Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Amazon's Echo (Alexa) Review

After weeks of anticipation, the day finally came.   Yesterday my Amazon Echo (Alexa) arrived in the mail.

Amazon Echo is a speaker that you can speak to. If you've used Siri or other personal assistants on your phone, you're familiar with the concept. Alexa can answer questions, tell you the weather, set timers, etc.  all via voice commands.  Alexa is always on and ready to take a command.  Simply say "Alexa, what's the weather?" or "Alexa, set the alarm for 7 am." and Alexa will do your bidding.

The first thing out of the box that I noticed was.... the box... Amazon packages its products very nicely. The packaging reminds me of Apple or Monster.  The build of the Echo is sturdy and attractive.  It's unobtrusive enough to put in your kitchen or family room or bedroom.  The speaker quality is excellent for the size.  Echo comes with a remote (that I think you will rarely- if ever use). The remote has a built in microphone for when it's too noisy or you're too far away from the Echo for it to hear you clearly. The remote also has the standard play, up, down, forward and backward buttons on it.  The remote comes with a holder that is magnetic so you can put it on any magnetic surface. I put mine on the refrigerator, so I would know where it is if I ever need it- unlikely).  The Echo itself is practically buttonless. There is an "action" button to wake the device or to turn off an alarm or time. There is a button to turn off the microphones (I don't know why you would want to do that) and that is it.  No power button.  No visible volume control. The volume is controlled by a ring around the top of the speaker that you would never know is there if you don't read the instructions, but no worries, you can also control the volume by voice command.    The Echo's state is indicated by a led light ring around the top.  When the Echo is on and in standby mode the only way to tell is a small white light near where the plug goes in at the back and bottom of the speaker.  When you say the key word (by default "Alexa") the Echo wakes up and the led ring goes blue indicating Alexa is ready to take your command.

Set Up

Setting the Echo up couldn't have been easier. I put the batteries in the remote.  When you turn the Echo on for the first time, the ring glows orange and it tells you to set it up by downloading the Echo app on your phone.  The first thing you're going to do is connect your phone to a wifi network that the Echo transmits. You download the app, log into your Amazon account and you enter your wifi password to get the Echo on your home network.  I'm not sure why they don't use Bluetooth to connect your phone to the Echo, but no matter.  It worked great.  The Echo was on my network in no time.

Voice Recognition

I have only had the device for about 24 hours, but so far voice recognition has been great.  My wife even called Alexa Alexis and it still responded.  It has no difficulty understanding our questions.

Speaker

When considering the utility of the Echo, consider it's a pretty good Bluetooth speaker if nothing else.  I'd pay $100 just for the Bluetooth speaker functionality  I am having difficulty getting my music into Amazon Music (see below) and was thinking I would not be using this for playing music since it does not connect to iTunes and we are an Apple family.  Then it hit me, I could use it as a Bluetooth speaker, so I can still stream music from my phone (using iTunes Match) to Alexa and use Siri to control the music if I like.

Music

If you have Amazon Prime, you have access to a bunch of free music from Amazon. They say it's over a million songs, but of course the first song I tried to play wasn't in there.  Through Amazon Music, any music you've bought from Amazon (even CDs) are included in your own music library. For free, you can upload up to 250 songs from your own collection.  Any more and you will have to pay $24.99 a year (for up to 250,000)  Again, the music you've bought from Amazon is not counted against that number.  Unfortunately, the process of getting your own music into the Amazon Cloud is clunky and for me didn't work at all. I'm on a Mac. I had to download a separate app called the Amazon Music Installer, run a scan against my library, find the song I wanted and try to upload it. Long story short, after spending a lot of time on the phone with support, Amazon ended up giving me a $1.00 credit to buy the song from them because uploading it just wouldn't work.  I then tried it with another song and the same results.  Both were songs I have bought from iTunes so maybe there's some digital rights thing I haven't figured out yet, but I buy most of my music from iTunes and I pay for iTunes Match. So, I will not be paying for Amazon Music to upload more than 250 songs.  Never-the-less, I can play the music I bought from Amazon as well as anything in Amazon Prime.  Be aware, there is a slight lag when accessing music from the Cloud through the Echo app on your phone.  Nothing horrible, probably 3-5 seconds.

Utility

The biggest question for me was "Is the Echo going to be worth the money?"  List price as of February 2015 is $199. As a Prime member, I was offered the introductory price of $99.  Without a doubt, it's worth $99.  $200 is a bit of a stretch though. The hardware is really well done. But, what can Echo really do? Well, it's a great timer in the kitchen and couldn't be easier to use.  "Alexa, set timer for 20 minutes."  I was just making my morning oatmeal and Alexa is in the kitchen and my office is on the other side of the house. When the alarm went off, I could hear it clearly in my office.  As I walked into the kitchen I just said "Alexa off".  Voila!  Alexa is also good for those times you're in the kitchen and realize you are out of something "Alexa add rosemary to the shopping list".  The next time you're at the store, you check the Echo app's shopping list and you pick up rosemary. The app also keeps track of to do's on a to do list, timers and alarms.

