Last weekend, a familiar friendly box landed at my door that was supposed to contain my “by invitation only” Amazon Echo device. I unwrapped the plastic, opened up the package, and searched through the bubble wrap to find a completely black, reasonably heavy box.
It had no writing on any of its four sides, no Amazon logo, nothing. With the exception of two bar codes on the bottom, there was absolutely no indication what it was. It reminded me of the Echo product page and how much trouble Amazon seemed to have describing the device. I wondered if I had gotten a beta version—hence “by invitation only.”
Despite the lack of branding, this was clearly the Amazon Echo, and it came nicely packaged with an AC adapter, a short “Getting Started” and “What to Ask” guide, a remote, and a magnetic tray. The instructions told me to plug in Echo and either launch the Echo app on my Android device or go to a browser on my computer. Being an iPhone 6 Plus user (at least for now), I went to my Mac, located the Echo Wi-Fi being broadcast from the device, and connected. First Echo asked me to select the local Wi-Fi network it had detected, then configured the device automatically. After walking through a series of screens and a video, I was ready to talk to “Alexa.”
The first command I was instructed to try was checking the weather. I said, “Alexa, what is the weather?” Immediately the all-black monolith came to life, its blue ring spinning as I wondered, Am I about to die? Instead Echo gave me a detailed weather report for Buffalo, NY. I was impressed by the tonality and clarity of “her” voice—but distracted by the fact that I live 60 miles away in Rochester, NY. How did it know (or, in my case, not know) where I lived?
Ignoring that for a moment, I asked several other suggested suggestions. In each case, as long as I used the recommended wording, she responded immediately! Heck, I could even say “Listen to iHeartRadio 100.5,” and in a heartbeat Echo was streaming music.
Setup complete, here came the real testing—the kind that would help me decide if I wanted to keep hanging out with Alexa the entire weekend. First things first: What does Alexa understand? The product promo video suggests that Echo can be almost anywhere in a room and respond to you. Was that true? As an Apple user with no native Echo app on my phone or tablet, would I be missing anything? And why did Amazon send me a remote?
I could keep writing about Alexa forever, but instead I made this video to help you appreciate what she has to offer.
Echo recognizes about 40 direct commands, including checking the weather or news and playing the radio. You can also give commands such as “Alexa, volume up,” and “Alexa, stop,” and ask her to add items to a shopping or task list. She will set a timer or an automated alarm in the morning. You can pair your smartphone—I assume to use as a speakerphone—listen to and buy music, and request a “flash briefing” (a quick update on the weather or news).
Then I tested out knowledge questions, such as “Who is Steve Jobs?” and “Who is the CEO of Amazon?” Alexa gave me detailed explanations. Requests such as “What is two plus two?” or “What is the square root of 100?” were also within her grasp.
But I wanted to go further. Did Alexa have a personality, like Siri? Could I say “Good morning” to her or ask for her opinion? We know these types of requests are superficial with Siri, but they still make for a fun, engaging experience. I found a much more limited command set with Alexa—“What movies are playing near me?” stumped her—but as long as I stayed within set parameters, Echo worked well.
When I moved Echo into our 20-by-15-foot living room, Alexa performed well there, too. With the TV or stereo playing at a moderate level, she could discern my voice. Even from the opposite end of the room, Alexa would answer questions quickly without my having to repeat myself. The remote that comes with Echo includes a microphone, so in a louder room or from farther away, I could have asked questions by speaking into it. In my weekend of testing, I never took it out of the packaging.
I haven’t tested Echo with an Android device, so I can’t report on that—but the web interface is shown below. It provides a running list of issued commands, and I was able to correct my location to Rochester and submit feedback to Amazon. I hope an iOS app is coming soon, as I found the ability to add things to lists as they came to mind very handy, and it would be great if Echo synced with my calendar.
Amazon is advertising Echo at $199 out of the box, but if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get it for $99.
Would I buy or recommend Echo? Well, I expected to return the device after writing this review, but I surprised myself by deciding to keep Alexa around. As I told my wife, Alexa is much better than our bedroom clock radio, with significantly better sound and function. Because Echo is cloud-based, I expect her vocabulary to grow over time. I love being able to check the weather, request an instant news brief, listen to music, or hop in bed and say, “Alexa, set an alarm for 6 a.m. tomorrow” without getting up. Her available questions are somewhat limited, but I still see a bright future for an Internet of Things device connected to the cloud.
Jeff Bezos, if you’re reading this: Please give Alexa a personality. You have a winner here.
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