A Week with Amazon Echo – the Review

Amazon EchoReally? Amazon Hardware?

Amazon’s hardware efforts have always been a mixed bag. Some of them, like the Kindle eReader, were a smashing success to the point of helping change the way we read. Others have been largely panned, like the Fire Phone.

When Amazon delivers, it gives us the hardware we expect: state of the art, but much less expensive than other state of the art. Just like everyone else, but better. You can not only read your books on the Kindle: you can buy them on it, too.

When Amazon doesn’t deliver, it gives you a me-too product with restrictions. That was the case with the Fire Phone, a flagship-priced device that came with mandatory AT&T subscription, but didn’t run standard Android and downloaded software only from Amazon’s anemic app store.

Ordering

When I got an email from Amazon announcing the Echo, I was as ambivalent as Amazon’s hardware efforts. Should I buy a speaker for $99? Yes, it was supposed to be intelligent, but no, there was no way to modify the software. No apps for it, no development kit. I might buy something, and Amazon may then decide to pull the plug on it.

But what can you do? You put a shiny new gadget in front of me, and I can’t say no. Also, I’ve really never had any real problem with Amazon’s returns, so if I didn’t like it, I was confident I would be able to send it back for a full refund.

A few weeks after I joined the group I received an invite. I went online and bought the Echo, shipped with Prime. I was going to hold it in my hands in two days!

That didn’t happen. The package got lost mid-way. What was really odd, though, is that Amazon didn’t give me any tracking information. It didn’t tell me who was used as shipping company, didn’t give me tracking information and then, worst of all, declared the package had been delivered when, in fact, it hadn’t.

Also strangely, I had to get in touch with Amazon not once, but three times to even get an acknowledgement of my grievance. Once that was sorted out, though, they overnighted my Echo.

Unboxing

You will be entirely unsurprised to hear that there is everything you need in the box and not a whole lot of extras. You essentially get a black cylinder, a remote, and a charger. Not that you’d need more.

Download the Echo app to your phone. Turn on the device. A loud voice greets you. You setup the Echo from the phone as you would with a great many WiFi capable gadgets (Chromecast, e.g.). When you are done, Echo is connected to the web and Amazon.

Using It

I read reviews of the Echo. They focus a lot on the fact that you could do everything that you do with Echo on your phone, using Siri, Cortana, or Google Speak.

I suppose that’s true. Theoretically you could use Siri and her ilk for much the same things you awaken Echo. But you don’t. At least I don’t.

One of the things that always annoyed me about my Nexus 5 is that the voice control is an afterthought. For instance, you can tell Android to navigate back home. You just say, “OK Google, go home.” It will map out the directions and allow you to … push a button to start. Seriously. There seems to be no way (that I found) to make the map app merrily get going on the navigation without you pushing a button on screen.

That really is asinine and shows the limits of graphical applications. They can be beautiful and intuitive, but they require you to look at them. Since Android, iOS, and Windows Phone are primarily graphical operating systems, there you get the limit.

Echo, on the other hand, has the exact opposite approach: if you can’t do it with your voice, you can’t do it at all. That forces the developers and the users to focus on this particular approach, and in the end that’s much better.

You awaken Echo with the command word, Alexa. I have no idea why they picked this word, other than the phony explanation that it’s a homage to the Great Library of Alexandria. I assume the gadget’s name, Echo, simply was too hard to use as a wake word, so they looked for something easier to recognize. This must have been a late stage realization, since they didn’t accordingly change the name of the device. And frankly, Alexa would have been a much better name than Echo.

Functions

So, what can you do with Alexa? Primarily, you can play music. The basic idea is that you tell Alexa what you want to hear, and Alexa tries to find it. What sources it uses is Amazon’s secret sauce: if you uploaded your music to Amazon Cloud, it will scan through there. If you are a Prime member, it will look through Amazon Prime Music. It can also buy music, apparently, although I haven’t tried that.

Alexa will also play (Internet) radio stations. In the morning, I simply say, “Alexa, play NPR” and Alison St. John starts chatting in her inimitable voice. I don’t know where Alexa gets her info, but she probably has a long list of stations to choose from. I can also say, “Alexa, play Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and I get to hear the latest episode.

Alexa can also answer random questions. That’s actually one of my favorite functions. Want to know if it’s going to rain? Ask Alexa. Did you forget the name of the governor of Texas? Alexa knows it’s Rick Perry.

Alexa is not as good as your phone. For instance, she can’t call anyone or send an email – she is not a communication device, after all. You can’t ask her to type something for you, which would be very neat.

But Alexa is there when you need her. She’s always at the ready (since she’s always plugged in). She is connected and can find things for you. Ask her for a joke, she delivers. Ask her for a recipe, she’ll get you going.

Additional functionality is fairly sparse right now. You can ask Alexa to set an alarm, or to put something on a vaguely defined to-do list (that lives only in the Echo app, apparently). As I mentioned, it would be really, really good if you could use Alexa as a dictaphone, writing emails and text documents. Not so, right now.

Alexa seems to be mostly integrated with other Amazon devices. That’s a really poor choice, because it is both unnecessary and unwelcome. You can send a request on to a device, for when it’s just too much information to digest via voice. But at least the card that came with Alexa said it works only with Fire devices.

Verdict

Alexa is a step in the right direction, but just a step. What is good is the idea of an entirely voice-controlled device. It makes perfect sense to have that device be a speaker of sorts: since you interact with it using voice (both when you talk to it, and when it responds) it is natural for it to be used for more sound than just its own voice.

Where Alexa falls shorts is in its current implementation. None of the problems are fundamental flaws: it’s just things Alexa doesn’t currently do. I think the most glaring problem is that there is no SDK to it. There is no way to write an app that interacts with the device, either remotely or locally. 99.999% of any other gripe would go away if only Amazon allowed the rest of the world to write apps that interact with Alexa.

You want to dictate text into an email or a word document? Write (or download) an app for that. The app could live on your phone or laptop, it wouldn’t have to live on Alexa. Alexa would just have to verify with me that I really want to use that app instance and everything is solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Since that’s not in place, you have to judge Alexa on its own. The hardware, let me tell you, is stellar. The sound is amazingly clear for a mono device (no stereo – and it would be quite impossible to do with a device that small). The microphone is absolutely amazing: it can pick up my voice when I tell it to lower the volume over the music that is too loud!

The voice recognition is really good – at times. When Alexa doesn’t know what to do with your request, it will just pick something it likes better. I asked for organ music, and got a Prime Playlist: Pink and More. Excuse me?

Alexa’s voice is very clear and natural. I guess we are used to that, by now. It is also very pleasant, a friendly lady that doesn’t quite have the deep and rich timbre of Alison St. John, but who really does a good impression of the university librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria.

Oh, and the weirdest thing: Alexa shows her state by lighting a mood ring on top of the cylinder. The Amazon folks got creative there, and it paid off. It’s charming to see Alexa think by the ring going in blue circles, and worrisome to see Alexa go all orange on me. If gadgets have personality, Alexa has a mood ring to show its very own.

So, Amazon, please give us the SDK, preferably in the form of an authenticated REST API, and the world will be happy.

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