Ever since Amazon announced the Amazon Echo, I have been wanting one. The system seemed cool, practical and easy to use. How cool would it be to be able to talk and get any answer in an instant? No more grabbing your phone or tablet and trying to search through a ton of sites just to find your answers. Wow this is amazing as I sit here and write about this Amazon product. I can’t believe I am complaining about having to use a phone or tablet for information. I remember we used to have to grab an encyclopedia, newspaper or magazine to find answers. Sometimes we even had to walk down to the library. So in retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t be complaining about a phone or tablet, but I think you get the point. So the day finally came and we got one from The Home Depot.
What is Amazon Echo?
The Amazon Echo is supposed to be a virtual assistant. Basically, she is artificial intelligence rolled up in a pretty black cylinder. She has 7 microphones that can even hear your voice from across the room. To wake her up, just say her name, “Alexa.” Now this isn’t a new concept as I am sure you are familiar with Siri, Google Now or Cortana. These virtual assistants pretty much work the same way, except you need a phone or tablet. Most of the time these will just return useful links. After you say “Alexa”, you then follow it by a question or command such as, “Alexa, What is the weather for today?” Ask a question, get a result.
Since she is powered by an AC outlet, she is always on and listening for your command. Once you ask a question, you will be able to see she is listening because a blue light ring will illuminate on top of the unit. So how does it work? A user can ask a question to Alexa. Then the Echo takes the question and goes to the miraculous cloud based system to find the answer (So you need internet for this to work). Once your question is in the mysterious cloud, hopefully you get a correct answer back.
What can the Amazon Echo Do?
The Amazon Echo does something incredibly awesome and a ton of things remarkably bad. Now when I say that, I am saying it as if she was a true virtual assistant. If you understand that she is nowhere close to being a virtual assistant and more of an Amazon selling product, then you will love the Amazon Echo. Now it’s not just to boost Amazon sales, you can also do other things with the system.
In regards to boosting your Amazon buying experience, the system rocks. You can order anything you want and she is very intuitive, even will give shipping information and ask you about your last order. You can even make to do lists or grocery lists. Besides making your shopping experience more enjoyable, you can stream music from online sources such as Pandora, Spotify and more. This feature is very cool because you can ask her to play country music, top rock music and other genres. If you would like to get a run down of quick headline news, just ask her for the latest headlines and she will read to you what’s hot in the news. Not sure who does this since it seems like the news is always bad now-a- days, but it’s still great to stay up to date on current stories. Traffic and weather, no problem, she knows it all. Do you need to set a timer to take the cake out of the oven or not be late for a date? She can also do those simple tasks.
One thing that is becoming more prominent in todays home is setting them up to be smarter. We can control lights, doors, heating and more from a simple app. Good news is Alexa can help make your smart home, smarter. Instead of having to use a program, you can bark out commands to her and she will do them for you. She works with a wide array of systems such as Philips Hue and Lifx smart bulbs, Belkin WeMo smart switches, Ecobee3 and the Emerson Sensi, and the Wink, Insteon and SmartThings
She will perform simple questions such as math questions or who won the cubs game today. She can even tell you what time the Cubs game is on today. Now I am just using the Cubs as an example, she will pretty much do any sports team, wait that didn’t sound good.
So as you can see she does a lot, but that is pretty much where it ends. The Amazon Echo does have something called “Skills” which are pretty much apps for the Echo. You can download these apps for her and you will have more capabilities. However, when you download these apps, you have to remember the commands. Remember the magic 8 ball? Ask it a question and the ball would tell you the future? So say you install the app for the Echo. You would have to say, “Alexa, ask magic 8 ball,” then you would ask the question. So you would always have to know which app you want to use. Now if you have a couple of apps, this isn’t a big deal. But imagine over time and you have 20 apps, it could start to get a little confusing. Again, it’s not a huge deal because the apps allow her to be smarter and more useful, but for people like me who sometimes use an app once a week or every other week, I am sure I will forget what app I want to use to ask a question. The good news is the “Skills” are growing everyday, so Alexa has a huge potential for the future.
How to Control the Amazon Echo
Besides giving her voice commands, Amazon has an app that runs off your phone or tablet. To install new apps or “Skills”, you can download the Amazon Alexa. Now before you jump for joy, the app isn’t all that great. In fact, it’s rather clunky. If Amazon spent a little time, they could make a really nice app, so who knows what will happen in the future. When you first open the app, all you see is your recent activity for Alexa. You can tell the app whether she answered your question correctly or if it was incorrect. On the top left of the app, you have to touch the menu bar which brings up options such as skills, lists, alarms and more. I think it would be great if Amazon designed the interface where I can pull up the app and I see icons for all of these instead of my recent questions. Rarely do I need to see questions to something I already know. I would much rather just go directly to my list, music or timers.
Besides being an outdated interface, it’s still nice to have an app where I can control Alexa in greater detail. One very cool feature to Alexa is the ability to have different accounts. I haven’t tried this, so not sure how it works. My understanding is I can have Alexa work for me and my wife can have her own. That way when I ask Alexa to add something to my calendar, she will put it on my calendar and not my wife’s. The only problem is while it works with Google calendar, we only have an Amazon account. Not that it’s a big deal to open another account on Amazon, but all my history is on our main account and that would be the account I would order on.
