Up Close With Amazon Echo: It’s Early, But This Personal Assistant Shows Promise
Comparisons to Siri, Cortana and Google Now don't fit. Echo isn't as developed as those and serves an entirely different use case.
It’s impossible to use Amazon’s personal assistant-in-beta, Echo, and not want to compare it to the similar tools already on the market from competitors like Apple, Google and Microsoft. All aim to make life easier by providing answers and information via voice search or before you even have to search. But there are some obvious reasons why, in Echo’s case, the comparisons to Siri, Cortana and Google Now aren’t fair.
The biggest reason is the most obvious: Echo isn’t mobile. It’s a home-based device that has to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. You’re not going to ask Echo for directions to the new Italian restaurant in town, like you’d ask Siri or Cortana. Comparisons are also difficult because you don’t have an Amazon e-mail account, so Echo doesn’t know about your personal plans the way Google Now does, for example. It’s not going to activate itself to warn you that traffic is bad and you should leave now for that flight to New York City.
Echo is still in beta and Amazon is regularly adding new features and capabilities. It connects to your home’s WiFi network and your Amazon account, and there’s an app (iOS, Android and Fire) that helps you setup and manage the device.
So what does Echo do, and what is it good for? I’ve been using it for a couple weeks now, the device sitting on a shelf in my home office. One sentence review? I like it, but it has a lot of room to get better. Here’s a look at what Echo does and how we’ve been using it at Casa McGee.
Searching With Amazon Echo
Probably the most common use in our house so far is weather search. Early in the morning when the kids are getting ready for school, they’ll often walk in to my office and ask Echo (via the “Alexa” wake word) what it’s going to be like.
You can ask Echo for the weather in other cities, and for dates in the near future. It’s not as sophisticated, though, as the conversational voice search for weather that you can do with Google. But still, plenty helpful before we head to school or shopping or whatever.
Facts & Information
This is where Echo is the most similar to its competitors. Echo can respond to many fact-based type questions, like “How tall is the Space Needle?” You can also start a request with the word “Wikipedia,” and Alexa will read the beginning of the page you’ve asked about. It can also answer basic math questions and tell you who’s winning your favorite sports teams’ games. All of those examples are below:
I mentioned above that you can’t ask Echo for directions to the new Italian restaurant, and that’s true. But you can setup Echo to give you traffic conditions between two addresses. This has to be done by typing the addresses in the Echo app, so it’s best to provide two commonly used locations, like home and work. Once that’s done, asking Echo for traffic conditions works like this:
Another app-based feature is the ability to have Echo read or play news reports that are customized to your interests. In the app, I’ve indicated that I’m interested in hearing BBC radio news, as well as U.S. “top news,” “sports headlines” and more. The BBC World Service hourly briefing comes from TuneIn radio and sounds like this:
Music & Radio
Echo works better if you use other Amazon services (much like Google Now works best if you use a lot of Google products). As an Amazon Prime member, I have access to a big collection of songs in Amazon Prime Music. You can tell Echo to start playing an entire playlist or station, or just ask for a specific song:
(Warning: I show how to control the audio by talking to Echo, so this clip gets really loud in the middle for a couple seconds.)
In addition to the TuneIn integration I mentioned above, Echo is also connected to iHeartRadio so, between the two of them, you can listen to hundreds of radio stations live with commands such as “Alexa, play KROQ-FM radio.” Echo also connects to Pandora, so its users can play their music and playlists from that service.
You can also use Echo to buy music via Amazon. A command like “Shop for new music by Echosmith” compels the device to start playing samples of the most recently added songs. The song “Cool Kids” starts, and you can say “Alexa, buy this song” to start the purchase. At that point, Echo asks for the four-digit purchase confirmation code that you set in the Echo app. Say the code, and Echo completes the purchase.
Echo offers a number of other services, most of which I haven’t had reason to use. You can have the device create a To-Do list, or a shopping list, that’ll be saved in the Echo app for future reference. It also has basic timer and alarm functionality, and you can send some of your Echo “search results” — i.e., weather, Wikipedia — to an Amazon Fire tablet if you own one.
It’s a bit odd, at least in the beginning, to have a device in the house that’s ready to respond if you say the magic word (“Alexa”). Is Echo always listening? Is it saving your day-to-day conversations? Well, yes and no.
Echo is always listening; it has to, in order to recognize the wake word and start communicating with you. Once you say the wake word, Echo streams the conversation to the Amazon Web Services cloud and saves it in your Echo history. If that makes you uncomfortable, there’s a microphone on/off button on the device. Of course, turning that off means you can’t talk to Echo.
In a helpful FAQ page, Amazon says it doesn’t stream and save everything Echo hears to the cloud, only what it hears after you say the wake word (“Alexa”). You can tell when Echo is doing this because the blue lights around the rim are illuminated (as you saw in the videos above). When those lights are off, Echo isn’t streaming/saving conversations.
That FAQ also explains that Echo owners can review and delete voice interactions, and Amazon has confirmed that doing so will also remove the recordings from Amazon’s servers.
Overall, I’m happy with Echo. I’ve enjoyed the ease of getting current weather and sports scores, and being able to listen to faraway radio stations is fun, too. Amazon is regularly adding new features and connected services; the ability to ask for sports scores, for example, is a recent addition.
Still, it’s clear that Echo is a device-in-progress and isn’t as far along as its older competitors. I’d like to see Echo get smarter with the ability to recognize more questions — for example, when I asked recently, “When does the Avengers movie come out?,” Echo couldn’t come up with an answer. I’d also like to see more conversational search, the kind I linked to above in the Google weather voice search article.
Amazon is still requiring an invite to buy Echo, which costs $199 or $99 for Amazon Prime members. It takes a while to get the device after you request an invite. I made my request in late January and Echo arrived in early April.