Amazon Echo: Wow!

Amazon's voice-activated, voice response system is amazing!

echo amazon echo

[Corrected 09/11/15 @18:45PDT]

Every now and then I come across a product that just amazes me. This happens fairly often with software where the current rate of innovation is off the charts but when it comes to hardware being amazed happens a lot less often and products require a serious “wow” factor to get me excited. But “wow” was exactly what happened when I set up the Amazon Echo.

The Echo is a sleek, black cylinder 9.25 inches tall and 3.37 inches in diameter with band of lights around the top that illuminate when you use the trigger word “Alexa.” Yep, Amazon’s Siri is called Alexa and, so far in my testing, Alexa knocks the virtual pants off Siri when it comes to speech recognition accuracy and usefulness.

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I have to digress for a moment on the topic of Siri: The other day I tried to use Siri to dial a friend while driving and after six or seven failed attempts I was ready to throw my iPhone out of the car window. Siri and I had managed to complete this task successfully many times before but not this time and, I contend, the audio environment was no worse than for previous attempts. After so long in the market I’m disappointed that Siri hasn’t, for want of a better word, “matured” quicker and, indeed, it sometimes feels like she's is actually getting worse.

Anyway, inside the Echo’s housing, it’s mostly full of audio gear; a 2.0 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer with a bass reflex housing. The actual circuitry driving the sound system as well as the dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO) supports 802.11a/b/g/n and the Bluetooth 4.0 service, consists of a Texas Instruments DM3725 Digital Media Processor, a single-core ARM Cortex A8 chip, 256MB of RAM, and 4GB of storage.

Around the top of the Echo is a ring that you can turn to control the volume as well as a hidden ring of seven microphones and a ring of lights that brighten in the direction of the voice that said “Alexa” last. On the top are  two buttons, a microphone “on/off” toggle, and an “Action” button that triggers the device to listen as if the keyword “Alexa” was spoken.

Setup is straightforward and requires installing the Alexa app on a supported device (Fire OS, Android, and iOS) or using a mainstream Web browser. You connect the Echo to your WiFi network through the app and you’re ready to go.

The Echo will play music from a number of online services or you can connect to the device via Bluetooth. Audio quality is very good but not great. The bass is full and the high notes clear but the midrange is lacking and at high volume there’s noticeable distortion. Overall, the audio could be better but it’s not a deal breaker.

Alexa’s voice, generated by onboard text-to-speech synthesis Alexa's cloud service, is impressively natural and as I noted above, saying “Alexa”  is the trigger for the Echo to send your speech to Amazon’s cloud to be processed. If you don’t like calling your Echo “Alexa” there is an alternative albeit a totally non-groovy one; “Amazon”. For now, that’s your only alternative (I’m surprised that Amazon doesn’t also allow “Jeff” which would actually be kinda cool to think that Mr. Bezos would do your bidding).

I must digress and note that it’s odd that Amazon chose “Alexa” as the trigger word for the Echo as they already had a Web analytics service called Alexa. Many commentators have theorized that [According to informed anonymous sources] “Alexa” was selected because it’s a rarely used name, that consumers can relate to it, and that it’s easy for speech recognition to detect in a noisy environment but I don’t buy that [(I now buy that)]; even though] there are hundreds of other words that could have been chosen instead so it looks like the reasoning will remain a mystery.

Alexa understands quite a wide range of topics although there are a few gaps in her knowledge that are surprising. For example, one of my sons asked Alexa when the NLF season starts and got the “I don’t understand the question” response yet she knows all about the results of football and baseball games. 

Even so, out of the box, the general usefulness of Alexa is impressive and when you’ve configured Alexa’s services and options you’ll be able to ask for alarms to be set, streaming radio to be played, news updates, sports scores … it’s an impressive list and Amazon, in conjunction with third party developers, is in the process of expanding Alexa’s abilities. Here’s a selection of things  Alexa knows about:

  • Play audiobooks from Audible with Echo. Plus, Echo supports Whispersync for Voice to continue right where you left off.
  • Check your upcoming schedule by asking what’s on your Google calendar.
  • Restock on previously purchased items by re-ordering Prime-eligible products in your Amazon shopping history.
  • Connected home: Control compatible WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, and Wink devices with your voice.
  • Hear commute time and the fastest route to your destination.
  • Ask for sports scores and schedules from the NFL, NBA, MLS, MLB, NHL, NCAA, WNBA, and more.
  • Listen to and discover music from Pandora's library of over 1 million tracks.
  • Listen to your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio.
  • Hear up-to-the-minute weather and news from a variety of sources, including local radio stations, NPR, and ESPN from TuneIn.
  • Get information from Wikipedia, definitions, answers to common questions, and more.
  • Stay on time and organized with voice-controlled alarms, timers, shopping lists, and to-do lists.

Another customizable feature is to have Alexa discover home automation devices on your network and control them on command. Currently Alexa understands lights and switches from WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, and Wink and integrates with IFTTT (the range of IFTTT triggers is currently limited to informational functions rather than commands).

Alexa’s API, called Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), is free for developers and Amazon has created the $100 million Alexa Fund to support developers, manufacturers, and startups building ASK-based products. Amazon also offers developers the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) which allows Alexa voice recognition and speech synthesis to be used on third party hardware platforms.

One of my complaints about the Echo is that it doesn’t have a battery; for the device to work it has to be plugged in which seems like penny-pinching. Add a battery to the Echo and you’d have something that I’d want to carry around with me.

My biggest complaint about the Echo and Alexa is that Amazon is obviously less interested in integrating with services they don’t control so, for example, I can’t add an item to my Google Calendar using the Echo nor can I get Alexa to play anything in my iTunes library. While IFTTT provides some extensibility so even though I can, for example, grab an updated to do list item from the Echo I can’t add it  to my Google tasks list and even though I can add it to my Todoist list, it’s a one way street and I can’t push my Todoist tasks to Alexa’s to do list (in fact, in IFTTT, Alexa isn’t available as an Action Channel).

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There’s a lot about the Echo that Amazon got right; the physical design is elegant and slick, the functionality is impressive, and the ease of use undeniable but does the Echo make sense for consumers? There’s no doubt that of all of the personal interactive voice response systems available, the Echo and Alexa are in the lead but at $180, the Echo is a little too expensive unless you’re a technology fan and early adopter. At $99, the Echo would be perfect.

Even so, pricing and lack of battery not withstanding, I’m giving Amazon’s Echo a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5 and a special tip o’ the tech for amazing me.

Amazon Echo: $179 on Amazon

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