Privacy

You can turn the microphone off via a button on top of the Echo.  Or if you're super paranoid, you could unplug it. Some people have a problem with a device that is "always listening", I'm not one of those people. There would be a gagillion megabytes of data for Amazon to sort through if they were storing everything. I'm guessing the Echo only starts recording anything when it hears the key word- Alexa (you can set it to Amazon).  But one thing that is weird is everything you ask Alexa or tell her to do gets stored in the app and is visible on your phone. You can delete individual interactions from the app, but if you want to delete your whole history you have to contact Amazon support (weird, IMO). They don't suggest you do this because it could "degrade your experience" with the Echo. If you're a tin-foil hat person, you're not going to like this product.

Shortcomings

If you're used to Siri you will immediately, or very shortly, notice Alexa ain't Siri.  Siri is integrated with Apple's contacts and your calendar and can even launch apps. So, you can check your calendar and even schedule appointments using Siri. The Echo isn't integrated in with music in iTunes- so if your music is there you will have to use the workaround I described above.  For the grocery list, I already use a fantastic app called GroceryIQ which allows me to have a synchronized list across my phone, my wife's phone, etc.  We can even create different lists for different stores.  If I'm going to use the function on the Echo, the software just isn't as robust.

And, of course, the Echo has no screen. If you have a Kindle Fire tablet, for certain information Alexa retrieves you can say "Alexa, show this on my Fire HDX (or my Fire tablet)".  I don't have a Kindle Fire tablet though.  Your interactions with the Echo are strictly via voice which is a bit of a limitation.

Hey Siri or OK Google

After I ordered my Echo it dawned on me that Siri and Google offer similar always on functionality. At least on the Apple platform, if your device is plugged in (and only if it's plugged in), you can say "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" and ask it questions.  You could leave your phone or you iPad plugged in and do a lot of what you can do with the Echo.  For example "Hey Siri, set a timer for 10 minutes".   I often ask Siri to schedule appointments for me. But, my phone isn't always in the same spot nor plugged in. So, the Echo being stationary means it's always going to be there when you need it.

Bottom Line

I expect that Amazon Echo will improve over time- probably very quickly. Whether Amazon opens it up to other developers (the Echo software) will be key in how far it can go IMO.  Right now I can't use it to make phone calls or schedule appointments and the app feels like kind of like a 1.0 version. It's not bad, but there's a LOT more it could do.  Would the speaker alone be worth $200?  Maybe.  Having it plugged in and ready to set a timer or answer a question, "Alexa, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?", is nice.

For the $100 I spent on it, it was definitely worth it. $200 is pushing it.  If you get it and get hooked on it, you might want more than one.  I could see one on the nightstand in the bedroom as an alarm clock and to play music before you go to sleep, but  right now the alarms are individual. You can't set a repeating alarm.  You'll have to set it every night And you cannot set more than one alarm at at time.  My wife has her alarm on her iPhone set for a different time depending on the day of the week and that repeats week after week. With Alexa, you'd have to set the alarm every day and you can't set if for more than 24 hours out.  But, it's so simple "Alexa, set the alarm for 7 AM".  Boom! So, the software is pretty version 1.0.

I might say to wait to get the Echo, but it looks like you'll be waiting no matter what. Amazon is now listing availability at 4-6 months. So, if you want to give one for Christmas, better get in line.

Pros

  • If you can get one for $99, get it
  • Good quality Bluetooth speaker for $99, mediocre for $200
  • Always available- stays in one spot
  • Looks great and quality build
  • Simple to use- anyone can set it up. Anyone can use it to set timers, answer questions, etc.
  • Plays iHeart Radio, NPR, ESPN, etc.


Cons

  • Amazon Music is awful- really hard to use
  • Doesn't integrate with a calendar function or a phone
  • Software is version 1.0- for example only one alarm at a time and no more than 24 hours out
  • Doesn't integrate with other apps
Update

I've had the Echo for a week now.  Here are the things Amazon needs to do ASAP.

Integration with a calendar- for me the choice would be iCal.  I'd like to be able to make appointments and set reminders using Echo

Integration with iTunes- still haven't gotten that Amazon music import thing solved.

Integration with my phone to make calls and receive calls.  It would be really nice if when I get a call I could answer it using the Echo as a speaker phone

Echo does a few things pretty well. It could do a LOT more.  Siri can do all the things I've put on my wish list for Alexa.   If Apple built one of these with Siri (are you listening Apple?), that would be great.

I got this from Amazon today.  This is very promising. 

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