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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.