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.


Amazon releases “Kindle Unlimited”: Read as much as you want for $9.99 a month

I got an email today about whether or not I want to have the book I edited, Dearest Girl of Mine, included in “Amazon Unlimited” (I said yes; it was a project I enjoyed thoroughly in another time of my life, but it was never anything more than an academic exercise). I had heard rumors about the new service but didn’t know it was ready to go.

Amazon’s long-rumored e-book subscription service is now a reality: “Kindle Unlimited.”
The company announced the $9.99-per-month service on Friday and said that it would let users “freely read as much as they want from over 600,000 Kindle books.” A portion of Audible’s audiobook library is also included.

Of course, the 600,000 titles represent only a small slice of all the Kindle books for sale through Amazon’s sprawling online store. This is due in part to disagreements between Amazon and some major publishers.

But the service has a number of hit titles that Amazon is promoting, including “The Hunger Games,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and the new Michael Lewis book “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.”

via Amazon: Read as much as you want for $9.99 a month – Jul. 18, 2014.

Hmmm. While it sounds interesting, as a Prime member I already get to borrow one book a month, and I rarely do that. Not sure I’d be willing to fork over $10 a month extra for more.

I may never leave the house again

Amazon_1It’s not true, of course. I’m not a hermit. I leave the house for work, for food, for movies, for friends, for family, for the pool. I might be willing to give up a few of those, but not all. Definitely not the pool. Or Chipotle. So I’ll leave the house again, and again, but one thing I almost never leave the house for anymore is shopping.

This is what we’ve bought from Amazon in the past two months: a mouse (the computer kind), dog shampoo (for a friend, or rather his dog), cat food, safety strips for the tub, a dustbuster, a hand mixer, cat litter, cake pans, garbage bags, a book, a step stool, an extension cord, socks, a hubcap, and batteries. We have Amazon Prime, and everything gets here about as quickly as the drones can bring it. The hand mixer arrived, regular shipping, 19 hours after we ordered it.

From Target, with the RedCard’s free shipping: clothes, a picture frame, Tide pods, gift cards, screening for the porch, a humidifier, a pillow, a phone, a bathing suit, and a baby gate for the cats.

And from Fresh Direct? Foods, foods, and more foods.

You have to understand: I just hate shopping.  Unless it’s Wegmans, just the very idea of milling about in a store makes me exhausted. I don’t know what part of it is the worst (well, yes, I do) but it’s some combination of the huge, overheated stores, the lines, the people, the parking, the flourescent lighting, the people, the Muzak, the noise, and the people. Shopping online is so much easier, so much quieter, so much more pleasant. I click and a short time later it arrives, all without waiting in line, driving anywhere, parking, or even talking to anyone else. It’s wonderful.

I’m not a hermit, but I confess I wish I could at least play one on TV.

 

Amazon buys Goodreads, and I feel fine

Amazon, the online retail behemoth that has made a much-publicized foray into publishing, has just bought Goodreads, the social book-recommendation site.

Read more

Apparently I’m supposed to be devastated and angry about this, though I’m not completely clear why — review gaming? Big brother? I hate to disappoint you, but the opposite is true. I use Amazon. (In all honesty, I love Amazon.) I have a Kindle. I use Goodreads. I get to use them all together. Works for me.

Dan Brown offers “The Da Vinci Code” as free e-book, with peek at new book, Inferno

Available through March 24, Dan Brown fans can get a look at the opening of his upcoming book, “Inferno,” along with a free ebook of his breakthrough best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code,” publisher Doubleday announced today.

Get the book here.

Read more: Dan Brown offers peek at new book, Inferno.

What’s the future of e-book pricing? | Internet & Media – CNET News

What's the future of e-book pricing? | Internet & Media – CNET News.

from David Carnoy:

“In case you missed it, the U.S. government recently filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of this country’s largest publishers, alleging they conspired to limit competition for the pricing of e-books. Three of the five — HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster — opted to settle the case, while Penguin, Macmillan, and Apple didn’t.
So where does that leave us?”

An interesting article that explains more about the e-book pricing situation as it stands, as opposed to just trying to predict where it might be going. Click on the link above for more.

New tools make self-publishing e-books easier – USATODAY.com

Many new authors have found most of their success online, selling self-published books at Amazon for the Kindle and other e-readers.

They handle the entire process themselves — from downloading stock photos at $4 to $5 a pop and making covers in Gimp, a free photo software tool, to converting the manuscripts into formats compatible for the e-readers.

“If I can do it, anyone can,” says Nicholson, 49, who writes four novels a year from his home in Boone, N.C. He won’t say how much he makes, but it’s a “comfortable living,” solely on e-book royalties. “I’m self-taught on every part of this.”

From New tools make self-publishing e-books easier – USATODAY.com.