Observations on Amazon’s Echo

Amazon released their voice-directed assistant Amazon Echo in November, 2014 and it has been an amazing sales success.  There have been over 5 million units sold since the introduction and there are now 3 different versions to choose from.  We have been an Echo home since 2016 and I have received a lot of questions about my experience with the Echo products.   New capabilities are added regularly, so things will change. Here is a summary of my observations and experiences at the time of this post.

As a Digital Assistant

I would like a digital assistant to help me manage my calendar, send emails and texts, and make phone calls.  At this point, Echo is able to integrate with Google and Outlook online calendars to tell you about upcoming appointments and add entries, I use Outlook and I can ask Echo about my schedule for the day or to “add Happy Hour at 4:00 today at Poseidon.”  There is no support yet for sending or reading emails and texts and no integration yet for phone calls.  Siri from Apple has the advantage of being on my iPhone and I can ask it to add calendar entries, send emails and texts, and make phone calls.

Echo is able to tell me the weather, tell me a joke, convert ounces to grams, and tell me the best temperature for roasting a chicken.  And I don’t need to pick up my phone to ask Siri or Google the answer which is handy when your hands are covered in flour or chicken drippings.  Additionally, it is handy and easy to ask Echo for the latest news update or the score from last night’s Super Bowl (so I can hear again how the Patriots won.)

Grade – C+

As a Home Automation Controller

The promise of voice-directed home automation is extremely appealing and both Apple and Amazon are investing heavily.  I have Echo integrated with my Wink Hub which is the controller for my home automation system. (More on the Wink Hub coming soon.)   Adding the Wink connection to Echo is simple and it allows me to control my lights, manage my thermostat settings, and theoretically do many more things by simply asking nicely.  The reality today is that we use Echo to control lighting and use phone apps to manage locks, thermostats, irrigation, and cameras.  The apps are faster and easier than trying the same tasks with Echo.  We really appreciate controlling the lighting using Echo, especially at night when we can simply ask Echo to turn off all lights without getting out of bed or reaching for a phone.

Grade – C-

As a Music and Entertainment Assistant

Echo allows you to play music from your Amazon Music, Pandora, and Spotify accounts as well as access music and news through the iHeartRadio and TuneIn services.  Adding your account information is simple.  Requesting 89.9 FM or “Lyle Lovett on Pandora” is simple.  Our first Echo was the original Echo with the built-in speaker and we had it in the kitchen.  We used it occasionally for news updates, units of measure conversions, and internet inquiries, but rarely for music because we both like the sound quality of our home audio system.  Things changed dramatically when we moved the Echo into the master bathroom to replace a Bose Wave Radio.  Now there is music or news playing every morning and we both find that the variety of music is much greater by having easy access to Pandora and Amazon Music.  The sound from the built-in speaker is better than the Bose Wave Radio that it replaced and more than adequate for the Master Bath.

I added an Echo Dot in our family room and connected it to the home audio system.  This gives us voice control for lighting, we can still ask questions from the kitchen, and we have the option of streaming music as well.

It seems that Amazon is finding that the most popular use for Echo is for music and entertainment as well.  The most enabled “Skills” in the Alexa App today are

  • “This Day in History”
  • “Ambient Noise: Thunderstorm Sounds”
  • “Ambient Noise: Ocean Sounds”
  • “Ambient Noise: Rain Sounds”
  • “Jeopardy

In summary, Echo is entertaining and versatile in this role and will continue to add new skills at a rapid clip.   I would like to see support for Apple Music and improved voice recognition so I don’t have to repeat requests as often.

Grade – B+

Device Summary

Amazon clearly did their homework in developing the Echo product line.  There are now three versions of the device – Amazon Echo ($179), Amazon Tap ($129), and Amazon Echo Dot ($49).  All three forms utilize the same Alexa assistant and operate in a home setting in the same way. Here is a brief overview of each product.

  • Amazon Echo is the original and has a built-in speaker array for the best sound. It requires AC power and a WiFi connection.  The sound is quite good for small to medium sized rooms.
  • Amazon Echo Dot is a mini version of the original Echo and has a much smaller speaker that is suitable for voice interaction, but not music playback. The Dot can be connected via Bluetooth or cable to a separate speaker or sound system for music playback.  It requires AC power and a WiFi connection.
  • Amazon Tap is a battery powered portable version of the Amazon Echo. It includes a charging base and requires a WiFi connection to utilize the Alexa capabilities.  In portable mode, it can serve as a Bluetooth speaker and play music from an attached phone or it can use most phones as a WiFi connection and have full capability to stream, answer, and entertain.

You can have multiple devices in your home and they work fine as long as you keep them far enough apart that your voice commands don’t reach more than one at the same time.  I would like to be able to link them so that you can have the same music playing from multiple locations, but that is not possible at this time.

Grade – A-

Recap

The Echo product family with Alexa assistant is a very good start on a powerful platform for entertainment, automation, and personal assistance.  The voice recognition is not perfect, but amazing and improving in leaps and bounds.  The hardware is well-engineered and will evolve slowly.  The software capabilities (skills) are evolving rapidly with new skills added weekly.  Third-party developers are building Alexa links to services like Uber and Starbucks, devices like locks and lighting, music sources, and game.

Consider Echo now if you enjoy gadgets, would like to have a very good streaming music device, and / or would like to get in early on the next wave of technology innovation.

Avoid Echo if you are concerned about having a device in your home that listens to everything that you say.  It requires a wake-up command of “Alexa” or “Echo” before it begins recording and transmitting your request to the “Cloud” for processing and execution.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

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