Amazon Echo – A virtual assistant for your home

I’m going to start this review with a quote from Wikipedia to get you up to speed quickly on what the Echo is:

Amazon Echo is a wireless speaker and voice command device from Amazon.com. The device consists of a 9.25-inch (23.5 cm) tall cylinder speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. The device responds to the name “Alexa”; this “wake word” can be changed by the user to either “Amazon” or “Echo”. The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control several smart devices. It costs $179.99 to buy from Amazon. Amazon had been developing Echo inside its Lab126 offices in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass. since at least 2010. The device, codenamed ‘Doppler’ or ‘Project D’, was part of Amazon’s first attempts to expand its device portfolio beyond the original Kindle e-reader.

The Echo (initially limited to Amazon Prime members or by invitation) became widely available on June 23, 2015. Additionally, the service behind it (Alexa voice service) is available to be added to other devices and other companies’ devices and services are encouraged to connect to it.

This review is going to basically be a recounting of what I have found the unit best for in my private life. As with anything, your results may vary.

I was one of the original group of Prime members that was approached and offered the ability to purchase and test an Echo unit before it was released to the general public. As I was just starting to get into home automation at the time I immediately saw the possibilities of the unit once I received it. Initially it’s functionality was quite limited, basically being little more than a stationary version of a virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana that also had a Bluetooth capable speaker attached. The first few days my family played around with it, doing obvious things like having it play music from my Prime music collection or answer goofy questions like “How tall is the Eiffel tower?” Quickly though, it’s usefulness became much more apparent as we started to integrate it into our daily lives.

From this point onward I am going to alternately refer to the unit as “Alexa”. This is the keyword you use to ask it a question and it’s what my wife and kids call it, having fully anthropomorphized the unit due to its female voice. They almost consider it a pet.

Screen snip showing some of the various connected home technologies supported.
Screen snip showing some of the various connected home technologies supported.

One of the first things you will notice with Alexa is that the response time is fast. I mean, like really fast. Normal human conversation fast. The device uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) for the back-end and the latency is basically non-existent. Not sure how they managed this, the data compression levels must be stunning. Rarely is there ever an awkward multi-second pause like you get with the assistant on your phone. The only times I’ve had this happen is because the households internet connection had gone dodgy.

If you are using the Echo to play music, it can be quite loud. You can either have it pull music from Amazon Prime music playlist, your own music files that you have uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive, from one of the built-in apps like Spotify, Iheartradio or Pandora, or from connecting to it via Bluetooth with your phone. As a disclaimer, I am not an extreme audiophile so to me, the sound has to really be garbage or alternately sounding like Angels singing for me to notice whether or not it is better or worse than a competing product. That being said I do notice that the unit has more bass than my Cambridge Soundworks Oontz speakers. You can also increase the bass response even more by placing your Echo in a corner. To me, it has good bass and doesn’t sound muddy, and that’s good enough for me.

Over the last year, Amazon added a feature called “Skills” that allows third parties to produce plug-ins that expand the capabilities of the Echo. One of these Skills is a math tutoring plug-in that I enable via voice and it asks questions and listens for correct answers from my daughter. This has been amazingly helpful. Another Skill that I use is called Seven Minute Workout, and basically, it does exactly what the name implies; walks you through a calisthenics exercise workout that takes 7 minutes of your time.

My son has Autism. The timer and alarm features on Alexa have been a godsend. To get my son to stop doing an activity that he really wants to do, like getting off the iPad for example, we have to use timers for everything. Using a timer allows him to more easily make the mental adjustment that “when the timer goes off that is the end of what I have been doing”. Before I had to use the timer on my phone, or a wind-up egg timer. Now I can just call out “Alexa, set timer 5 minutes” and it’s done for me. Originally you were limited to one timer and one alarm. In the last year support for multiple timers and alarms has been added. The timers have also been a fantastic hit in the kitchen, allowing me to set multiple cook timers for different items.

