36 Hours With Amazon Echo

Uncategorized Nov 30, 2014

For whatever reason, Amazon deemed me worthy of receiving an Echo last week. After laying down my $99 and a quick, overnight shipment, it was on my doorstep Friday afternoon. And now, after giving it a whirl for thirty-six hours, I thought I’d write up my initial observations.

First of all, it’s bigger than I expected. When I first got it, I initially didn’t like the form factor, thinking I’d instead prefer something shorter and wider more like a speaker. But now that I’ve positioned it in a few different places in my kitchen, the skinnier, taller design makes sense. In a space constrained layout, Echo takes up very little surface area on my kitchen counter.

Setup was extremely simple. Just plug the Echo into power and then “download” the Amazon Echo app. I put “download” in quotes because that’s the phrasing Amazon uses in the setup material. But the app isn’t actually a native app from the App Store. It’s a mobile web app they encourage you to add to your home screen.

The mobile app walks you through connecting your Echo to wifi and your Amazon account in just a few minutes. After watching a three minute intro video, the device was ready for my first command. But more on that in a minute.

First I want to say that their mobile web app, while not bad, is one of those mobile apps that makes native app developers groan. Rather than being a responsive design that would work on any screen size, it’s specifically built for mobile. That includes a hamburger menu for accessing a side drawer of settings. It tries so hard to look like a native app, I just wish they had taken the time to build one if that’s what they’re aiming for. But, I do get why they went web app. It’s the fastest way to get one codebase on every platform. Maybe once Echo is more than a beta project, they’ll build a proper native controller.

While I would obviously prefer a native app, suffering through their web app isn’t a huge deal. The only real issue is since it runs in Mobile Safari, you’re required to be logged into your Amazon account. Not a big deal for me, but it is for my wife who is normally signed into her Amazon account, and therefore can’t access the Echo app. The solution? She simply just doesn’t use the app. A shame.

My first command was, predictably, “Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?” Echo thought for a second, it’s ring of lights glowing, and then promptly answered with a full forecast for the next day.

My wife and I have probably issued fifty or so commands over the last day and a half, and the response times after each question are completely on par with what I expect from Siri or Google Now.

The “always on” nature feels like a game changer – the natural progression of all these competing information services. Already, after just a day of use, it felt natural and seamless in a way that Siri never has. Without really thinking, I automatically said “Alexa, set a timer for 3 minutes” when making my morning coffee.

My wife laughed at the original Echo introduction video earlier this month. She was completely skeptical after such a bad experience with Siri the last few years. But, again, the seamlessness of it won her over. She’s issued more commands than I have.

How about voice recognition? Echo is able to hear and understand me speaking at a completely normal volume from an adjacent room and around a corner. A slightly louder, projecting voice was sufficient 40 feet away through an open doorway. The device is able to hear the wake-word “Alexa” very easily, even while the device itself is playing music. It pauses the music once it hears its name and waits for the rest of your command.

One difference between Echo and Siri is Apple’s assistant is much more conversational. There are times when Echo will answer a purposely non-answerable question with a fun reply, but not as often or with near as much breadth as Siri. Part of that, of course, is that Apple has had a few years and vastly more user interaction to tune Siri’s personality. It also might simply be due to Amazon purposefully not making Echo as human as Siri pretends to be.

When playing music at low volumes, Echo isn’t nearly as crisp and audible as my kitchen Sonos speaker. It sounds fine, but not great, at louder volumes. But with a sleeping baby in our house, low volumes are a must, and Echo just sounds muddled when listening to what I know are good audio recordings.

As luck would have it, earlier this year I uploaded all of my iTunes library into Amazon Music so it would be streamable on my Sonos. (Sonos famously doesn’t play nice with the Apple ecosystem.) Having 80 gigs of mp3s living in the cloud and available on Echo with a simple voice command is awesome.

I’m an Amazon Prime member, so, in theory, I have access to their “million song” library, but I haven’t tapped into that yet since my personal collection is so readily available. I have no idea how Amazon’s streaming library compares with Rdio or Spotify.

All of this music integration really just makes me yearn for a voice-controlled Sonos. With their speakers already situated throughout my house, it seems so natural for them to pivot into a full-on tech company capable of responding to my voice. Or at least partner with Google (Now) or Microsoft (Cortana) to make their tech available to an army of passionate Sonos users.

They other pipe dream Echo opens up is the possibility of an open API and/or official way to shuttle my reminder and shopping list data out of Amazon’s ecosystem and into whatever apps I happen to use for that type of data. It would also be amazing if one day Amazon enables developers via AWS to tap into their speech recognition and processing platform. Imagine if Amazon allowed you to stream voice audio to AWS, and they’d do the speech recognition and then further break down the input into verbs, actions, and nouns that could trigger webhooks within your infrastructure.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For $199 is Echo worth the price? Maybe. If you already have a Sonos in the room, possibly not. But for the Prime member price of $99, it was a no-brainer impulse buy that I’m very much enjoying.