Alexa, what is the weather today?–First impressions of the Amazon Echo.

I have written on the Amazon Echo before and mentioned that I had placed myself on the invite list to be able to purchase one at the intro Prime rate of $99. Well, that was back in November and now that it is February, I finally got my hands on this most interesting and unusual device within the Amazon ecosystem. Please take note that I have only had the device for a day, but wanted to offer my first impression.

Setup

Easy. That would be the best word to describe it. My wife plugged it in while I was at work, downloaded the companion app, synced the remote and the device automatically synced with my Prime account and was ready to go. Can’t ask for too much more here.

Looks

Echo manages to look modern and conservative at the same time. It is basically a small black cylinder. It was shorter than I thought it would be, but this was a good thing. It will blend in to your home environment easily and not draw too much attention to itself while looking good at the same time. It gets to looking a bit more modern when it is active–a round blue-green LED light activates and spins. This is also the visual representation of volume when you are changing that. This works to give Echo a nice visual cue to the user that it is listening to you, but retreats to the background when you don’t want to pay attention to it. To put it briefly, my wife likes how it looks. Mission accomplished, Amazon.

Use

So this is the important part and why I’m writing about a “speaker” on a home automation blog. Echo is Amazon’s attempt to be your home-based virtual assistant. In doing so, it is made to rely on voice command as the primary user interface. So how does it stack up? Pretty good so far. It picked up commands with ease and seemed to have no troubles discerning artist names, items for a to-do list and the such. It did have trouble with both mine and my wife’s names for some reason (they aren’t complicated names). Other than the names though, it seemed to work great. I was impressed with the range and sensitivity. Upon the “Alexa” command (you can change this to “Amazon” if you wish, but it’s not currently customizable beyond this), the device perks up immediately and awaits your command/question. We had the device sitting in the middle of our main floor and from 15 feet away with the TV on and music streaming from Echo, it had no problem hearing us initiating the Alexa command. It also requires virtually no pause to start the command either. I’m used to a little lag from the wake-up to the query, but I actually got myself into trouble a few times when Alexa would shut off because I took too long to say something. This creates a more natural language flow with the device and something I liked. Also, if the device is streaming music, it will silence the music during your interaction and immediately go back after you are done. This allows you to add an item to your to-do list without having to shut off the music for instance.

As a personal assistant, Echo offers some perks that may prove more useful than your phone for some. It’s always on and hands-free capability is a big plus if you’re cooking and have dirty hands. This, in fact, is one of big uses I envision for the device. Say you need to convert some units while measuring out ingredients–just ask Alexa. Maybe you need to add something to your shopping list before you head out, tell Alexa. The shopping list and to-do list are very nice features that seemed to work flawlessly and appear on the companion app instantaneously. And of no surprise, you can bring up things on Amazon for purchase just by talking into the device. Shocking, I know, but considering most people who purchase this are probably big Amazon users anyway, this will more likely be seen as a perk than as a shameless attempt to push Amazon on you.

The App

While the beauty of Echo is that it keeps you from having to pull out your phone or tablet for interaction, the two are still intimately tied together via the companion app. This is where you change settings, learn command phrases and, most importantly, this is where you find your linked to-do list and shopping list that is tied to Echo. Another nice feature of the app is that it gives you a history of your queries to Alexa and will even provide links to things like Wikipedia pages for questions that you ask of this nature. I need to spend some more time with this to find out how capable the search functions and the like are before I give a more informed opinion, but so far so good. the to-do list and shopping list features of the app are basic check-lists and that’s just fine with me. They update with fluidly and I look forward to putting them to go use as I cook a lot and am going to the grocery far too often because I forgot something on the last trip.

Music/Sound

Besides being a digital assistant, Echo is also a connected speaker. There are two main things to discuss here: audio quality and interface. Audio quality from my initial listens was good and maybe even better than expected, Like I said, Echo is pretty small so don’t expect this to compete with high-end Sonos connected speakers but it should stack up nicely against most of the low-to-mid range connected speakers out there right now. As far as playing music, you have a couple of options. One is to sync your phone or tablet up via bluetooth and play through that in a manner similar to your run of the mill bluetooth speaker. You can also get music to the device directly via Amazon Music, iHeartRadio or TuneIn. I will admit that I’ve never used iHeartRadio or TuneIn so I can’t state whether those mean much to most, but being most Echo purchasers will likely be Prime users as well, Amazon’s Prime music at least offers a free streaming service at your disposal that will beam music directly to the device without your phone. The service is new and seems to have a relatively robust library, but not in the realm of something like Spotify. It would be great to see Spotify integration, however, Amazon has never been one to operate the most open of environments so Spotify may be seen as too big of a competitor in the space. Worst case scenario, you link your phone via bluetooth and stream from there.

