – to list just a few examples. I’ve seen some reviewers complain about the Echo as a terrible music speaker, but I actually thought it sounded pretty good. It’s certainly as good if not better than the small Bluetooth speakers we’ve used to amplify our mobile phones.
One other thing I saw a reviewer smack the Echo for was that, as he claims, sometimes the device just ignores you or doesn’t hear you. But if you read further into his review, it only happened to him when music was playing at a high volume. Well, imagine that, if there’s loud music in the room, you have to speak up to be heard! I’ve had no problem with the Echo ignoring me. It’s even heard me from the room next door if I raise my voice just a little, much as I would if I was talking to a person in the next room. My wife has had to learn to pause just a split second between saying the command word and then making her request. Stringing it all together into one quick sentence means the Echo may not hear the first word or two of the command and give you something you weren’t asking for.
As I noted, the Echo, which for us goes by the command name, “Alexa,” has been a guest in our home for less than a week, but so far it’s fitting in pretty well. By the way, you can change the assigned command word from Alexa to Amazon, but that sounds even weirder to me. Supposedly, Amazon plans to provide an option to change the name to something else eventually.
Below are some videos with notes shot during my first use. (These were some of the initial commands I said to the Echo, so that’s probably why I sound so stiff and formal. In the few days since I have learned to be more conversational with the device, as odd as that may sound.)
I’ll write again when some more time has passed. By then maybe I’ll know if Amazon has created the first generation of “Computer” from Star Trek or “HAL” from 2001: A Space Odyssey!
Here’s an example of checking the weather…
And the news…
And, of course, as a Monty Python fan, I always test new assistants with a vital scientific question… :)