Amazon Echo review

{ 12 comments }

echo

Ever since Apple came out with Siri, I’ve been wanting some kind of stand-alone personal assistant for the house. When Amazon released their Echo, I jumped at the chance to buy it. After several long months of waiting, the device finally arrived. When I opened the black box, the heavy, long, matte black cylinder looked so sexy. It whispered to me: “Plug me in!” “Turn me on!” “Configure me!” I complied, a willing servant.

Package contents

• Amazon Echo
• Power adapter
• Amazon Echo remote (with a built-in microphone and music playback and volume controls)
• Magnetic Amazon Echo remote holder (with an adhesive for placing it on non-magnetic surfaces)
• 2 AAA batteries (for remote)
• Quick Start Guide

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Configuring the Echo

Configuring the Echo should have been simpler than it was. You are supposed to be able to configure it through the smartphone app, but that didn’t work for me. I ended up going online to set up my Echo. Once it was set up, though, everything just worked.

The feature that instantly attracted me to the Echo was that it is always on. I’ve heard others comment that they didn’t like that it doesn’t have a battery. I find it a refreshing feature, because I don’t have to worry about whether it is charged up.

How it Works

The Echo uses what Amazon calls Far-Field Voice Recognition, seven microphones next to the light ring that allows you to speak to the Echo from across the room and from any direction. We set our Echo up in the living room, and it can hear us from the kitchen without having to raise our voices. The kitchen is partially open to the living room. It has trouble hearing us from the office on the other side of the living room, though, because the sound has to go through a wall.

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At the top of the Echo is the device’s light ring, which is normally off, but it comes on and points in the direction of a voice when someone speaks the wake word. It also changes colors, depending on the operation in effect. Next to the light ring is the volume ring. Although you can tell the Echo to raise or lower the volume, if it doesn’t hear you, you can manually turn the volume up or down using the volume ring.

On the top of the Echo is a microphone off button and an action button. You use the microphone off button to turn off the Echo’s microphone if you don’t want it to listen for the wake word. The action button lets you turn off an alarm or timer sound, wake the device, or turn on Wi-Fi setup, if you need to reset the Wi-Fi connection.

Remote

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The Echo ships with a remote control that lets you talk to Alexa when you are out of its range of hearing or when the music the Echo is playing is louder than its ability hear. The remote comes with a magnetic holder that you can slap onto any metal surface.

You can also use the supplied double-stick tape to stick it to nonmagnetic surfaces. The holder securely cradles the remote so that it will be handy when you need it. No searching through couch cushions to find this remote.

remote

Shopping and To-Do Lists

You can do many things with the Echo — play music and news from various sources, get answers to reference questions, and set alarms and timers. What we have grown to love the most, however, is the Echo’s shopping and to-do list features.

We can stand with our head in the refrigerator or in the pantry to figure out what we need and ask the Echo to add items to the shopping list as we go. We don’t have to stop and transfer the information to a sheet of paper or an online list. All we have to do is say, “Alexa, add eggs to the shopping list.” (Alexa is the code name we use to get the Echo’s attention. You get two choices: “Amazon” and “Alexa.”) When we’re at the store, we can access the shopping list through the Amazon Echo app.

This feature alone has saved us so much time, energy, and forgetfulness that it makes the $99 we paid for it money well spent. (The price just recently returned to $199.)

All is not a bed of roses, though. Sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what we’re saying. She doesn’t know what kefir is, and even though she can tell us what a sardine is when we ask, she can’t put it on our shopping list. “Kefir” results in things like “K fog,” “Café or,” and “P.” Just “P.” For some reason, “sardines” ends up as “Star beans,” “Sour beans,” and my favorite “Chardonnay beans.”

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I would love to have the capability to create and manage more than two lists (To-do and Shopping). I use lists all the time, and it would be nice to see this feature grow into a real task management system.

Music and News

The Echo can play tons of music. You can ask it to play music from Amazon Prime Music, digital music you have purchased from Amazon, music from services such as Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, and music from any smartphone you have connected through Bluetooth.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Amazon Prime Music. You can just ask the Echo things like “Play 70s music,” and it will search for an appropriate playlist. You can also set up your own playlists either online or from the Amazon Prime Music smartphone app.

