Communicating vocally with an electronic device has become rather commonplace. It shouldn’t be long before relationships as in the movie “Her” will regretfully become common as well. That alone should cast concerns over the development of a new personalized device – Amazon’s Echo, whose feminine personality is called Alexa.
Echo is about the size of two stacked soup cans. The bottom half serves for speaker output, while the circumference along the top edge is a light bar that reacts to commands. The very top hosts seven(!) hidden microphones and two buttons – one to mute the microphones, the other an action button, whose function seems superfluous since it performs the same functionality as the wake-up word. The top also works as a dial, which can be used to adjust the volume. But you can just as easily command Alexa to change the volume. Echo must be plugged in, which is disappointing as it would be useful as a bluetooth speaker at a picnic or other outdoor activity.
Setting up and configuring the Echo requires the Amazon Echo app, which is an app that is only to be used in conjunction with an Echo device. You can also access your Echo’s settings by also going to http://echo.amazon.com from any computer on the same network. You can also get a remote control for Echo, which can permit you to communicate with Echo from other rooms.
Echo is always listening for the wake word, “Alexa,….” and a subsequent command. (Note: Although this can be changed to “Amazon,” the propensity of the very word Amazon in one’s daily lexicon might cause Echo to inadvertently awaken.) Security conscious individuals might be worried conversations are being transmitted to Amazon and voyeuristically listened to. According to available materials, however, Echo awaits it’s wake-up word and following command and then a snippet of what was said just prior to the wake-up word along with the following command are sent to Bing (and assumably Amazon) for comprehension and execution.
I have never used Siri and have somewhat limitedly used Google’s “Ok, Google” function, as I find it odd to talk to an inanimate object. Also I find it maddening when my request is misunderstood and then I have to manually go about correcting the error(s). Overall I have found Echo to be rather good at understanding my requests and fulfilling them. My primary use for Echo is for music. A simple request for Echo to play some Pearl Jam, Sonny Criss, The White Album, or KEXP are pretty much always reciprocated. At present Echo will play music from your Amazon music library, TuneIn, IHeartRadio, or Pandora. Hopefully, Google Music will eventually be added to the line-up, but I know there are many Spotify users out there who will want that service.
Echo can also respond to queries, which I find quite useful in the kitchen. Occasionally I need to convert metric units or cut a recipe down. Previously I would unlock my phone, go to Google, and type in my query (as I didn’t like talking to a device). Now I merely query Alexa and get an immediate response. More often I have asked, “Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes.”
One concern of mine was whether Echo would perform two tasks simultaneously, as I am usually listening to music on Echo. True to expectations, Echo continued with my musical selection and the timer went off on schedule.
Another feature I have found useful is to request that Echo add items to a shopping list. The shopping list is a part of the Echo app. It would be nice if I could set it up to add items to Google Note. You can also order items on Amazon through Echo. I have not tried this, but it is my understanding that Echo will make sure you are ordering exactly what you want and give you the pricing prior to making your purchase. This function can also be disabled.
Also advantageous is using Echo to set alarms, and to add things to a ToDo list. The ToDo list can be part of the Echo app or you can set the Echo app up to use your Google Calendar. As of writing this review I noticed that a new category appeared in the Echo app called Skills. Assumably this will be a category for various services, but at present it offers three, only one of which is a true service. Two of the Skills are more recreational, while the third is apparently a service by StubHub to provide information about upcoming events in your area.
Echo has a number of Easter eggs, which my daughter has enjoyed immensely. Without going into them I will provide a link to them. Perhaps our favorite is to ask Echo almost daily for a joke. They are extremely corny puns for the most part, which makes them quite hilarious and I have yet to hear the same one twice.
(Echo Easter Eggs: https://goo.gl/EJ7vBU)
As I noted earlier you can access your Echo’s settings by going to http://echo.amazon.com. Those concerned about security and privacy should be feeling quite trepidatious as there is no login for your Echo, so ANYONE on your network can access the device. Settings aside, the home screen on the Echo’s webpage shows a history of all your commands. Arguably anyone really concerned about security and privacy should never allow anyone on their network and they should ensure that guests are kept on a separate guest network. The average household, however, never goes through the proper steps of even setting up a secure WiFi network, let alone true guest networks.
Amazon’s Echo is now a required device in my household. The convenience it provides for hands-free music requests, as well as various informational services is invaluable. Being able to lock Alexa down to just my own voice would make her perfect so then no one else in the family can change my musical selections, but then I guess I should have expected a jealous reaction to the addition of a third female member to the family. It is what it is…