Smart homes and smart tech has a come a long way. We still haven’t reached the Star Trek level of talking to computers, but the Amazon Echo is a good first step into the always-on and available computer that just listens and lingers in the room.
For those who aren’t familiar with Amazon Echo, it is a cylindrical tube, voice activated, Bluetooth speaker that lives somewhere in your house; it isn’t intended to be moved often, as it needs to be plugged into power to operate. While it is an above average speaker, that isn’t what makes it special. What makes it special is pretty much everything else.
This Echo connects to your Wi-Fi to pull information, music, and games off of the “cloud,” as well as to your smart home, all through voice controls. Using her key word or default name, “Alexa,” and then stating a request is fairly straightforward. That all sounds okay, but how you actually interact with it is key to whether all that functionality is put to good use. As someone who’s had one since February of 2015, here are my thoughts.
Modern Day Jukebox
Before the many regular updates, it did one thing that made it a lot of fun: it acted like a jukebox. It connects to Amazon’s music cloud that can hold music that you upload, any music you’ve bought from Amazon, and—if you have Amazon Prime (a subscription service for music, movies, and more)—all Amazon Prime music. I come home and say, “Alexa, play music,” and it will pick a popular playlist off of Amazon Prime. Or I can be specific and say, “Alexa, play Adele,” or “Alexa play Hello by Adele,” and it will find the genre, artist, album, or song and play it. No searching through the phone, no syncing the phone; when you don’t know what song to play, it chooses for you. For me, the ability to just get music playing when I walk in the door, without necessarily having to decide but still having the option to be specific, is fun.
Weather and News
At launch, the only other feature that I really used much was asking for the weather and the news. While I could look at my phone, in the morning when I’m in a hurry, to be able to say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” and be instantly told is quite handy.
Asking for news is a bit more involved. You need to select from a long list of news types (sports, international, entertainment, etc. ) and sources (BBC News, The Economist). But once you do, the news is a mix of robotically-read headlines pulled from the internet, as well as audio clips from the BBC and The Economist. For my selection, it ends up being about 15 minutes that summarizes all the major headlines of the day and then some.
Newer Features Since Launch
Since launch, they have had occasional updates that have slowly turned Echo into something a lot more than its first version.
Sure, updates to add Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Audible support are nice and expected, but they went beyond the expected and added “Skills.” Skills are third-party developed actions Echo can perform. “Alexa, [skill trigger word], [vocal command]” can be a bit tricky, but some skills are rather clever. Skills are a lot like cell phone apps were when they were new; some are good, some are bad, but everyone is still trying to find the limits of what they can do. So far, games and silly things are the only things I find useful. However, it shows potential. Today I tried a skill called “Abra,” which makes Echo ask me yes/no questions to guess a character that I’m thinking of, real or fictional. After only a couple of tries, she hasn’t been wrong.
Skills and asking random questions like we would of Siri are fun and great for when people are over, but not yet groundbreaking.
One of the most interesting additions over the last year is Echo’s addition of controlling the smart home. Over the holidays, I expanded my Echo possibilities by adding Wi-Fi enabled light switches in my living room and kitchen. Making my lights and ceiling fan voice-activated is both awesome and unnecessary, but I think gets to the point of Echo: the point of connecting the cloud and the smart home.
In addition to lights, you can control smart thermostats and smart entertainment systems. While I don’t have those things yet, they are definitely on my wish list.
Things That Don’t Really Work… Yet
There are some things that just don’t seem to work well yet. The shopping and to-do lists technically work by adding things via telling Echo, but going to the Echo App on my phone and finding the lists isn’t very handy, and they don’t integrate with my Google to-do list that lives on my phone and which I use most often.
Traffic Updates also technically work, but only one route can be used. So I can add my home into the app as the starting point and my work place as the end point, and by asking I can get traffic info, but that’s it.
You can also buy things from Amazon via Echo, but I have disabled that feature as, currently, I don’t see how useful that is, and while there are some safeguards to prevent accidental purchases, I’m still not comfortable.
One of the only odd things is when Alexa hears her name from another source. Namely, during the writing of this review from the comfort of my couch, an Amazon Echo commercial came on and it triggered mine.
What It’s Really Like for Me
I come home, tell Alexa to turn the lights on and play the news. As I start cooking dinner, I have Alexa play music and then later set multiple timers to keep track of different parts of the meal.
As I sit on the couch after dinner, I ask her to turn on the ceiling fan. While watching TV I might ask her trivia on an actor or a movie, which she may or may not know, as well as the current score for the Atlanta Hawks.
At the end of the night, Alexa might not have been the main focus, but she has been involved in small, but significant ways throughout my evening. Then, as I call it a night, “Alexa, turn everything off,” the fan shuts off, the lights go off, and I go to bed.
After talking to a colleague about the Amazon Echo, he thought it would be great for the office. However, unless you are a solo attorney with no staff, I wouldn’t recommend this. I doubt those around you would appreciate you yelling “Alexa!” from your office all day.
While the technology has a ways to go, the integration into my life is significant, and the fact that my friends and I more frequently just reference Amazon Echo as Alexa is a testament to the simplicity of the device.