The voice commands have also certainly helped my son refine his speech. At times in the past he would slur his words, the Echo requires that you be somewhat concise in your pronunciation so that it can understand your commands. He’s learned how to turn lights on and off and start and stop music that he likes by talking with Alexa. He’s also learned (somewhat unfortunately) how to change the volume as well. This has led to some interesting scenes when I’ve walked through the door at the end of a workday to get blasted in the face by “Surfin’ Bird” at top volume.

Some of the Skills plug-ins available to install
Some of the Skills plug-ins available to install

We also use the built-in grocery list weekly. My wife and I are able to call out from almost anywhere in the house and tell Alexa to add something to the list. I can either print out the list prior to the visit to the store or I can call it up on the Alexa app on my android phone. Very handy.

Lastly, I have set the Echo to be the centerpiece of my connected home. I have an Ecobee3 AC controller unit. I am able to use the Echo to change the temperature settings in my house using my voice. I am able to turn on individual or groups of lights in my Phillips Hue lighting system and then set their brightness level if need be via the Echo. I am able to turn certain appliances on and off using my Wemo Wifi enabled power switches as well. I can also use it to control my Samsung SmartThings home automation hub. It’s amazingly convenient to be able to open my back door when I am outside with the kids and yell “Alexa, turn the pool lights on!” and zing, there they go.

Although I do not have a disability I have read many testimonials from people that have issues that have gotten the Echo for the voice command capability and it has made a huge difference in their quality of life. Likewise for older people that may suffer from reduced mobility.

The voice commands have also helped with my sons OCD like behavior. The simple act of flicking on a light switch has led to some spectacular meltdowns in the past. Though this behavior has completely diminished over the years, occasionally he is still bothered when someone turns on a light without telling him about it first. For some reason, he does not get agitated when I turn on a light using voice commands, and he usually will leave it alone after it is on.

The Echo is somewhat future-proofed as most of the heavy lifting is actually done on AWS. So it is very easy for Amazon to add new features and abilities whose implementation is completely transparent to the user and usually require no restart. I usually only find out about these features either by the email I get sent by Amazon announcing them or I go into the Alexa app and there they are.

There are many other things we use the Echo for:

  • Verbally looking up area and postal codes
  • Finding out how many days till a birthday or holiday event
  • Getting news briefs from BBC/CNN/Fox and a host of others
  • Getting morning traffic and weather reports
  • Getting a daily, weekly or monthly report on entertainment events happening in the area like concerts and such through the StubHub Skill
  • and more.

 

Some people are concerned with the privacy aspect of the device. The bottom line is since the device is uploading your voice commands to AWS someone like the NSA could probably listen in on your conversations if they so choose to do so. I’m not that concerned about it as I have my unit placed in a location that all anyone would hear is me asking Alexa to tell me a joke or possibly me yelling at my kids to stop fighting over the last popsicle. The sad reality is in this day and age if someone wants to spy on you unless you are prepared to live in a swamp with no electronics at all, you are pretty much an open book to anyone with means.

Most people see the price as a bit steep, it normally sells for around $179 from Amazon directly. Occasionally Amazon will mark the price down $50 or so, it got as low as $99 over the holidays which is when I bought my second unit.

At the time of this article, Amazon has just added two new additions to the Echo line. The Echo Dot is basically the controller/top part of the full sized Echo that you can add your own speakers too. It works just the same way as the stock Echo otherwise. It sells for $89.99.

The second unit is the Amazon Tap which is basically a weatherproofed, battery-powered indoor/outdoor version of the Echo that you have to push a button in order to trigger the unit to listen.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that no device other than a Smartphone has so drastically affected the way our day-to-day living arrangements as the Echo. Something that I originally considered to be nothing more than possibly a cute gadget has become an integral part of daily life in my household. I liked it so much I picked up a second Echo that I use at work, much to the amazement of co-workers. I highly recommend it to everyone.