By Dan Moren
May 8, 2015 8:22 AM PT
Is there an (Amazon) Echo in here?
I’ve spent several weeks with the Echo, and in that time, I’ve actually grown to like it quite a bit. But it’s still not a product that most people are likely to want—yet, anyway.
If I had to sum up the Echo as a product in just one word, it would be “weird.” That extends all the way from its marketing—the device is called the Echo, but the smart assistant living inside of it can be addressed as either “Alexa” or “Amazon”—to its ecosystem, or more specifically, its lack thereof. This is a product that would have seemed more likely to come out of Microsoft or Google, not Amazon.
At its heart, Amazon is a retailer. You buy things from it, whether they be books, laundry detergent, LEGOs, or music and movies. But you don’t entrust Amazon with your detailed personal information. So buying an Echo is a bit like hiring a personal assistant who doesn’t know where your calendar is, can’t read your email, and accidentally set fire to your Rolodex.
And yet, for a device that hooks into a service that’s primarily about buying things, the Echo doesn’t help you much in that department either. Its biggest concessions in that direction are a shopping list (which until recently was only accessible in the Amazon Echo iOS app), and the ability to buy music from Amazon. Otherwise, this is about as far from the Amazon Dash Button as you can imagine.
Maybe Amazon is building up an internal database of all the things I add to my shopping list and to-do list, all the music I play, and all the queries I ask my virtual assistant. But even if they were, I’m not sure where exactly that would get them.
And the device itself isn’t widely available; it’s still being sold on an invitation-only basis. It also wasn’t really marketed at all, and I couldn’t even find a press release on Amazon’s site announcing it. So if Amazon’s looking to make money off selling the device, well, then somebody should let them know they’re Doing It Wrong.
Setting aside the strangeness of this product for a moment, there are several places where I think it succeeds admirably.
First and foremost is the idea of a computer interface that’s all around you at all times. This is Star Trek level stuff. Apple’s made a similar attempt with the “Hey Siri” feature of iOS 8, but given that it only works when your device is plugged in, I find I don’t really think about using it. The Echo is always plugged in, which means you don’t have to think about it at all. Asking Alexa for things has become second nature to me in a way that casting about for my iOS device to trigger Siri—or even using my Apple Watch—hasn’t. 1
The Echo’s hardware deserves a full share of that credit. The microphones on this device are impressive; even when I’m several rooms away, Alexa rarely mishears me. I’ve triggered it from my kitchen and from my hallway, the latter of which doesn’t even have line of sight to the Echo. And it’s not like I’m yelling at the computerized assistant either; I simply spoke in a conversational tone. Amazon’s spent a while tuning the “far-field voice recognition,” which uses seven mics and “beam-forming technology” to extend its range. And as much as that jargon makes me roll my eyes, you can’t argue with the fact that it works, and it works damned well. 2 By contrast, I sometimes can’t get “Hey Siri” to trigger on my Apple Watch, even though it’s inches away from my mouth.
To be fair, sometimes Alexa is a little too good, as those aforementioned Upgrade listeners will attest. Forget accidental “Hey Siri” mentions; the other night I was watching an episode of Castle, which features a character named “Alexis.” If you’re wondering whether or not that’s close enough to trigger the Echo’s mics, well, wonder no more. So if you’ve got a family member with a similar sounding name, you’re either going to want to change the wake word to “Amazon” or see if your spouse/child/pet is willing to answer to something else.
I’m hopeful that at some future point Amazon will expand the options for this, and perhaps even let you set your own option: Jarvis? Computer? It’d also be nice if, as my girlfriend pointed out, there were an option to switch from a female voice to a male voice, as there is with Siri. It’s a simulated virtual assistant, after all—no reason for it to be strictly represented as a woman. (Hey, Amazon, here’s a freebie: Sample Paul Bettany’s voice and I’ll switch in a heartbeat.)
In general, I’m impressed with the Echo’s construction, especially the ring on top that glows blue when Alexa hears you, red when you press the mute button on top, and white when you twist it to adjust the volume. 3 It’s a nice piece of industrial design, simple and elegant.
The Wirecutter’s Dan Frakes—my former Macworld colleague and my most trusted resource on Bluetooth speakers—isn’t impressed by the quality of Echo’s audio, but I’ve found it perfectly serviceable. You can also pair it as an ordinary Bluetooth speaker, which I haven’t bothered to do.
Question and answer
When it comes to the actual intelligence of this assistant, it’s hard not to stack Alexa up against Siri. Alexa’s very good at retrieving the answers to factual questions, from what the weather is like outside to the height of the Washington Monument.
However, it often wants questions phrased very particularly, for example when it comes to scores from sporting events: if I ask “how did the Red Sox do yesterday?” Alexa doesn’t seem to understand my query; instead I need to phrase it as “what was the score in yesterday’s Red Sox game?” There’s also some data it doesn’t seem to have access to that Siri can pull out, like famous people’s heights…if that’s important to you, I guess. And while Alexa ably identified Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and Clark Kent, it had trouble finding anything on Oliver Queen, Clint Barton, or Barry Allen. (Yes, this is the kind of important testing I do.)
But what Alexa does do, it does well. For example, thanks to integration with Amazon’s Prime Music service, all it takes to get a soundtrack for my party is to say “Alexa, play some jazz” and we’re off and running, without any construction of playlists, putting in any credentials, etc. 4 The device will also play tracks from your Amazon Music library, which is a bit of a non-starter for me, since I don’t having anything in there. But if I felt like copying all my tracks over there, I could play them via Alexa.
