The first device I want to review is the Amazon Echo. I purchased it, I mean, my wife got it for me as a gift for my birthday last year. Having for over a year, I’ve come to use it everyday. In fact, when the released the Dot back in the spring, I bought one. This is the review of essentially both devices.
The Amazon Echo is Amazon’s foray into the assistant landscape. The speculation is this came from there their failed Fire phone, which had bit and piece built in. Remember, Amazon is not just a marketplace but an actual internet backbone, running a large portion of the websites (around 30%) off their servers. They can leverage those servers to do the heavy processing.
The initial goal for Amazon is to try and get you to buy stuff from them, afterall they are a marketplace. Any reduction in friction is a positive for Amazon. Using your voice to order things is probably helpful especially if you are like me, and forget to write empty items on the grocery list.
The Amazon Echo is $179, comes in black and white
The Amazon Echo Dot is $49, comes in black and white, and even in a buy 5 get 1 free.
Is it necessary or useful
No, it is not necessary, but it is extremely useful. If I didn’t have it, my day wouldn’t suffer. However, now that I’ve come to use it, it has been extremely helpful. The voice is very receptive. Usually the problem with these things is that the voice doesn’t hear you properly. Nine out of ten times the voice works picks up. There is a way to train it, and it does help. It can figure out most commands, but knowledge of the commands is a must.
As you can see, my son knows the commands, but his voice is not pronounced enough to invoke it.
Smart Home - The Killer Feature
I’m an Alexa fanboy with this. They made it work with the two competing standards Zigbee and Zwave. What that means is most likely, any smart home device with one of those capabilities will work. This is absolutely the killer feature, and the major use of my device. Being able to talk to adjust lights, temperature, and other smart home appliance, is the reason my entire family likes it. The other things are great, but this makes it worth every penny.
My daily routine is as follows:
- Alexa wakes me up in the morning with the alarm it has set. I could have it turn on the lights gradually, but my – wife doesn’t like that. It can play my “wake up playlist” if I choose.
- I ask Alexa to read me my news briefing, which I can customize.
- Alexa will tell me the weather
- I can ask Alexa for commuting info. I can ask it also for my daily schedule
- As I go downstairs, I ask Alexa to turn on the lights.
Shopping Lists and To-Do
Alexa is great for your lists. My next purchase is having a dot in the kitchen for exactly this. A simple command of “Alexa, add milk to grocery list” just works. The biggest problem is the ability for the shopper to have this list quickly. By going to the Alexa web site quickly brings up the list, and the ability to delete it off the list
Note: Amazon wants you to buy from them, so if you say the wrong command, it will take you to their ordering page. This isn’t a big deal, Simply tell Alexa to cancel.
You can ask Alexa to turn on any alarms in any weird combination. “Alexa wake me up on weekdays at 6am,” actually works. Or you can say “Alexa wake me in up an hour.” Snooze also works.
Recently you can connect to three music services, Amazon Prime, Spotify, or Pandora. Since I use Google Play music, you have to send it through your phone. Connecting to bluetooth is as easy as “Alexa connect phone.” The play, next, stop buttons all work in both cases. I really wish Google Play Music or Apple Music was supported, but this will be an issue in all smart devices moving forward.
On the Echo the speaker is fine. I’m not a huge audiophile, but I didn’t think the speaker was bad. Remember, it is only as good as the source material, in this case streaming MP3. The Dot doesn’t have a real speaker, but the speaker is adequate for voice commands, and playing music where quality doesn’t matter. On the Dot, you can bluetooth or 3.5mm cable it to your better speakers.
Note: Speakers need to be on in order for sound to work.
Audible feature works great. You can play all voice enabled books. Note, that there is a difference between kindle books, which has the mechanical voice, and the Audible books that has paid actor’s voice. Not that I want a mechanical voice reading me VIM commands, but I can.
TuneIn is used for podcasts. You can say “Alexa play [podcast name],” and if the service has it, it will play. I just realized my podcast is not there.
The main feature that Amazon wants to sell you is the ability to sell you things. You can say “Alexa, buy toilet paper,” and it will try to select the correct item. You can confirm a purchase with or without an authorization pin. I recommend the pin, just in case of an errant command. You do get an email to verify the confirmation that you can cancel. My two experiences have been negative, so I wouldn’t recommend using Alexa to order things. In general Amazon prices are not the best on durable goods.
Is it simple to use
Yes, absolutely, it is simple to use. Amazon has a great step by step walkthrough on how to set everything up. Basically, you connect to it using the voice guidance, then you finish the connection on your smartphone. No more having to hunt and peck the wifi password like on your TV. Changing settings is also very simple. You can even ask Alexa for help. Even if you don’t want the app, you can go to the web site to do the setup.
Every Friday there is a “What’s new with Alexa” email, that tells you the new features. This is one of the highlights of my Friday, finding out what new functionality I can now do.
Is it secure
The answer to this is time will tell. Currently, there have been no glaring security problems. Just like all IoT devices, you have to trust the manufacturer. In this case Amazon. Amazon has a vested interest in keeping things secure.
So a few privacy issues pop up. First it is always listening. It has to listen to the codename to activate, but it still listens. For a lot of people this is a deal breaker. Amazon has eased fears by having a mute button on the Alexa. When you push it the ring turns red.
Second, all your voice commands are being sent to Amazon. This is for training purposes. In the app itself you can thumbs up / thumbs down the voice transcription. If you thumbs down, the app will ask you to provide feedback.
Since Alexa doesn’t differentiate sound, any voice can activate it. You can have a bullhorn and roll the street saying “Alexa set alarm for 3am,” and it will comply. I don’t know if we have the voice recognition technology yet to address this. Also, if my wife wants to know what is on my calendar or music I was listening to, having the profile set becomes a privacy issue.
Alexa doesn’t stop other manufacturers from failing in their security. If a lock company wants to allow “Alexa unlock doors” that will be a problem.
Can it be used by other members in the household
Yes. Yes, it can. This is a major problem for most IoT devices. Alexa uses your Family Prime membership to address other members in the household. You can say “Alexa, switch profile,” and it will switch to my wife’s account. You will need to set this up online (not that easy the first time), but it does work. The command to switch is sometimes annoying, but until they can recognize voice, it is the only way. Switching profiles allows each member to have their own music, audible, news, calendar settings.
I really like the Alexa. Clearly, this will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. If you are thinking about smart home, the Alexa should be your main hub. Will Google Home, or Siri, take over? Time will tell, but Alexa is light years ahead.
If you found this helpful, can you please use the links in order to buy. It helps me monotize the site without putting ads everywhere.