If you’re thinking of buying a new gadget this Christmas, either for yourself or for a loved one. Amazon’s Echo with Alexa would be a very good place to start. We have been using and living with it for the past two months or so, and as the title of this post suggests, it fits right in. This is my review of the Echo device and Alexa by Amazon.
To be lived with, not used
The Amazon Echo was the first major home hub product for the growing Internet of Things market. The IoT are simply internet enabled devices, generally household items like smart TVs, fridges etc. Prior to the launch of Alexa and other similar hubs, the IoT network was starting to become a bit disjointed, a bit crowded and lacking a bit of direction. That is where Alexa comes in.
The whole point of Alexa, the AI operating system for Echo, is for this device to connect not only to the internet via your WiFi, but to also connect to as many IoT home devices too. Got smart home heating devices like Nest and Hive? Great, it connects to those and you can ask Alexa to turn the heating up, down, off or on. It will learn your patterns and temperatures so that in time you won’t need to ask at all. Got internet enabled light bulbs? Wonderful, you can ask Alexa to dim the lights, turn them on or turn them off. Those are just a couple of examples to get you going.
The overall aim is that Alexa is to be lived with, not used, if you follow. It’s not a phone, tablet or PlayStation. It’s to aid and adapt your living. To make things a little bit more convenient.
Unboxing and set up
This is what you get once you’ve ordered your Echo. It comes in White too by the way…
It’s quite a sexy bit of kit, as far as black cylindrical devices go.
Setting up is very simple. Plug in the power cord, download the Alexa app from all the various app stores, sign in to your Amazon account and then let the pairing begin. It takes a couple of minutes. Alexa will tell you what steps to take as you go through the process. It’s all fairly straight forward. And whilst it’s setting up you can start to get used to that gorgeous light up rim round the top of the device.
As it happens, that light up rim actually forms part of a large knob on the top of Echo that you can manually turn to change volume up or down.
OK, so now you’re set up. The next thing to do is to use your Alexa app to enable the skills that Alexa can perform. Skills are the various things Alexa can do. The more Skills you turn on via your app, the more you let her control and enable her to do. For example, turning on the Radio Skill will allow you to ask her to play almost any radio station via TuneIn. Turning on the Spotify Skill will allow Alexa to connect to your Spotify account and let you play music from there. There are Skills for sports, business, shopping lists, ordering food from Just Eat, ordering an Uber. The list is massive, and it continues to grow. Amazon has allowed developers to get hold of Alexa and are constantly creating new Skills to expand what Alexa can do. There’s way too many to mention, but if you think Alexa can do it, she probably already can.
Speaking of commands. Here are some of our very early tests of Alexa, minutes after we had completed set up:
Speaker and voice recognition quality
The success of a device like Echo lives and dies on the quality of it’s output and it’s ability to recognise voice commands. Get those wrong, and it becomes a moderately expensive ornament.
Luckily, Echo ticks both boxes. The sound quality is pretty damn good, considering it’s sole purpose is not music. It’s clarity comes from a series of speakers located behind the grill near the bottom of the speaker. They are placed all around the cylinder, giving very well rounded sound output which is clear at low, medium and the stupidly loud levels this thing can achieve.
As I said above, there is a knob you can turn to alter volume, or, as is preferred, you ask Alexa to change it for you. To go the formal route, you’d ask: “Alexa, volume 3” or “Alexa, volume 7”. But it does also know the voice commands that you’ll be more used to. If you ask “Alexa, turn it down” it knows to turn the volume down, or up, without you needing to say the word volume. This might seem a small detail, but it’s not. It’s ability to know the less formal way of saying things, or a more local version of it’s commands is a big step towards artificial intelligence working well.
Voice recognition is even better. There are seven highly advanced microphones all around the top of the cylinder listening at all times for the “Alexa” wake up word. You do not need to shout at it to wake it up. It even picks up my commands through my kitchen wall at home. I’m seriously impressed by that. Again, it’s got to be easy to use if people are going to adopt the technology on a wider basis. It wouldn’t be much fun to have to shout at Alexa just to wake her up all the time.
I do like interacting with her. It almost becomes a normal thing to do. I wake up and greet her good morning: “Alexa, good morning”, and she’ll reply with the same morning greeting along with a fact of the day and a chipper remark on the matter. You can ask her to tell you a joke, although in fairness they’re about as good as the ones we’re going to get in our Christmas crackers in a few days time.
She’s great at parties too. When we have people round I ask her to play my Faves list on Spotify. All my friends have enjoyed asking her to change the song, skip, replay, pause, resume, and push the volume to the max limit, without actually having to do anything. It becomes a focal point for the entertainment. We do get use out of Alexa.
To be clear, it’s not as if we rely on Alexa, not yet at least anyway. We haven’t yet ordered an Uber via Alexa, even though we can. We haven’t tested out ordering food from Just East via Alexa yet either. Although over the Christmas period that might get tested a bit! It’s functions of music, radio, news, reminders, weather etc are a nice way to ease us into the world of AI and IoT.
We will be expanding what she can do though. We plan on getting Nest at home. Once we do, we’ll be connecting her to that and asking Alexa to turn the heating up or down as needed. We also plan to get WiFi enabled bulbs around the house, so she’s going to be in charge of our lights too. I think incremental increases like this are a good way for us, and home owners in general in fact, to get used to this new technology which absolutely will be in every home quicker than you think.
Will we come to rely on Alexa? Probably, in time. More and more parts of our daily lives have an internet component now. Whether it’s ordering groceries online, setting a meeting, playing music, ordering food, controlling heating, getting Amazon drone deliveries to the door, the internet is firmly a part of the fabric of our lives. It makes sense to integrate it properly into the way we live, and devices like Alexa is the way in which we’re going to do that.
At a nudge over £120 (at the time we bought it it was on offer) it’s been well worth the money. As I said above, we use it. And will continue to use it more. And given what it can do, what it will be able to do in the future, and it’s build quality, it’s actually very good value for money.
Amazon have also brought out the popular Dot and Tap devices. These are smaller versions of the Echo, but connect together throughout the home to create a network, where you can use exactly the same commands and requests. You can’t shout at Alexa through the floor, but the Dot or Tap, connected to the Echo via WiFi, will give you Alexa capabilities throughout your house.
There are alternatives out there. The major one is Google Home:
I’m not quite sure on the look of it myself. I think that the next versions might get a design tweak. Also, looking that the reviews, Echo and Alexa are a few streets ahead of Google’s variation. For now at least.
I’ll say this though, for a first attempt at something like this, Amazon have done a very, very good job of it. Debuts of new tech can often be hit by endless teething problems and bumps in the road, but it’s so far so good, and will only get better. In fact there are rumours of a slightly more expensive device in the planning stages at Amazon which takes Alexa even further, putting her in a device with a HD screen, along with their brilliant speaker and voice control qualities. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that in the coming months.
So, if you’re asking yourself whether you should be buying one of these, I would say yes, for two reasons. Firstly, this thing actually does what it says it will, and does it well. You’ll want to use it on a daily basis. Learn how it works, know what it can do and can’t yet do, and it will fit in at home and be useful too. The second reason is that this technology is going to be in every home and building quicker than we can appreciate. We might as well start learning to live with it and understand it now.
Got a spare £129.99 (current price on Amazon)? Echo and Alexa might be a good use of that money.
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