*Update (November 2015)
Many people have emailed me or asked me questions about the Amazon Echo since we wrote the original post back in May. The original post is also one of of the most popular on the blog! We thought it would be valuable to provide an update as the Echo continues to garner great reviews, such as Wired’s endorsement that the Echo is 2015’s “perfect lazy gift”.
I’m happy to report that we continue to be very pleased with the Echo’s performance. Amazon added Pandora integration and the voice commands grow ever more capable of understanding nuance. Say, for example, you’re at a family gathering and the kids are making a lot of noise. You can now say “Alexa, play music for kids” and the Echo will automatically start playing kids music.
Amazon is also expanding Echo’s capabilities through Alexa “Skills” (which can be found inside the Echo app) which appear to be widgets created to add functionality to Echo’s already impressive voice command category. You can now ask Alexa to check Bitcoin prices, calculate someone’s age by giving Alexa their birthday, get Fantasy Football News, generate a haiku, tell knock knock jokes, and a ton more (including getting stock prices, a feature some people have asked me about before). It appears that Amazon has released an Echo developer kit so that anyone can create and submit new features. That seems like a game changer to me: with the Echo gaining traction and its nascent ability to integrate smarthome features such as WeMo lights, the ever-expanding repertoire of capabilities is going to put the Echo in more and more homes. One of the differentiators of Apple’s closed-universe product line is the access to millions of apps that comes with staying inside the universe. If Amazon is able to follow suit with a capable in-home device, I can see them very quickly becoming a big player in the home automation world, perhaps unintentionally (at least, given the original focus and design of the Echo, which was to play music and enable purchase of products through Amazon).
*Original post follows
Alexa, write this blog post for me
In mid-January 2015 I was one of the lucky (or just very willing to have my privacy completely compromised all the time) few Amazon Prime members to get Amazon Echo. The day Echo was publicly announced, I signed up via the Amazon website, which is probably why I got it so early. Some good friends of ours are still waiting for one.
Demand for the product must be pretty high. Amazon initially offered the Echo for 50% off to Prime members ($100 for a retail $200 product) and now the price for members is $150. There is also a brisk secondary market for new and barely used Echos on Craiglist / Ebay going for or above sales price.
Is it worth it? Is it a life changer as the sort of weird Amazon commercial implies? (I mean really is the whole family going to yell stuff at this HAL2000 looking device?)
The Critics: All Over the Map
When Echo initially came out, some critics praised it as “the future“, ZDnet gave it a “10“, some thought it was “good“, some felt “mixed“, one gave it a “7“, and WSJ said Alexa, which is the primary wake word for Echo, didn’t hold a candle to Siri. What? So basically this thing slices bread, can do calculus but can’t understand basic requests? I’m being sarcastic but that’s the view you get if you were to read all of those reviews!
I’ve now had a lot more time to spend with the Echo. Meredith and I also had some friends over recently who road tested Alexa, putting her (or it? or…?) through even more rigorous testing. Most of the reviews came shortly after the product launched (basically in a beta status) so I hope I can help people make a decision on whether or not it is worth it with four months of “Alexa” living in our kitchen. And no, Amazon isn’t paying me for any endorsements (I wish they were but Echo isn’t direct linkable through their affiliates program) so consider this review purely public service.
If you want the bottom line without reading the details below here it is: Echo is really useful, performs the functions it says it performs well, is increasing in capabilities every week, and I think well worth $100 or $150 for Prime members. I mean, that’s like what, a week and a half worth of Starbucks coffees?
What it does well
What do I like best about Echo? A few things:
1. Music and internet radio like Bloomberg Radio: Echo integrates with Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Tunein, and with your Amazon music library. I fortuitously moved all of our sizable music library (72 gb) to Amazon Music about two and a half years ago. Now basically whatever song I want played, I can simply ask Alexa to play it. If it isn’t in my library, it searches the Prime Music library, then it’ll switch to iHeartRadio. I don’t think I’ve had very many incidents over the last four months where it couldn’t find the song I wanted to listen to. All at the tip of your tongue. It is like magic. Echo is also a Bluetooth speaker, not the best, not the worst, but it integrates pretty well with most devices.
2. Flash Briefing: get NPR, BBC, and the weather in less than 5 minutes. Seriously helpful in the morning when I’m getting coffee and going out the door. The weather has been spotty at times, especially if precipitation is expected but in general it does pretty well.
3. Timer: I hate getting my iPhone out to use the timing app. Asking Alexa to set a timer when you’re cooking is awesome. No hands.
4. Lots of ways to tell Alexa what to do: between voice commands, the remote control, and the iPhone / Android apps for Echo, you can pretty much tell Echo what to do from wherever you happen to be.
How often do you use Echo?
Pretty much whenever I’m in the kitchen. I don’t like to waste time so if I’m waiting for something to reheat in the microwave or getting a glass of water, I’ll ask Alexa for the weather or get a news brief. If I’m going to be in the kitchen / dining room for more than 10 minutes, I’ll usually fire up some tunes. So total use, is probably two or three times a day, for as much as an hour.
Things I want to use more of: the new traffic feature, which you can set via the app.
What I don’t like about Echo
I haven’t used the to do list much since it doesn’t really integrate with anything (Evernote integration would be super helpful) and it doesn’t do things like tell you the latest stock price or index movements. That would be nice. In terms of voice recognition, Alexa sometimes has trouble hearing you during cooking, say when the exhaust fan is on, but I’ve been genuinely impressed by the ability of device to pick up voice commands from anywhere in the room.
To be perfectly honest, while I really like the Echo and wouldn’t return it in a heartbeat, it still feels more like a luxury item than a must have like my iPhone. You really could not live without your phone. You could live without Echo, but you probably won’t want to after you got used to it living in your house for a while.
Verdict: if you’re a Prime customer and you enjoy music, you’ll probably like the features it brings. Some of the capabilities like asking it questions answerable by wikipedia entries is pretty hokey, but the other voice command integrations are pretty useful. While it can’t write blog posts for you or come up with a cumulative distribution function for a Weibull distribution, it does do a whole host of other things well for a fairly cheap (relatively speaking) price. If you spend $100 for a Bluetooth speaker, why not get one you can talk to for another $50 dollars?
What do you think? Do you have an Echo? Do you like it?