Amazon’s new Echo device, heading out to early adopters at this point, is basically a landline version of Siri, letting you talk into the cloud to get answers, information, and other services. This black tube about as tall as a Pringles can and slightly wider only plugs in for power. Internet access must be gotten through wifi, which you must configure using an app on your smart phone or tablet. The app ends up being a necessary partner in making full use of your Echo. If your Echo can’t answer your question directly, it tosses a search engine link over to the app (a Bing link, of course, because Google is not chummy friends with Amazon.) You can add things to a maintained shopping list by talking to your Echo, but can only remove things using the app. And if you want to configure your Echo, such as giving it a name that it will respond to, you do that through the app.
(Oh, giving it a name. Now there’s a disappointment. The Echo sits there quietly, until you say its name, then it lights up, perks up, ready to answer a question or obey your command. And some of the promotional material made it sound like you could pick a name. Which is actually true in the most trivial sense possible – you get your choice of two names. You can call your Echo “Alexa”, or you can call it “Amazon”. This is not only inconvenient if you happen to have named your two kids “Amazon” and “Alexa”, but it’s a disappointment because I wanted to name mine “Mata Hari”. I really, really, really wanted to name it Mata Hari. Why? Because it’s an honest-to-goodness always-on live microphone sending out things I say over the Internet, to one of the biggest data-gathering operations there is. What kind of sufficiently paranoid person volunteers for that? Me apparently.)
(Note to youngsters and the under-read: Mata Hari was a spy.)
So basically, the devices does things that you could do with a tablet or a smartphone and you need a tablet or smartphone to fully use it. So what’s the advantage to having it? Well, the biggest reason is that it makes your life feel real science fictiony – you’re walking through your living room, you just shout out a question, and a ring of cool lights spring up at the top of this tube, with one light pointing toward you, and level, female voice answers your question. It seems so Minority Report.
(Youngsters: Minority Report is a film from 2002. Science fiction.)
Second thing is that it really can be convenient for the basic things it does. Telling it to set a timer is simply a shout, no matter what you’re in the middle of, what your hands are full of.
The third is that it’s a music-playing device, streaming your tunes to the room… at least, those tunes you have stored by Amazon. As with most Amazon devices, the primary goal is not to serve you but to encourage you to use Amazon services. Buy your tunes through Amazon, and you can request them through this. Subscribe to Amazon Prime, and you have voice command access to the Amazon Prime Music library. It will support whatever things that Amazon chooses to let you access through it, like IHeartRadio. But you aren’t getting your iTunes on this.
I’m no stereophile, I won’t claim to judge sound quality. It sounds good enough to be my ambient music. It plays streaming music without me having to turn on my TV. For me, it’s an improvement. Volume can be controlled by voice command, by remote control, or by turning a ring around the top of the tube.
Once I’d gotten it set up, I put the Echo through some very basic steps.
- “Alexa, what time is it?”
- “It’s 1:10.”
- “Alexa:Set an alarm for 1:50.”
- “Alarm set for 1:50 this afternoon.” (I would later find that one of its weaknesses is that it wasn’t an alarm, it was the alarm. Try to set a second alarm, and it will indeed be set, but the first alarm setting disappears. Learned that one the hard way.)
- I decided to try its look-up-in-Wikipedia function. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.” (yes, I have a Wikipedia page.)
- It starts to read me the Wikipedia for a town whose name is similar to my last name.
- I try again. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
- It reads me the introduction to the Wikipedia page for Republic Steel.
- “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
- While it is admitting that it didn’t understand what I am looking for, my phone rings. I grab it, and say “Good afternoon.” The Echo starts reading me the Wikipedia page for “Greeting”.
I tried to destroy the Echo by asking it “What is love?”, but it just quoted the Dalai Lama at me.
Another thing it’s good for is keeping the kids distracted for a little while, as they work out what it will do. Yes, they can ask it math questions. No, it can’t tell them how far it is between two cities, but yes, it can tell them how far each city is from here. No, it won’t sing you songs, but yes, it will tell you a joke if asked. The kids added a lot of silly things to the shopping list, and were surprised when it read them back a list with even more silly things (I was in another room, augmenting their shopping list via the app.)
The thing that delighted them most was when my daughter sang “Alexa: Do you wanna build a snowman?” and gotten the spoken response “Come on, let’s go and play!” (And it even has multiple responses to that question.)
Overall, at this point, it feels more like a novelty than a necessity. Some of what it does, it does impressively well, like hearing a command over other noise in the room. Some it does so-so; it’s generally good at understanding my requests, less so my five year old, but luckily it tends to repeat back what it’s asked, so at least we know it’s answering the wrong question. There are odd quirks in the data set it’s using for some things; ask it to define “sister”, and the one about a female sibling isn’t the first definition, it’s the fourth. Similarly, the definition of “knocker” went through the more lurid slangy sense and a yiddish term before getting to the item that hands on a door.
But those concerns are software, not hardware, and software upgrades, so there is hope for something more full. As the Echo will tell you when you ask it (her? The voice is most definitely a her.) “Where are you?”, she is here, but her head is in the cloud. Additional services could be added without even a download. So this could be more and better; whether it will probably depends on whether enough people adopt it to give Amazon a belief that there should be a future for this. If they don’t, this will be another Apple Newton.
(Youngsters: if you haven’t heard of the Newton… that’s kind of the point.)
The Echo is orderable here. It currently has a steep discount for Amazon Prime users.