What to like about Amazon Echo
As you know the Amazon Echo can do a ton of things. My favorite thing about the Echo system is how easy it is. I love being able to just say “Alexa” and then I can ask her a question, tell her to put something in my calendar, ask her scores or add something to my list. I also love how easy it is to order something from amazon. When they designed the Echo, that is one thing they did a great job on and that was the ease of ordering. Now I have only ordered a couple of items since I was just trying it. If I were using Alexa everyday, I am sure I would be ordering a ton more from Amazon, but unfortunately, Echo isn’t a big part of my life.
The microphones are incredible as they pick you up from across the room and even sometimes from the other room. For basic things in life, the Echo does a great job by helping you stay a little more organized and a little more updated on daily activities. I love the fact there are apps or “Skills” to make her even smarter and more useful. I am sure as time goes on, the Skills will only grow to a larger degree. The sound quality isn’t too bad for such a small unit.
The one item I really noticed with the Echo is getting her to wake up. From the moment you say “Alexa”, she is ready to work. There really isn’t a time delay from when you say her name, to when you are able to ask a question or say a command.
What not to like about Amazon Echo
When I first got Amazon Echo, I was so excited since this was something I have been wanting from day one. We set it up and used it like crazy the first couple of days. My kids loved asking her math questions and I would always know what time the game was on or who won. However, since the initial first excitement has passed, all I can say is it is just a fancy paperweight now. I do feel bad because I am sure she is lonely and wants attention. I wouldn’t be happy sitting in the corner by myself, it would remind me of the days I would get in trouble in school.
For me, the Amazon Echo isn’t that useful. Now I know it does a ton and people love it and I see why. I guess I really lost interest because I was so tired of her telling me she can’t find the answer or didn’t understand the question. The Echo doesn’t provide any real value for me. I think if I was able to do more with her, I would be more inclined to use the system and order more things from Amazon, use the calendar, timers and more. With my phone or tablet, I can do everything I need in one place, with Amazon Echo, I can’t. Now I understand this technology is still in its’ infancy so as time passes I am sure it will get better. I also understand that you can only do so much since many things in life can be ambiguous.
When I can’t find out what the Cubs record is, who is in first place, what are the odds of this weeks football games and a ton of other simple requests, that’s when I just have to let it be and move on. Now it’s more than just sports, I find it with other things I ask about. Simple tasks she can’t perform. I am going to stay on my sports kick. When I look up the Skills, there are a lot, but most of them are trivia or soccer, which neither are useful to me. The limited range of useful skills isn’t just in sports, it’s in other areas also.
Now if the day ever comes where I can give her an address for directions and she will put it up on my phone so I can walk out the door, well I would say that is a great day and that would be real artificial intelligence. I would love for the system to make me smarter, organize my life a little and just make things easier, but I don’t think the system is there as of today. It would be great if I ask a question about a person and she would be able to read off a little bit about that person, well that is just one example.
Now with all that said, I do understand what this unit is supposed to do and I am asking a lot from it. So in the end, it’s not a huge deal, but it is one that stops me from having her as my everyday assistant and why I have about an inch of dust on her.
Is Amazon Echo the Way of the Future?
That’s to be determined. There are other big players that I am sure are working on a more useful AI system such as Microsoft, Google and private firms. One thing I do know is that if Google ever came out with their own, they could blow away the Amazon Alexa. Google Now is already a great program, but I do understand that there is a big difference from being able to pull up a web page and having it run part of your life. In the future, I do see systems like this being more useful such as “call my Doctor” or order me a BBQ Chicken Pizza. Yes, you can order pizza on Echo, but I am talking about making the whole unit much easier and more intuitive.
Having the system work directly with your car or phone to transfer directions to your car or have your phone automatically dial your local restaurant. Wouldn’t it be great to tell the Echo, “Alexa, make reservations for Friday at 8:00 pm at (whatever your favorite steak house is).” If she could look at their schedule and either let you know they are booked or automatically make the reservations. How cool would it be to say, “Alexa, text Dan and tell him I’m on my way.” I know it’s asking a lot, but one day we will be there. Until then I guess we just have to deal with these first world problems of having to use our phones, tablets and a somewhat useful AI tower.
Final thoughts on the Amazon Echo
All in all I really do like the Amazon Echo. You can do a lot of things with this system and it’s very impressive. The microphones do a great job picking up your voice and the speaker isn’t too bad for listening to your favorite streaming music. I think Amazon did an awesome job with taking the first giant leap to a personal assistant and creating a first homeowner AI machine. While I think much more can be done to improve upon the Echo, I just don’t think all the technology or structure is in place. Personally, I wouldn’t buy one because it doesn’t do much for my world. Most of the people I talk to, love it. Again I ask how much they order from Amazon and it’s usually the same answer, not much. I always ask why and they tell me they don’t use the Echo enough where it’s part of their day. If they used it daily, they would be ordering from her.
I guess after reviewing the Echo, I will have to jump back in and see if I can find this unit more useful to me and my family. So would I recommend this product? Absolutely, in a heartbeat. But I would make sure the person is fully aware of what they are getting and understand the value of this unit and it’s short comings.