I received my Amazon Echo this weekend, I spent some time tonight setting it up. To be honest, I had mediocre hopes for it, but I have been blown away. I don’t start up music or podcasts as often as I like because I can’t be bothered to pull my phone out of my pocket and take the 30 seconds to find the right app and start up whatever audio I’m looking for, then wait for my Pioneer AirPlay speaker to connect. Echo is perfect for me, my hands are usually full of a squirmy baby or his food or some sort of mess, and always listening voice commands are actually awesome!

Setup

Echo

Amazon sent it in a plain black box with a lightly embossed Amazon logo. It was surprisingly nice. The packaging is a classy touch from a company that seems to be growing into it’s role as a respectable consumer product company. When I first saw the announcement page and video for Amazon Echo, it seemed kinda dorky. Their marketing videos are not good. Amazon’s product videos for the Kindle and the Echo are examples of boring exposition of a features list. That’s sad for this product, but I think Echo has a chance. Buried in this product was the nugget of an idea that is really exciting.

Echo

I had the Echo out and plugged in quickly. I then had to wait for the app to download onto my iPhone (available for Android too, of course). The app instructed me to go to my settings and connect to a private WiFi network that Echo had created for me just for the setup process. After finding this network and connecting Alexa gave me some nice prompts to let me know it was connected, and to go back into the app. That was pretty slick. The app prompted me for my wifi network and password. Echo connected to the 5Ghz network, in case you were afraid this was one of those weird devices (like Nest) that still relied on a 2.4Ghz network.

The setup process was smooth and finished without a hitch. Alexa provided smart voice prompts along the way. I really don’t like Amazon’s intro video’s any more than their product marketing videos. Because honestly they are interchangable and boring. At least with Echo I could skip ahead through it’s tutorial. The screens then suggest I try out a few things, at that point my wife took over the interrogation. Alexa has a high Wife Acceptance Factor so far. She could get the time and weather quickly and easily, she figured out many of the features just by guessing, and Alexa understands us both equally well, unless the command is confusing or imprecise. But, that’s the thing with voice interfaces, the training goes both ways. We have to train it to understand us and it trains us how to feed it commands clearly.

The build quality seems really nice. It’s a pretty and understated black matte aluminum cylinder that glows in a ring around the top when it’s interacting with you or listening to a command. The visual feedback from that ring is a nice touch. Alexa might be surprisingly small depending on what your expectations are from bluetooth speakers. It’s not a big room-filling stereo, it’s a bookend or end-table sized gadget.

Iterating on a Good Idea

The idea that captured my imagination is this: an intelligent household computer that can do a few things really well whenever you just talk to it. The computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation (one of the most relevant cultural comparisons), is never the central point of a plot, but it’s there in the background providing useful information when needed and connecting people in practical ways.

I know, I know, we’ve had voice activated assistants for years now. Siri and Google Now (Cortana too?) are great examples of fun and intelligent user interfaces. But, here’s my problem, Siri is not that good at what it’s supposed to be good at. It doesn’t usually find the restaurant I’m looking for. For a long time it was a gamble if she could connect to her servers at all. And, when I want to do somethings specific in an app all bets are off. What I usually want it to do is send a text message, and Siri does that, it is capable of dictating ~80% of my words and sending them to people. But it’s not “fast” by any stretch of the imagination.

Alexa is fast. She is always listening (don’t be creepy) and she’s really fast to respond to her (still limited) repetoir of commands. Really fast. Speed and accuracy makes a big difference. I think Amazon executed on this idea really well. This is an idea whose time has come. All of a sudden I wanted to try a XBox One with Kinect, because Microsoft gives you control of your TV using the Kinect voice commands, but I haven’t actually tested those to see if they are as good. After using the Echo for a short period of time, I wanted everything in my house to respond to voice commands, just like this. Sadly there are no integrations for sending commands and data out of Echo, yet.

Around the house I commonly use Siri to start timers and set reminders. She’s quite good at that, and so is Alexa. But with Alexa, my hands are free and it all just feels so much more effortless.

Speaker and Music

I figured even if the voice command functionality was not very good I would still have an attractive bluetooth speaker for one room in our house. One nice touch is the bluetooth functionality is even enabled through voice commands. You tell Alexa to connect to your phone and then if you hit play on your phone (or tell Siri to play) an album you have in iTunes, it will go right to the speaker.

