My family and I have now had 3 full days with “Alexa,” so I thought I’d write up a review, especially since there seem to be so few reviews from actual usage.
I received an invite to purchase Echo on Tuesday November 25th, so I bit, and added on the 2.99 1-day shipping. We received our Amazon Echo on the 26th. The Prime preview price was $99, plus shipping.
TL;DR version (i.e Summary): This thing is really cool. Three days in and we’re already acting like it’s been here forever. The voice recognition and range is phenomenal. The integration with Prime music, iheartradio, and TuneIn, plus the audio quality and voice control features, make this a killer device even if all it did was play music. It looks great and feels sturdy. The kids love asking it questions, and I love trying to stump it. The shopping list has already helped streamlined trips to the store between my wife and I. As its “Cloud brain” grows, I’m sure it’s intelligence and ability will grow as well.
The Physical Stuff. The unit arrived in a plain black box, and opened to reveal a classy orange lining, the Echo unit, and it’s companion remote control. Echo is about 9 inches tall, and is smaller than I imaged it (her?) would be from the promo videos. It has an anti-slip bottom, a soft-touch matte finish, and a solid heavy feel. It’s completely black, with holes for the speakers along the bottom, and overall very slick-looking. The top ring rotates to manually adjust volume, with a light ring growing and shrinking to indicate accordingly. There are two buttons on the top of Echo: 1 to shut off the microphones, and 1 to wake up the unit and, presumable, confirm actions. I have yet to use that second button for anything.
Setup. I pulled Echo out, placed it on the table, and plugged it in via the included AC adapter. Once the unit was plugged in, it instructed me to download the Echo Android app. The app and the unit connected, and I provided the unit my Wifi password via the app. That was it for setup. I’m honestly not sure what would happen if you didn’t have a smartphone; my guess is you that you wouldn’t be interested in something like Echo if you weren’t already pretty wired.
Usage. We kept the default name “Alexa,” so I’ll just creepily refer to Echo as Alexa from now on. Alexa’s voice recognition is excellent. She may not be able to act on everything you say, but she parses things amazingly accurately (the Echo app lets you see everything anyone has said to Alexa, as heard by her). I have never experienced such accurate voice-to-text. Music quality is excellent for the little unit, both in terms of volume and audio quality. Her microphones are very sensitive, and she can easily hear me from another room. Any time you say “Alexa,” the ring helpfully lights up to let you know she’s listening.
Music: One of Echo’s main functionalities is to play music. It can play:
- from Amazon Prime, with preference to what you have loaded into your library (I think). if you ask for an Artist, it looks first in Prime and shuffles their content, unless you ask for a specific song or album.
- from iheartradio.com as a backup (sign up for an account in the Echo app; I used my Facebook login and it took 5 seconds). I’d never used iheartradio before, but it seems to be like Pandora. Your first song will match the artist you requested, and then you get related music. I think you can rate songs like with Pandora, but I haven’t tried.
- from TuneIn radio.
- directly from your Phone when paired via Bluetooth.
There’s a ton of options with music. My favorite way to use it is to just ask for a genre. “Alexa, play Jazz.” Again, she seems to give preference to what’s in my Prime library, so I get a lot of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. You can pause music, ask her some other stuff, and then start music back up again. You can skip around songs, though you can’t fast forward. You can set volume either directly or by just asking her to turn it up or down. It takes a little experimentation to get the words right, but once you figure it out, it becomes like second nature.
The TuneIn radio option is awesome too. Just ask for a radio station and she knows to check there for it.
Lists: Alexa can maintain two lists for you: To-do and Shopping List. Adding things is as simple as “Add butter to shopping list” and “add gutters to to-do list.” This is where mis-heard things sometimes end up, often with hilarious results (I had John Coltraine on my shopping list yesterday.)
Once you’ve added things to your list, you access them through the app. One great thing is that everyone in your household who installs the app shares everything. So when I was at the store, my wife texted me that she’d put some things on the Echo shopping list. Sure enough, I opened my app and there it was. I could check off the things I got and they disappeared.
Questions: Of course you can just try talking to Echo. General knowledge questions seem to go pretty well. Some sample questions that got me a right answer:
- Who is Abraham Lincoln?
- how many books are in the Bible?
- what’s the temperature of the Sun/mars/moon?
- How many days until Christmas?
- What was Stephen King’s first book?
- Who directed the movie Sneakers?
- Conversions between Fahrenheit and Celsius,
- What’s the speed of light? (asked for and received in several units)
I was even able to get the next Lion’s game info (with some careful wordsmithing). You can also say “Wikipedia Anything” and you’ll get the abstract of that item’s Wikipedia page. You can ask for “news” and you get an NPR news briefing. Weather gives you local weather, and you can ask for weather in specific places. She seems to have an endless supply of (bad) jokes as well.
There are also a number of amusing easter eggs I’ve found. Try asking:
- Earl Grey, Hot.
- What’s the difference between you and Siri?
- What should I do today?
Summary (again): One of the most exciting things about Echo is knowing that it’s growing. I look forward to the day it can read me my Audible audiobooks (an Amazon company), answer more complicated questions, play games, and place calls through my smartphone. Whether any of that happens remains to be seen, but even with what I’ve seen in 3 days, the $100 was well spent.