Questions

We love to ask Alexa questions. Alexa uses Wikipedia for her reference answers. She can give you traffic information, sports scores, and the news from various sources. She can spell words (like “sardines”), and solve arithmetic questions. She can also tell you jokes. Alexa’s jokes are really, really corny, but they make me laugh.

Controlling Devices

Since the Echo’s release last winter, Amazon has continued to update the software to fix bugs and give it additional talents. One of the most recent updates gave the Echo the ability to control Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue devices. I have several WeMo switches, so being able to turn off an appliance by saying “Alexa, turn off the living room lamp” is a real pleasure. It gives me a small taste of what living in the age of Star Trek might be like. Or, maybe the Jetsons, considering the hilarity that ensues when Alexa unintentionally does something really stupid.

Amazon Echo App

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The Echo smartphone app, which is available for iOS, Android, and Fire OS, is adequate, although pretty rudimentary. It gives you access to the Echo’s data while you’re away from home. You can access your shopping and to-lists. You can use the app to tell Amazon whether Alexa heard you correctly, and you can do voice training, so that Alexa understands you better. (I haven’t noticed much difference since doing the training, but my Southern accent isn’t too strong.)

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of things I wish the Echo could do or do better. I want multiple shopping lists, better integration with my Internet-connected appliances, such as my Nest thermostat, and the ability to answer more complex questions. Alexa isn’t very smart yet, but she’s getting smarter as Amazon adds new features and updates her software. However, she is entertaining, and even her mistakes are funny. What’s not to love? I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Source: This device was purchased with my own funds. Please visit Amazon for more info.

 

Product Information

Price:$199
Manufacturer:Amazon
Retailer:Amazon
Requirements:
  • iOS, Android, and Fire tablets and phones
  • - iOS7 and above
  • - Android 4.0 and above
  • - Fire tablets and phones (Fire OS 2.0 and above)
Pros:
  • No battery (plug-in only)
  • Shopping and to-do lists
  • Many ways to get music
Cons:
  • Not very smart (but getting there)
  • Only two lists (to-do and shopping)
  • Purchase by invitation only
Posted in: Home and Kitchen, Reviews
{ 12 comments… add one }
  • James May 31, 2015, 1:06 pm

    I have had the echo since January of this year. I can say that this review is spot on. Id like to add a couple of things though. The echo app has a request new abilities section so you can submit ideas to amazon and there is alot of demand for alexa to be more office friendly. in the 5 months i’ve had it alexa has grown a lot. At the time i got it she could pretty much just give you news updates and play music. The sound is good. and she works very well. There is a good deal of potential for this device and i highly recommend it. Also you can use alexa as a bluetooth speaker.

  • Rob Tillotson May 31, 2015, 4:00 pm

    I finally got an Echo a couple of weeks ago too. I’m not sure it’s worth $199, but at $99 it’s pretty nice even just as a tabletop Bluetooth speaker. I’m rather impressed with how well the voice recognition works even when the TV is on in the background, too. (This is probably due to the directional microphones, since it can filter out sound coming from the wrong part of the room.)

    The Android app crashes probably half the times I open it on my Note 4, not sure what that’s about but since it’s still in an “unreleased” state I suppose that kind of thing is to be expected. And you really only need that for setup anyway.

    Now what I really want is the same device, but powered by Google, with automatic use of Chromecast for output, etc. 🙂

    • Margaret Dornbusch May 31, 2015, 4:11 pm

      I suspect the next home assistant will be Siri on a new Apple TV, if recent rumors are correct. We’ll know next week, after the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

  • tivoboy May 31, 2015, 4:15 pm

    At this point, I don’t think it’s worth 199$ either, but for the 99$ it’s a fun toy. I’ve had it since the beginning of the year, and it really doesn’t DO MUCH.. yes, I can ask it questions, but my phone does that and is nearly always nearby..I was surprised it couldn’t give me status updates on my amazon orders. It can’t do price lookups, and only just recently started being able to do Shopping lists, but who actually shops that way? We’re price shoppers people, can’t do any comparisons on this thing. Playing pandora and our Prime library is neat but I have three different better devices in the room that do just that.

    The voice recognition DOES work very well – most of the time, unless you are trying to ask it to find or do something it simply cannot like “what movies are playing nearby”, or “what time is XYZ movie playing at the ABC theatre”. I’d also like it to be able to just order up movies on my amazon prime and have it immediately start playing on the tivo, or roku or chromecast or FIRE TV for petes sake.

