The Amazon Echo (finally): Alexa, what’s the meaning of life?

Amazon Echo So, we ordered an Amazon Echo in February. It finally came about two weeks ago.

First, I should explain what the Amazon Echo is. Basically, it’s Siri (or OK Google) for your house. You plug it in, and ask it things, and it responds. It also can coordinate with smart home devices, so once you’ve got those all hooked up, you can walk around feeling a little like Jean-Luc Picard. (“Alexa, lights. Lower. Damn you, Alexa, that tea is cold!”)

Second, the wait. Amazon released the Echo in 2014, but on an invitation-only basis. In other words, you had to request an invitation to buy one. I’d claim it was a marketing ploy, but I honestly think they haven’t got that many of them manufactured yet. As a Prime member, I requested my invitation sometime last year, and was finally able to place an order in February. It arrived in the first week of June, which was about two weeks sooner than had been predicted. The question is, was it worth the wait? And, was it worth the price? The Echo was initially $99 for Prime members, but that deal has ended. Currently the the Amazon Echo can be ordered by anyone for $179. (estimated ship date as of this writing: July 14th)

Set up

Setting the Echo up is ludicrously easy. You plug it in — and as an aside, the plugging in is kind of nice. As in, there’s no battery concerns with this thing, because it doesn’t run on batteries. You need an outlet, but most homes still have those, so it’s actually nice for once to not be worrying about one more thing to recharge. There’s a quick wireless setup via an app you download (iOS, Fire, and Android both available, or the desktop). And that was it. Again, I appreciate that there weren’t a lot of hoops to jump through.

Questions and Answers

 

In order to talk to the Echo, you use a “wake word”, which is not at all like a safe word for robots though it sounds like it is. Your “wake word” choices are limited to “Alexa” (the default) and “Amazon”. It’s impractical for us, at least, to use “Amazon”, since we talk about Amazon all the time (as in, whether an order arrived, or whether a movie we want is on there, and so on). They’ve said something about adding new “wake words” eventually, and we very much wish they would. I’d prefer something like “Agnes” or “Beelzebub”.

So, the Echo hears the “wake word” and then listens to what you ask it, and replies. Simple, but not really, because — look, this thing is new. There’s stuff it can do, and stuff it can’t. It can tell you the weather and the news and what year “Avatar” was released, but it can’t tell you when “Jurassic World” is playing in your area, and it can’t tell you when the Tony Awards are on. It can read you entire Wikipedia articles, can tell you knock knock jokes, and has a few smart answers to some trick questions. It can sync with your Google calendar and add things to it, but can’t tell you if you’ve got something scheduled on the 19th. You can order things from Amazon that you’ve ordered before (and you can turn that function off, if it seems too fraught with possibilities for error, which it does to me — “Who ordered fifty jugs of cat litter?!”). You can make lists, you can get traffic updates, you can get recipe help, set timers, and hear sports scores. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot it can’t answer. Which is kind of a pain, but because all of the Echo’s technology is in the Cloud, I’m willing to be patient about it.

There’s one other advantage for the truly lazy among us. With Siri, my iPhone has to be plugged in for it to automatically answer “Hey Siri” queries. Either that or I have to, ugh, actually pick it up and touch a button. So tiring. But truthfully, sometimes my phone’s in another room, not plugged in. The Echo takes all of that out of the equation.

Music

The Echo is a Bluetooth speak, so you can pair devices — your iPhone, for example — with it and listen to music that way. To be frank, I don’t have any use for this feature. We have other speakers we already use. I’m told that in the world of Bluetooth speakers, the Echo’s sound quality is so-so. You’d be silly to buy it for just that reason, though.

We have used it to listen to Prime music, though. As Amazon Prime members, we have free access to the Prime music library. While there are some glaring omissions (no Prince! no Maroon 5!), there’s a lot of great music there. I can say, “Alexa, play George Michael” and she’ll shuffle through his catalog. There are some ready-prepared stations and playlists, too. It’s Amazon’s version of Pandora, essentially, and since we’re getting it for free as Prime members already, it’s a nice feature.

(Side note: You can upload all of your music to Amazon, too, and listen to it through the Echo. But right now you’re limited to 250 songs for free, and $24.99 a year for 250,000 songs. Frankly, that’s crazy. I’m not paying a yearly fee to listen to my own music. Google Play lets you upload all your music for free. Amazon, get with the times on this one.)

gechoShopping

Supposedly you can shop through the Echo. On Amazon, of course, and (I think) items you’ve ordered before. I can’t say that’s too useful for me, since we don’t tend to order the same things over and over again on Amazon (or if we do, we subscribe to them).

But you *can* make a shopping list through the Echo. Any time you say, “Alexa, add Fiddle-Faddle to the shopping list”, she does. You can access that list through the app. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it’s a good 75% of what we use the Echo for. Running low on eggs? Tell Alexa. Need to add more mushrooms to the FreshDirect order? Tell Alexa. Realize that you’re about to eat the last Hostess cupcake? Tell Alexa. She won’t judge. Seriously, it sounds stupid, but this is hugely useful for us. We tried keeping a plain old pen & paper list in the kitchen, but half the time when I realize I’m out of something, I’m busy cooking, or just on the couch and too lazy to move. And since Dave and I both have the app on our phones, when we’re at the store, one or both of us, we’ve always got the list with us.

Things to Come

The Echo really is just a slightly stupider Siri for your house, at this point. But the reason I’m still a fan is that since its hardware is basic and all of its functionality comes from the cloud, there’s no knowing what it’ll be able to do in the future. Since it was released last year, they added voice control for Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, a funny Simon says feature, and integration with home automation devices. Rumor has it they’re releasing an SDK for third-party developers, and at that point, things could get really interesting.

When All is Said and Done…

I like our Amazon Echo. It’s a fun gadget. The problem, though, is that I can’t recommend it at the price. $179 is just too steep for something like this — at least now. Maybe when home automation become more prevalent, then I could see it being justifiable. But I wouldn’t have paid $179 for this. I’m not sure I would have shelled out $99 for this — I bought the Echo myself, but used some gift cards I had to do so, so it wasn’t like shelling out hard-earned doubloons. Still, a hundred bucks for something to keep a shopping list on and tell us whether or not tomorrow is going to be a pool day? That seems silly. Basically I’m saying it was a great thing to get, as a gift, but I wouldn’t in good conscience say — as it is now — it’s worth the price tag.


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