This is a guest post from Ivan the K, a great person to follow on Twitter. He got an Amazon Echo, and wrote a review for us.
I was the first kid on my block to take delivery of Amazon’s latest new hardware offering, which it calls “Echo.” Echo is an audio appliance which, through a user’s voice commands, accesses and plays certain web content and can store a limited amount of user-supplied data for future search/retrieval. I haven’t yet seen Amazon officially categorize Echo, but “virtual personal assistant” seems aspirational at this point.
Echo has several great qualities and features, but it seems more like a placeholder for future innovation, much like the original Amazon Kindle had set the stage for tablet development and popularity.
Echo’s initial sales are being made by invitation only (via signup at Amazon.com), and, for a limited time, Prime members like me can get it for $US99. Amazon says it will be offered to non-prime members for $US199. The $US99 price seems like a slam dunk, as the device has enough functionality to make it instantly useful. Indeed, if I were permitted to, I’d buy a second one now. However, Amazon is limiting sales to one per customer for now.
Hardware and Setup
In the box are the Echo, an AC power cord, and a remote control unit (batteries included). The Echo itself is a satin black cylinder, 9¼ inches tall and 3¼ inches in diameter. Most of its heft comes from the built-in amplifier and speaker, which produce pretty good quality sound. My initial reaction when I first saw it on Amazon’s website was to dub it “Siri in a can.” That wasn’t far off, as I’ll discuss later.
Echo only works on AC power which may limit flexibility on its placement in a home, but makes sense given its power draw for sound amplification and continuous “listening.” The most difficult thing about setup was opening the battery cover for the remote, which required longer fingernails than mine. The remote control worked very well, although I rarely needed to use it, given the Echo’s excellent voice recognition capability.
Initial Echo setup was straightforward, requiring a separate mobile device with an Amazon Echo app (free download), and a working wireless network with internet access. I used an iPhone 5S, but Amazon says the app is available for Android and Kindle Fire devices (I could not detect an advantage for using a Kindle Fire with Echo). In short, the app on the mobile device is initially utilized to directly control the Echo, guide it to the wireless network, and link it to the user’s Amazon.com account. This only took a few minutes. After initial setup, the Echo and the companion mobile app silently communicate with each other over the network.
Echo’s voice recognition wake word is “Alexa.” You cannot customise this word, although you can change it to “Amazon.” If there’s an Alexa in your household this would make sense.
Every command begins with “Alexa,” but you don’t have to wait for Echo to acknowledge you in order to continue with a command (i.e., casually saying, “Alexa, what time is it?” works fine.) The Echo’s default listening mode is always on, similar to the “Hey Siri” feature of an iPhone. You can manually turn off Echo’s constant listening, and still give voice commands via the remote control microphone. I suppose if you’re worried about Echo always eavesdropping, this would cure that.
The Echo’s strength lies in its multiple microphones’ ability to pick up voices from anywhere in the room. I didn’t need to be standing in front of the cylinder to be understood. I easily gave commands from 20 feet away. The indicator lights on the echo are a small power-on LED on the bottom, and a coloured ring of lights on the top of the cylinder. The light ring acknowledges hearing the wake word, processing commands, and mic-mute mode.
Like Siri on iOS, Echo offers access to information and music, and has modest list making functions. Current time and weather are easily obtained locally and in other locations with natural language queries. Music can be played from both your Amazon library or the Prime Music library, if you’re a Prime member. Playlists and shuffle play can be requested. Echo is happy to play samples of non-Prime music you request, but don’t yet own. If you like it, you can buy it: “Alexa, buy this song.”
Echo can access a wide variety of streaming radio content via the TuneIn app or iHeartRadio which can be set up via the Echo app on your phone.
When I say, “Alexa, play 1010 WINS,” Echo locates the New York all-news radio station on TuneIn and starts streaming it in seconds. Similarly, “Alexa, play BBC,” kicks off the BBC World Service. Pause, skip and volume controls work easily, where applicable.
Currently, there is no direct access to subscription services Spotify, Pandora or SiriusXM via Echo. However, Echo easily pairs to other devices, like your smartphone, via Bluetooth, and can act as a slave speaker.
The Echo’s omnidirectional sound is pretty good, given the cylinder’s size, and I found myself cranking it up a few times without distortion. However, if it was very loud, Echo did have a problem hearing my commands, even when I yelled. This necessitated using the remote or the manual command button on the top of the cylinder.
Echo has a nice “Flash briefing” function which enables you to build a near-realtime news update template from a menu of modules on the Echo app. The module choices include replays of the most recent top-of-the-hour news capsules from NPR and BBC, plus news headlines from user-defined topics that are “read” by Echo.
Echo can edit a to-do list and a shopping list. It’s not difficult to envision in the near future a direct link to executing the shopping list to an Amazon account. Sadly, Echo wasn’t able to access my calendar or email, which is a shortcoming versus Siri on an iPhone.
The device is able to set a timer or act as an alarm clock, but I wasn’t able to get it to set a standard sleep timer for its music playing function.
Echo earns lower marks on its ability to pull specific current and historical information from the internet. Its first generation software wasn’t able to answer questions about sports results (“How did the Jets do today?”) or movie trivia (“Who was the director of Chariots of Fire?”) or market data (“How’s the market?”). Siri, by contrast, handles these with aplomb. When Echo doesn’t know the answer to a question, it apologizes and pre-populates the question it heard into a Bing search-term link which can be accessed in the Echo app.
Amusingly, Echo correctly answered questions seeking the names of the CEOs of Apple and Amazon, respectively. Siri, on the other hand, failed miserably, suggesting I go to Apple’s Website for the former and launching the Amazon app for the latter.
Every interaction with the Echo is appended to a history log in the Echo app, which makes it easy to reference or replay things you’ve already heard. It’s also a creepy reminder that everything you do on it is tracked.
The Amazon Echo is a well-engineered appliance that has a set of capabilities that renders it quite useful just a few minutes out of the box. It didn’t require a lot of technical expertise to begin enjoying its functionality. At the Prime discounted price of $US99, I think it’s a good deal for a self-contained network music and news player with good sound.
Although the Echo is not ready for prime time in terms of being a virtual personal assistant, I hope future enhancements broaden out its capabilities to include both these items as well as other home automation applications. I can see this type of device becoming a central controller of other networked appliances in the home in the near future such as lights, climate control, television, and security.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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