    I’m also a bit more than just a little concerned that it is technically LISTENING and CAPTURING ALL THE TIME, in order to be able to capture everything include the first words of an ask. I don’t think it is simply sitting wait for “hey alexa” and THEN starts to capture, it’s too good to be waiting and then miss the first words..so like many other voice enabled devices be careful what you are saying around it – like reading out credit card numbers or things like that.

  • O-Qua Tangin Wann June 1, 2015, 1:19 am

    I own two of these. I got one via Amazon, and a second one via eBay. A lot of people have been selling these on eBay since the waiting list to get one has been very long. I was one of the first to get the Echo.

    One frustrating thing is you only have two possible Wake Words: “Alexa” and “Amazon.” (I think “Echo” would have been the better second wake word, since “Amazon” is used way more often…such as “go to Amazon and order it”).

    Your review stated Echo is getting smarter…but it has been a long time now and the Echo isn’t even close to being able to answer the quantity of questions Siri can.

    I use the “Hey Siri” feature a lot with my iPhone, where Siri is always listening when charging…so I do not have to touch the phone at all.

    If Echo could equal what Siri can do, it would be worth the $199. But since Echo isn’t even close, I recommend people not buy it at full price.

    At $99, it is an excellent voice-activated music player, alarm, and all the other stuff you mentioned in your review.

    I am surprised Apple did not come out with a table-top Siri device similar to the Echo first, or that Amazon did not find a way to give the Echo the same access to data and functionality that Siri has.

    • natypes June 2, 2015, 11:10 am

      Siri is terrible compared to Google Now and even Cortana. If this device was powered by Google it would be awesome.

  • Matt June 1, 2015, 9:20 am

    I’m suprised since this review is dated May 31st. That nowhere in the review or the comments section that no one mentioned that you can now add stuff to your Google calendar. And also ask the echo what is on your calendar.

  • matt June 1, 2015, 9:30 am

    let me clarify my last comment I know she will tell you whats on your calendar I’m not sure she can add stuff.

  • Mike June 5, 2015, 11:01 pm

    FYI, the $100 price is apparently history. I’m a Prime member, and finally received an invite to purchase Echo, but for $150. Granted, still a discount off the $200 list, but not the bargain I was expecting. I ordered it anyway (supposed to ship in July) because it seems pretty cool. Perhaps I’ll call Customer Service and see if they’ll adjust it.

    • Matt June 8, 2015, 9:54 am

      @Mike

      I ordered mine in January and I had a ship date of May 27th to July 3rd. They moved my date up to May 14th at the end of April then they moved it to May 8th the beginning of May. I received on May 8th and use it all the time. I use mine in the Kitchen I cook two to three times a week since I get home about a hour before my wife gets off work. I listen to I heart radio or tune in while cooking. I used to have get my iPhone out and pair with my under the cabinet bluetooth speaker and open the I heart app pick what station I wanted. Now all I do is say Alexa play what ever station I want. I used to have to say play station on I heart I think she has learned that I want her to use I heart. The point they may move your date up. I’m not sure I would pay $199 for a second one(i want one on the second floor) at the moment. But I would pay $149 If Amazon would let me order a second unit. It doesn’t sound as good as my Bose sound link 2 but it sound good enough to use while you working or cleaning. When I want to really jam I use the Bose.

      • matt June 8, 2015, 9:59 am

        But my Bose doesn’t let me add stuff to shopping list. Or give me news or weather reports or if I misplace my phone I ask Alexa where my phone is and my phone rings a few minutes later (this is done with IFTTT). Or tell me what on my calendar. So I might pay $199 on second thought but would rather pay $99-$149. I hope you enjoy yours when you receive.

  • Gaf June 23, 2015, 4:58 pm

    I haven’t used the device, so I can speak to how well it works. My question is what is its real purpose? The reviews I’ve read on the internet do list the things it does, but none of them, in my view, warrant paying a couple of hundred bucks for this machine to do them when I have a house and a pocket full of items and devices that can already do those things rather conveniently. That miniscule difference in convenience seems like a manufactured purpose for a machine whose uses are already well served by other products that have been in use for quite some time.

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