Is it worth it?

At the $99 Prime member introductory price, the device seems well worth the price even if it is a bit of a novelty at this stage. At the full $199 retail price?–Maybe. It probably depends how plugged in to Amazon you are and how much you would use it and/or whether you have a connected speaker already. Being some of the mid-range connected speakers can run close to this price, you get a lot more than a speaker out of this. It was actually kind of nice walking downstairs this morning, letting the dogs out and asking Alexa to give me the weather and a news run down while I made coffee.

I see this as something of a beta/experimental device and come away generally impressed. I expect Amazon will continue to evolve and expand the Echo ecosystem and would love to see it become integrated with their Fire TV products. It would also be nice to see Echo pull in some more audio streaming services, but maybe Amazon’s own will eventually be enough.

At this stage, I’m happy with my purchase and look forward to my mornings with my new digital assistant Alexa.

Lockitron unveils its newest offering: Bolt

Lockitron was one of the early entrants in the smart home scene with its eponymous product. As opposed to smart lock solutions out there from the big players like Schlage and Kwikset, Lockitron worked by mounting over your current deadbolt and mechanically turned the bolt. The concept provided the advantage of preventing you from having to replace your current locks and keys and made the device more attractive for those renting (landlords probably wouldn’t approve of you switching out the locks!). This idea ran into a few issues. The biggest issue was that too many people thought that this was a good idea. The Kickstarter campaign for Lockitron was a huge success and far exceeded the operational and manufacturing capabilities of the upstart and shipments were delayed…and delayed…and delayed. I was one of those backers and eventually just got a refund. I was tired of waiting like I did for my Pebble and have really become pretty skeptical of backing things on Kickstarter since.

Now the device did ship and while it garnered pretty solid reviews, especially for its ecosystem, it still had problems. Its WiFi proved to be a pretty serious battery drain and the device would have to enter “sleep mode” to conserve battery. This led to delays in interaction and people asking, “why don’t I just pull my damn key out?!” Not the question you want people asking for a “smart lock.” The other major issue was how Lockitron worked. In an ideal world, everyone’s deadbolts are installed well and operate with buttery smoothness. In the real world, yours were probably installed as poorly as mine and you many times have to really twist the bolt or move the door a bit to get it to latch. This led to people having to replace their lock anyway, alter their door or the Lockitron burning through battery trying to force the door shut.

Lockitron appears to be forging ahead and appears to have learned from these early pitfalls. Today they announced the Bolt (not really the most clever name in the world). This time around, the device is a full-on lock replacement. No mounting over the existing deadbolt, you’ll replace the whole thing and will get it working right from the start. The device also ditched on-board WiFi in lieu of a “bridge” device that connects to your system and spares the battery in the locking device. They now claim up to 6 month battery life, which is great. It still has Bluetooth LE so that you can walk up the door with your connected phone and will automatically unlock, but the bridge removes an antenna. They also took out the “knock sensor” citing it was unreliable and the functionality wasn’t worth the trade-off in battery life. I applaud them for focusing on the important things and realizing battery life is a pivotal feature. What’s also nice is that Lockitron is offering a service called KeyMatch that offers to match your current key. This keeps people renting still in the game.

Lockitron also realized it really let down a lot of people during the last launch with the number and length of delays. Lockitron seems to have its supply chain hammered down this time and promises to ship on time. It is doing this in a two-stage manner. It’s offering a “Preview” device that is essentially a beta for early adopters to provide feedback and work out bugs. This will ship in March of 2015 and is only available in satin nickel and doesn’t offer the KeyMatch program. The full retail device ships in “late spring” and will be offered in multiple styles/colors. Let’s hope that still means 2015.

At $99, this smart lock is one of the cheapest out there and offers great looks and a developer friendly ecosystem. As this is the team’s second go-around, I expect this product to be much more polished and the production process to be the same.

Pre-order here.