À la the Apple TV, Amazon’s currently working with a limited set of partners for Echo integration. Most are streaming services like Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. The latter is my personal favorite, because you can tell Alexa to start playing pretty much any radio station that streams online, and there you go. 5
As a bit of a news junkie, I also dig the “flash briefing” feature, which plays a customizable news feed on demand, including the hourly newscasts from NPR, the BBC, and ESPN, as well as text-to-speech headlines from other sources. Now that feels like something a robot assistant should be able to do.
More recently, Amazon’s also built in support for smart home appliances, including Philips’s Hue bulbs and Belkin’s WeMo line. As it happens, my office (where the Echo is located) has a floor lamp on a WeMo timer; it turns on in the afternoon when the sun goes down, and off in the evening around when I go to bed. If I want to override that, I have to unlock my phone, find the WeMo app, wait for it to load, and then press the on/off button on the screen. As recently as a few months ago, it felt pretty darn futuristic to turn my light on and off with my phone.
Now I can just say “Alexa, turn on the light.” Yeah. I could get used to this. Apple’s promised home automation integration with Siri via HomeKit, but as of yet, I don’t have any products that support it, and it doesn’t seem as though Belkin’s ready to jump aboard that particular train.
And just the other day, Amazon added support for the online automation service IFTTT, letting you trigger certain actions when working with Echo’s to-do and shopping lists. So far, I’ve had mixed results with how well they work, though it seems that may be more a function of IFTTT or iOS than of the Echo itself. But it goes at least some of the way toward making those lists more useful, since I can have the items copied to my iOS Reminders list when I create them.
There are a few more integrations I’d like to see: flight statuses would be great, and I am a little disappointed that Alexa can’t tell me when the next episode of my favorite TV show airs. But it’s clear that Amazon’s far from done rolling out new partners; the company has already announced a beta developer program for Echo, which ought to eventually make it much easier for third parties to integrate their services on the device.
One frustration I have run into is that when Amazon rolls out new features, it sometimes requires you to update the software on the Echo. But there’s no easy way to force the device to check for an update—it does it when the device is idle, plugged in, and connected to Wi-Fi.
Amazon’s also created a companion iOS app for the Echo, which is at times fascinating. But pretty it ain’t—for one thing, it doesn’t look like it’s been updated for the iPhone 6 screen.
In addition to letting you tweak settings for the Echo and Alexa, the app also features media playback controls, the integrations with third-party services, and access to your to-do and shopping lists.
But it also acts as a scrollback buffer, showing you a history of all the queries you’ve made, and the resulting responses. Answers are displayed as “cards,” kind of like Google Now, and generally let you drill deeper into the results, for example searching Bing (yes, Bing) for more information.
If you’re the kind of person who is uncomfortable with the idea of a computer listening to you and storing this kind of information, well, you’ll probably also want to know that a history section lets you play back audio recordings of the queries you’ve made. To be fair, you can delete those, individually or in bulk, but I can see why some people would be uncomfortable at the concept.
Amazon seems to mostly be interested in capturing those to improve Alexa’s performance; in each case, you can clarify whether or not what Alexa heard was what you were asking, which hopefully will let it improve responses, à la the sports score issue mentioned above.
By comparison, Siri lets you look at past queries within a “session,” but once you’ve dismissed its interface you can’t really get back to them. Amazon’s approach might seem creepier, but at least it’s being transparent about what exactly it’s storing, and giving you control over it.
Stick around, Echo
Even with all my head-scratching over the existence of this product, I have to admit I’m…perhaps charmed would be the best word. I have no idea where Amazon is going with Echo and Alexa, but this idea of pervasive computing is one that I just can’t shake. It’s not a perfect product, by far, but it is a surprising one, and that counts for a lot in these days where the norm is samey-looking smartphone after smartphone. Google Glass was different, too, but Echo is more appealing, in large part because it’s unobtrusive and not literally in your face.
Not long after I got the Echo, it got some competition from my Apple Watch. I’ve already posted some thoughts on that, but I can’t help but compare the two.
In some ways the Echo is the exact opposite of the Apple Watch, tethered to a particular space rather than going with you wherever you roam. But I think they actually have more in common than not: both free you from the traditional computer interface, or even staring at a screen most of the time. One way or another, it’s not hard to imagine a near future where the idea of going to sit in front of box to use the Internet is as outmoded as the idea of a telephone bolted to a wall.
Another point in the “weird” category: the Echo comes with a Bluetooth remote, mainly for controlling music playback, though it also has a mic and voice command button, à la the Fire TV remote (which it resembles). It also comes with an awesome magnetic cradle. I stuck it to my fridge, and have never used it since. ↩
You can also adjust Alexa’s volume level by voice, saying, for example, “Alexa volume level 6.” I’m impressed with how well this works, even when audio is actively playing. The ring lights up to reflect the volume change, illuminating proportionally. ↩
It also works for artists, which has delighted my girlfriend, who immediately told Alexa to play some Johnny Cash. Now she’s gone out and bought an Echo of her own, on the basis—I’m convinced—of just that feature. ↩
Sadly, it’s subject to the vagaries of those networks, so for example, I couldn’t have Alexa play the Red Sox game on our local station, because the station itself doesn’t stream it. ↩
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