Say “Hello” to Alexa and Amazon Echo

Introducing Echo.

When Amazon first announced Echo, I was clicking to buy—or show my interest in buying, as it turns out—in less than a minute. As an early adopter, buying the latest, greatest tech as fast as my fingers can tap “Buy Now” is a no-brainer. Amazon Echo was no exception.

Once I’d registered my interest in purchasing for a mere $99, discounted from the regular price of $199 because I am a devoted Prime member, I went back and read the nitty-gritty details to see what it was—exactly—that I was getting.

What Is Amazon Echo?

Amazon did a great job of selling me on Echo post-buy, as well. It was a voice-activated personal assistant. I could tell “her” to do things, like play music or check the weather or add things to a shopping list without the hassle of, for instance, pushing a button to interact with Siri. Amazon touted Echo as a pretty speaker with a fancy light. Okay, I’m in. Again.

And now we wait. This hair trigger is not the curse of an early adopter, it’s the waiting—that part is miserable. It took five long weeks to actually get an Echo invitation to buy.


Hello, Alexa

Echo comes packaged in a sleek black box, similar to the Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Open it up to reveal the black Echo cylinder neatly nestled in a black cardboard bed against a bright orange background. The other minimal contents—a power cable, remote and holder, and an instruction card—are all hidden beneath a flap next to the Echo.

Setup is extremely simple. First, decide where to put the Echo, and then plug it in. You’ll see a pretty ring of light swirl on top of the device when you talk to it. Once the hard part is out of the way, just load the companion Echo application on your phone and follow the steps to pair Echo and connect it to Wi-Fi. Done.

Now the fun stuff begins!


My first month with Alexa and the Echo

It took about one minute to figure out how to use Alexa, which is the AI within Echo, at a very basic level. That is not to say I mastered it instantly, but Amazon really knocked it out of the park when it comes to simplicity of use. All I have to do is say “Alexa…” and she’s there, with her reassuring swirly light ring, ready to respond and react.

We quickly became friends, and this inanimate object, the Echo, quickly transitioned from “it” and “the” to “her” and “she”. She sort of has a personality. Maybe it’s the ease of use or the fact that she sounds less robotic than Siri, who was actually sampled from a real person. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Deciding where to put Alexa is difficult. She’s not really portable. She isn’t huge or cumbersome, but she requires power to work. She isn’t wall-mountable and can’t be powered by micro-USB hooked up to a USB powerbank. She requires good old-fashioned electricity. Call me lazy, but I didn’t really want to lug this squat two-pound Pringles can around and mess with plugging it in all the time. When I first set her up I put her in my sunroom at home. I spend hours in there at night and on weekends working, playing, watching HGTV, listening to music, etc., so it seemed to make sense. I quickly decided it wasn’t right for me. If I am on my computer and need the weather, I’ll jump over to a weather site to get it. I needed Alexa when I wasn’t at a computer.

I settled on the kitchen island. Why the kitchen and not a room I relax, lounge, or work in?  Because nine times out of ten, I want her to do something when my hands are full, dirty, or busy with some other task. In those moments, using a computer or Siri is not practical or feasible. She’s a fantastic, armless, kitchen companion when my hands are covered in batter or while chopping broccoli.

“Alexa, how may tablespoons in half a cup?”

“0.5 cups is 8 tablespoons”

At the simplest level, Amazon Echo is a touchless, voice-activated Siri. Rather than go through the cumbersome motion of actually picking up your iPhone and pressing the home button to get the Siri voice command to come up, you simply talk to Alexa and give her instructions or questions:

“Alexa, what is the capital of Peru?”

“Alexa, add eggs to my shopping list”

“Alexa, when is the next Montreal Canadiens game?”

Even if your iPhone is sitting on a table in front of you, you could (conservatively) save 2.4 seconds (or more) by not having to press to interact for each command. Assuming you are not covered in some sort of “don’t touch your phone” mess.