For the full Lockitron blog post on the product, head here.

Finally found a review for the Ring Video Doorbell

The Ring video doorbell is something I’ve been interested in for awhile. The front door presents as one of the “hotspots” for security in your house. It’s where people come in, packages are dropped off and, unfortunately where many criminals break in. With a number of package thefts in my neighborhood and some rather shady door-to-door people that stop by every now and then, having a way to view who is there without having to be right by the door and talk with them is a really attractive feature set. Unfortunately the high visibility of the front entryway has also made this a challenge. I considered just sticking up a Foscam, but my overhang is low enough that someone trying to break in could disable it or they may just decide to steal the camera. Most cameras and built-in video doorbells also require hardwiring. This adds stabililty and security, but is labor intensive and if you’re like me and plan on moving in the near future, it’s just not worth it to invest the time. So how to create a wireless video doorbell that doesn’t create more of a theft problem than it removes? The Ring is an attempt to achieve this.

Ring is actually a second-gen product. The team responsible for it was the same responsible for the similar Doorbot. This appears to be a good thing as Doorbot got mediocre-at-best reviews. It does appear the team has taken what they’ve learned from that project and worked to make Ring a much better product. First of all, it looks more like a doorbell and that’s a good thing. I have reviewed the DefenDoor and my big concern with things like this is that if you have a fancy camera looking device sticking on or next to your door, it’s going to draw attention to thieves. That’s not a good thing for something that just sticks on there and is so easily removed. By looking like a doorbell, Ring aims to be much more conspicuous. They also seem to have improved the camera, stability and plan on rolling out motion detection so that you can get alerts even when someone doesn’t press the doorbell.

The device has a wide angle HD camera to give you full field view. You can either hardwire it into an existing doorbell and never worry about charging or use the rechargeable battery if you don’t have wiring. It offers two-way audio and the camera works at night. The motion detection isn’t active yet, but promises to allow you set areas of interest in case there is a high traffic area you want to ignore. It hooks up to your network via WiFi so your experience may be as good as your reception is at your front door. They offer cloud recording (surprise, surprise!)) for a monthly fee. It is free until April and then goes to a very reasonable $3/month or $30/year. That’s one of the most reasonable offers I’ve seen out there. And what I think may be the most uncelebrated, but important feature, Ring offers lifetime purchase protection if the device is stolen. While the device mounts to your wall, the actual Ring (from what I can tell) just snaps into this mount so it would still be relatively easy to steal if someone knew what they were doing. Adding in this purchase protection removes this worry and allows you buy with confidence in this regard. At the current time, I am not aware of any integration into home automation platform, but hopefully something can get worked out in the future. At $199, Ring makes for an attractive package.

Regardless of all this, I still had serious concerns about this product. The ¬†Doorbot got some pretty bad reviews and other similar products on the market all seem to suffer from bad video and poor reliability. This was not something I was going to back on Kickstarter is what I’m getting at. I wanted to wait for some reviews. Well, after a few delays in release that made us wait for that, TechCrunch released a nice review of the product yesterday. The verdict? Mostly very good. The reviewer had some issues with lag, but reported no loss of connection or problems getting connected.

Consider the Ring as having moved up very high on my wishlist.

Grab one here.

New GE Toggle Light Switches Now Available

GE Toggle Switch

I got an email from SmartThings today that made me aware that they have some new GE Zwave switches available in their store. Now I will admit that switches may be one of the most boring things around in home automation, but I wanted to feature these for a particular reason–they are the first that seem to cosmetically replace classic light switches. These are the first connected light switches I have seen that don’t have the more modern “paddle” design. The problem with this is that if you have the old design you automatically have to replace all the plates, but more importantly, if you have a multi-switch outlet, you would have had to replace all of them to make it work. These new switches would allow you to swap out a switch here and there and not spend a fortune retrofitting your entire home.

The design is kind of interesting. While they look like a classic toggle switch, the toggle actually stays centered all the time. Therefore, it’s more of a button while keeping the aesthetics of a classic switch. They come in two main varieties–on/off and dimming–with a third variety as an “accessory” switch for setups where you have 3 way lighting, etc. The two main units are around $50 a¬†while the accessory one is (thankfully) much cheaper at $18. These should also work with any Zwave compliant hub.

Find them at SmartThings here and at Amazon here.