My Echo arrived on Christmas Eve and I’m happy with her as what I expected her to be: a music player with some bonus features. As a digital assistant, she’s woefully incomplete. For the sake of not twisting my brain too much, I’ll refer to the Echo as “Alexa” and with feminine pronouns, since Alexa is the device wake phrase and she has a feminine voice. It’s also important to say, for review purposes, that I am an English-speaking Amazon Prime member in the US and I’m blind to the experience for someone who isn’t. (I made some updates to this post on Dec 31 based on questions I’ve received.)
If you submitted your name to Amazon to be invited to purchase an Echo, pay attention to your email. The invitation that I received had an expiration date a week after it was sent, and since it was buried deep in my Gmail Promotions tab, I didn’t see it. I was on the Amazon site for something else and went to the Echo page out of curiosity, which is when I saw that I could add it to my cart. Later I searched Gmail and found the invitation email dated 4 days earlier. If you’re getting impatient, consider that I asked to buy the Echo on the first morning it was available, I’m a long-time Amazon Prime member, and my invitation didn’t arrive until mid-December.
Setup in our household was simple. Plug her in, download an app, enter the WiFi password, and done. I think it took longer to get her out of the packaging. The device herself is black and a bit taller than a bottle of beer (or hard cider, in the photo below). She needs to be plugged in for power, which limits her location somewhat. I’ve already started to feel annoyed because I’d like one upstairs and downstairs, but I’m not about to pay for two when I have JIBO arriving next year, so Alexa gets unplugged and hauled around. She reconnects to the network and says “Hello” within a minute after I move her.
The microphone is very sensitive. There’s no need to shout or stand right next to the device. I can give commands in a conversational tone from across the room, even when music is playing, and there is also a remote for more distant use. If the idea of having a sensitive, Internet-connected mic enabled in your house creeps you out (it should, frankly), it is easy to mute. I haven’t had big problems with getting Alexa to understand me. “Alexa, play something by Bastille” got a response like, “I heard you say you want me to play something by best deal, is that right?” “No, Bastille.” “Shuffling music by Bastille.” “Alexa, play music by Thievery Corporation.” “You’d like to hear music by Hal Leonard Corporation, is that right?” “No.” “Ok. What would you like to hear?” “Theee-verrr-eeeee Corporation.” “Shuffling music by Thievery Corporation.” Ok then.
How’s the sound quality? Well, I grew up listening to cassette tapes in crappy players, so I’d say it’s brilliant. Audiophiles would disagree, but it’s a hell of a lot better than my previous speaker solution: propping my smartphone inside a metal bowl. Volume control is good and can be done either by turning a ring at the top of the device or giving voice commands. “Alexa, volume down.” “Alexa, turn it up!”
I’ve been listening to more music since Alexa entered the house, which is nice. “Alexa, play something by Kate Bush.” “Shuffling music by Kate Bush,” replies Alexa, and starts to play whatever she can find on Prime Music. Alexa will also pull from iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio, and I could upload 250 of my own tracks to Amazon’s cloud storage for streaming (or up to 250,000 files for an additional fee). The music available to stream on Prime Music is fairly substantial — I have about 10,000 songs in my library there and have only purchased 4 of those tracks. (It did take some time going through the listings and adding albums to my library, but each add is a one-click process.) I can also connect my laptop or phone via Bluetooth to use Alexa as a speaker. “Alexa, play NPR” makes her play Detroit Public Radio on TuneIn. “Alexa, play program Radiolab” makes her find the latest podcast. “Alexa, play Jingle Bells” made her find that track on some children’s album. However, “Alexa, play something by Mozart” leads to “Shuffling music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart… You don’t have songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Actually, I have dozens of Mozart tracks in my Prime library, but they are listed by the performer’s name or “Various Artists”. I would have to give the name of a specific album or track. Annoying. Of course, you can purchase digital music through Alexa. One Click ordering is enabled, but it can be turned off or you can add a 4-digit pin that is required before a One-Click order will be executed.
Alexa will also maintain a To Do list and a Shopping List, but the functionality is limited. You can add items verbally, but then the list is only accessible in the Echo app. You can’t delete items verbally or have the list read back to you. This can lead to exchanges like this:
Me: Alexa, read my To Do list.