“Alexa, start a timer for 12 minutes”

If you can think of some information request or logical instruction, she’ll likely respond favorability. Every command is also logged in the Echo app on your phone. You can provide feedback in the app if she didn’t understand something; she will also politely tell you she didn’t understand you. You’ll also find your shopping and to-do list in the Echo app.

“Alexa, remind me to call the dentist tomorrow.”

“I added ‘call the dentist tomorrow’ to your to-do list”

I am still discovering what she can do a month after receiving her in the mail. For example, she has no idea what college basketball is, no matter how you word it (good girl!), but she can tell me when the next Montreal Canadiens hockey game is (good girl!). In addition, there’s an endless stream of fun easter eggs that others have discovered.

“Alexa, surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

One thing I don’t like is her inability to recognize different people’s voices. I’d like to train her to respond to me. Or to not respond to commands that aren’t from me. I have disabled voice purchasing for the time being to avoid any issues with others buying products on Amazon via Echo.


90% speaker, 10% computer and microphone

Amazon Echo specsThe folks at iFixit took an Echo apart. What they discovered was that Echo was mostly a speaker with enough computer bits, processors and RAM, along with a good microphone array, for smart AI. I am not an audiophile, but Echo is a speaker that sounds great! Echo puts my Jambox to shame at the introductory $99 price, but it’s not portable, à la Jambox, so it’s a tradeoff.

Alexa also taps into the Prime music library or your personal Amazon library, so she instantly has access to over one million songs and hundreds of great playlists—or you can create your own, either in the app, online or by using the iHeart Radio app, which is basically a Pandora clone.

“Alexa, play Bob Marley.”

“Alexa, next song.”

“Alexa, turn it up.”

“Alexa, louder.”

Controlling music is easy either by voice, the app, or with the included remote control. The remote is about the same size as the one for the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, but it includes a magnet holder and sticky tape. I’ve mounted mine in the kitchen so that I can’t lose it, but I have yet to actually need it.

You can also use Echo as a straight-up Bluetooth speaker so you can take advantage of your Spotify, iTunes, or rdio playlists:

“Alexa, pair.”

“Ready to pair. Go to the Bluetooth settings on your mobile device and choose ‘Echo-0GN.’”

[tap, tap, tap]

“Connected to Bluetooth.”


Alexa vs. Siri

It’s inevitable to make the comparisons between Alexa and Siri. Here are a few common requests:

Current weather:

Siri:
Says, “Here’s how it looks right now” and shows me an hourly forecast screen.
Alexa:
She tells me the current conditions and projected weather for my current location.

Play Bob Marley:

Siri:
Says, “Looking for Bob Marley… I couldn’t find Bob Marley in your music” and provides a link to the iTunes store.
Alexa:
She says, “Shuffling Bob Marley, from Prime Music.”

How many pounds in a kilogram?

Siri:
“Let me check on that…here’s what I found on the web for how many pounds in a kilogram.”
Alexa:
“One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.”

I’d say the winner here is Alexa, but Siri is more portable and can tell me “what planes are overhead”, which I never tire of. I’ll call it a tie for the time being. I hope to see Siri graduate to Alexa’s level of intuitiveness and responsiveness in the future.


Amazon Echo review conclusion

Pros

  • Touchless interface
  • Sounds great
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Ease of use

Cons

  • Limited availability
  • Requires power
  • Not wall mountable
  • No voice recognition for different users

I would, without a doubt, purchase Echo again. In fact, we just got a second Echo for my husband in his home office. Looking forward, I would love to see user voice recognition and the ability to read books from Amazon’s Audible directly.

All in all, I love it.

“Alexa, tell me a joke.”

“Knock-knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Kanye.”

“Kanye who?”

“Kanye believe it? I tell jokes, too.”

About the Author

Kim McReynolds

Kim’s been an internet addict since Yahoo! was at Stanford. From website design to creating banner ads featuring fast-moving monkeys to project management she’s done it all - and much of it at Adknowledge or its predecessors. Today she helps lead the corporate marketing team. When she’s not throwing a party at Alcatraz or the Empire State Building she’s engrossed in event planning, brand management and corporate messaging.

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