I like Amazon Prime Music, but that’s not much of an endorsement because I’m not a big music fan. I like to have background music when I’m doing other things, I like music to fill a room for a certain mood, and I like listening to a few podcasts. All these things work really well with Alexa, because I don’t care about having a lot of control of what’s playing. The podcast feature is a nice surprise! Now, I just told Alexa to start playing the latest episode of a podcast, she understood exactly what I wanted and found it in the TuneIn library.

I have a bunch of Amazon Music that I have purchased or uploaded into my library, and I have sorted through the Free Prime Music to find songs and albums I like. So, when I tell Alexa to shuffle my music I usually end up with something I like… or some Veggie Tales songs that my 1 year old loves.

The App

The iOS app (I don’t have an Android device at home) is functional, but not beautiful. What it does is kinda neat. The app does more than just configure the Echo for the first time. It displays a running stream of the data that Alexa is giving you. You ask for the weather and she tells you, but also throws a card in the app’s stream. You ask a question that requires more complicated info like a web search and she puts a bing link in a new card in your stream. These cards also contain the feedback mechanism if Alexa ever mis-hears your words. Echo app

The App is where you configure the other integrations like TuneIn or iHeartRadio. Also, unfortunately the App is the only place you can access the Shopping List and To-Do list. I guess Alexa is supposed to be able to access and add to your calendar, but that might be an Android only feature right now. Siri still does a pretty good job of that, but she usually just adds events to my default calendar. If I had Alexa configured to add events to our shared family calendar, that would be really handy.

I should get a Fire Tablet and try that out… right?

The app also acts as another remote for Echo. Basic Music control and all that jazz.

Small Things

The Included Hardware Remote

Echo The little remote they include is really nice, it has a mic-button and you can communicate with Alexa in othter parts of the house where she normally couldn’t hear you. Our kitchen is on the other side of a wall from Alexa, so I put the remote on the fridge with the included handy magnetic remote holder. This is a very thoughtful feature, the remote snaps into the holder, and the holder grabs onto a metal surface with even stronger magnets. This remote is surprisingly good. I’m guessing this is the same remote that comes with the full Fire TV, since it’s quite a bit better than the one that came with the Fire TV Stick.

I have a few complaints about Echo:

  • No crossfade between tracks.
  • No developer API or connection to IFTTT (yet).
  • No Shopping List or ToDo list integrations.
  • No calendar Access on iOS devices.
  • It doesn’t integrate with the Fire TV in either direction. I really want to control my Fire TV Stick the same way I control Echo, and I know about Voice Search, but I want full control of playback and app switching. Or the option to pause echo when FireTV starts playing, an Echo app for the FireTV that supports this “Automatic Voicecast“ thing.
  • Sound Quality is about what you should expect from something of this size. I has very little bass and you probably won’t enjoy turning the volume up all the way. That said, it work fine but if you want room filling sound, this will not get it for you,
  • Related: No audio out, so you can’t output the music to better speakers.
  • Only one alarm can be set, and it doesn’t have a setting for days of the week.

I have to hope that greater ecosystem integration is coming soon. Amazon does have a page where interested developers can get in touch with them.

Conclusion

Amazon reached for solving a relatively small problem with this product and they did it well. It gives us all an example of a really good voice interface with well thought-out user interactions. It doesn’t solve all problems for all people. If you want access to a fair amount of audio content and some basic productivity using the best voice interface I’ve found, then this is the device for you.

The topic of streaming video devices seems to keep coming up. My ability to review all the options is very limited. TomsGuide has a good overview of streaming devices they really like the Roku 3. Plex is highly recommended to maintain your home’s video library. You can use several devices (including the Roku) for accessing that library.

I like the idea of the Apple TV. But, you can’t use an (un-hacked) Apple TV to access Plex directly. Yet, I would be tempted to get an Apple TV stilll, because of the incredible usefulness of AirPlay mirroring. This allows you to work around any limitations that the AppleTV has itself, because every decent video option has an iOS app which can play content through an Apple TV. AirPlay is one of those things that Apple really got right… as long as you only use their ecosystem of devices.