Alexa: What can I add for you?
Alexa: What can I add for you?
Alexa: I added nothing to your To Do list.
At least it will be an easy task to complete.
If I ask Alexa for the weather, she will give me local conditions and the forecast for the next 24 hours. “Alexa, what is the temperature in Celsius?” was a fail; she told me today’s weather, in Fahrenheit, and then I had to ask a second question to have her do the conversion. I can ask her for my “Flash Briefing”, which currently gives me the top-of-the-hour news from NPR and the BBC (you can also have her read top stories in a variety of categories via text-to-speech, but I find that painful). I’ll admit, it’s nice to roll over drowsily in the morning, mutter “Alexa, flash briefing”, and listen to the news while my eyes open.
As far as answering questions, Alexa is like Google Now’s stupid cousin. Emphasis on stupid. Things that Google Now would answer easily trigger Alexa to reply (paraphrased), “Hmm, I can’t answer what I think you asked me, but I have sent a Bing search to the Echo app.” If I wanted to search Bing on my phone or laptop, I would have, so I consider every one of those a significant fail. There is also a learning curve for me to understand the limits of her natural language comprehension. “Alexa, when did Austin Powers come out?” was not understood, but “Alexa, when was the movie Austin Powers released?” got me a quick answer. Sure, she’s programmed with some cutesy answers like other digital assistants, but I’m not looking for her to impersonate Scotty; I want her to tell me what hours my favorite local Thai restaurant is open today. Fail.
Alexa has Timer and Alarm functions, but they are very basic. I’m used to being able to tell Google Now to remind me to do something at a particular time or place, “Remind me to get potstickers at Trader Joe’s” or “Remind me to call my mother at 8:00 Tuesday morning.” Those are both perfectly executed by Google Now. With the Amazon Echo, I’m limited to “Set timer for 30 minutes” or “Set alarm for 4:15 pm.” Handy, but not impressive. It’s also impossible to leave a note for myself or someone else, which I consider very basic functionality for a standalone digital assistant.
As far as family friendliness, Alexa does not have a parental control setting that can be enabled or disabled. I find it frustrating that she warns me about explicit content before playing songs that have that tag. I’m an adult woman. If I want to listen to Lords of Acid, I don’t need a warning that they’re going to be obscene. On the Echo forums, people have complained that while Alexa will not swear, she will define swear words. It seems that Amazon has already changed some of the Echo’s programmed responses based on forum feedback, leaning toward G-rated responses and “Ask your parents.” Ugh! Note to Amazon: many households do not have delicate snowflake children in them, and it is a mistake to hobble an electronic device because of the Disney crowd. Add a parental control or obscenity filter that can be turned-on by choice, if you must, but please make the default suitable for adult purchasers. At least, let me turn off the explicit content warning!
Bottom line? I really, really like the Echo as a voice-controlled music player. Until she’s smarter — and that could be hard to do with the databases she is given — she’s not much use as a digital assistant.
Update, New Year’s Eve: Having lived with Alexa for a week now, the novelty is gone but I’m working her into my daily routine. I ask her to play my Flash Briefing each morning when I first come downstairs and am puttering around, feeding the dog and starting coffee. Surprisingly, having a voice-controlled timer/alarm has turned out to be a usability win. I have lots of timer options in the house, built into the oven and microwave or on my smartphone, yet when I had to check baking in 12 minutes, I almost always relied on the clock and my memory. Telling Alexa to set a timer for 12 minutes is something I can do while my hands are full and I’m busy. It feels like no extra effort and adds a lot of benefit.
My 21 year old stepson came over for dinner on the weekend and he was really impressed with the Echo. Alexa kept a stream of Foo Fighters music going in the background while we ate, told us the weather and some bad jokes, and by the end of the night he was asking me how much a Prime membership costs.
I still use Google Now as my primary digital assistant, but Alexa has her role too. For me, part of the point of having an Echo is training my own behavior: I think voice controls are the home automation UI solution for the next decade or so — supplementing and often replacing smartphone/tablet controls — but it takes time to develop a habit of speaking a command instead of using a screen.