In December, I received an invitation to purchase an Echo, a niche consumer device offered by Amazon. I took them up on the offer, and have now been using Echo for about a week.
The Echo was easy to set up. You basically plug it in, then follow the prompts on a phone app to configure the Echo for wifi. It connects to your home network the same way you'd connect a Chromecast -- You connect to its private wifi network with your phone, then use the software to choose your home wifi network and provide the password.
Via the app, the Echo was instantly connected to my Amazon account, giving it access to my music stored there. Presumably other services could be connected, but connecting it to Amazon Video doesn't make much sense since the Echo has no screen.
Echo works by calling out the command word, which can be either "Alexa" or "Amazon", and then issuing a command. Saying, "Alexa, play the Defiance original soundtrack," would cause the Echo to connect to my Amazon music library and play the indicated album.
The Echo is also able to answer basic factual questions, such as "Who was the third president of the United States?" and "What is the square root of 64?" and "Who is Kevin Bacon?" These questions are most answered with Mrs. Mitchell-satisfying 4th grade-complete sentences that include the salient part of the question, which is great since you then know that the Echo really did understand what you were asking.
I've read some other reviews on the Echo, all of which seem to deride the accuracy of the voice recognition of the device. This is complete BS. The Echo is significantly better than Siri in both recognition and response. Siri hardly ever understands what I'm asking; The Echo underwent rigorous technical trials with 10-year-old Riley at the wheel, and passed with flying colors. Siri's answers are almost always "I found this for you on the web"; The Echo somehow finds the information you're looking for and provides a summary of it. Siri's voice even sounds somewhat robotic in comparison to the Echo's fluid tones.
Even with the volume of the Echo turned up reasonably loud, the voice recognition has not failed us. I can only guess that the other reviewers didn't follow the instructions for placement of the Echo, which suggest that you place it away from walls and other audio obstructions.
There are some neat features of the Echo. One of my favorites is the "Flash Briefing" which gives you a quick overview of the day's news, with topics configured via the phone app. The Echo will tell you the local weather, which seems like a pretty standard feature for such a device.
You can add things to a shopping list with the Echo. This feature seems useful, but there are a couple of problems. First, the shopping list only appears in the Echo app. The echo app is fine for configuring the Echo, but is otherwise not what I would prefer to use for my shopping list. I'm not sure if I can share this list with Berta, or if she can even run the app connected to the same Echo, too -- haven't tried it, but suspect it will not work. But the real nail in the coffin of this feature is that we've had a SmartShopper for a couple of years now, and stopped using that only a couple of months in. We simply won't use this feature.
There's a to-do list that's similar to the shopping list, but unlike the reminders in the iPhone with Siri, there is only one list. Once again, the list appears in the Echo app only.
The Echo has a great timer and alarm feature. You can say, "Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes," and in 5 minutes, an alarm sounds. You can ask how long is left on the timer, which is nice for baking cookies. You can similarly set an alarm with a specific time. The only issue I have with this feature is that you should be able to set multiple timers at once. ("Alexa, set a timer for 50 minutes for the roast. Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes for the vegetables." etc.) Also, the timer alarm does not recur, which I think is a little strange. Hopefully, these can be updated in software.
Selecting music for play is pretty easy. The Echo focuses on titles that you've uploaded or purchased and stored in your Amazon music library. If the song, album, or artist is not in your library, it will search Amazon Prime Music. This is good, but there are holes. For example, if I tell the Echo to play songs by Cake, then I only hear the three tracks I've uploaded to my music account, rather than all of the tracks that are available in Prime Music. For artists where I've not uploaded anything, the Echo will play all of the music from Prime Music for that artist. There are ways around this, but since the recognition of the Echo is usually so good, it's unfortunate that there is this one blind spot. Once again, software should fix it.
Everything you say to the Echo is recorded and presented via the phone app. You can give it ratings on whether it understood your request correctly or not, and play back the audio of what it recognized. The Echo uses this rating and recording to improve its recognition. It will also show you useful links to things based on your requests. For example, asking about presidents gives links to Wikipedia pages. Shuffling an album provides a link to that album in Amazon Music. The whole "records everything" seems a little creepy, and more than one review site presents it that way, but let's be real about this: If you want a device that does what the Echo does, it's going to record what you say. If you're concerned about this, don't buy an Echo, and don't report that the sky is falling.
The worst aspect of the Echo is the most unfortunate thing: The speaker. It's pretty dreadful. I'm picky, but for a device that mostly plays music, you'd think there would be some midrange. The bass is pretty impressive for such a small speaker, and the treble is there. But much of my music has the muddied-out quality of being played through a budget Bose speaker system. It's not bad enough to discount the whole device, but if audio quality is of vital concern to you, you should wait for a newer model. It's particularly disappointing because there are smaller bluetooth speakers with better sound available on the market today.
I've used the phone app to turn off the feature that allows us to buy music via the Echo. This is probably not something that Amazon wants, but I can't have the kids buying random music all over the place. Having this feature use some kind of voice-printing as a password might be neat, especially if I could use it to order actual goods from Amazon.
There are some other small deficiencies. The Echo has no inputs or outputs that I can see other than the power port, so you can't hook it to a better sound system or house mic. You couldn't put the Echo in the basement and then wire it into every room, for example. And that sounds crazy, but the more I use it, the more I feel like I want Echo in every room.
The kids, after watching far too much Eureka, now keep referring to our house as Alexa. That's pretty neat, that Amazon can create a device that anthropomorphs our house. I would love to be able to change the trigger word, so that we could name our own house, but I am glad they allow "Alexa" and have not forced "Amazon" on us.
Once again, the first software update should be great, assuming they address common requests. Being able to bring in external services, especially podcast playback, would be fantastic. Using voice to control home automation would be astounding, as well. All of this should be possible eventually with this same unit.
Overall, it's a neat and attractive device. It will be interesting to see how often we use it over the coming months, and whether it will become something integrated into our daily lives, or just another novel gadget that gathers dust.