A few weeks back I heard about a new product that Amazon.com was going to be releasing, the Amazon Echo.
The Amazon Echo is a Bluetooth speaker that can be controlled by voice prompts, and is a virtual assistant along the lines of Siri, or Google Now.
While I probably wouldn't have purchased the product at it's then retail price of $199, as an Amazon Prime member I had heard that Prime members were getting a $100 discount on the speaker. I decided to get on the wait list to purchase the device.
Finally in December I was sent an invite to purchase the Echo, and I jumped on it. Here's my quick review of the Amazon Echo, how it sounds, and how well the virtual assistant works.
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Amazon Echo Introduced
The Amazon Echo was announced on November 6th, 2014, and quickly became a bit of an internet phenomenon, not only because people were excited about the product, but also because of it's quirky and slightly over the top commercial.
The commercial quickly spawned a variety of spoofs where the speaker talks back to the owners, gives non-sensical answers or plots taking over the world – a la Skynet. A quick search on YouTube will find you plenty of examples.
Alexa.. What Do You Do?
The speaker is noted first and foremost for it's ability to be controlled by voice. If you ask the Echo what it does, it will reply, “I can play music, answer questions, get the news and weather, create to do lists and much more”.
So if you want to ask a question of the Echo, just say the wake word, “Alexa“, and then query the device.
- Alexa, what's it like outside?
- Alexa, give me a flash news briefing.
- Alexa, Wikipedia Martin Luther King
- Alexa, play Foo Fighters. Alexa, pause. Alexa, skip.
- Alexa, turn down volume.
- Alexa, read Game of Thrones.
When the speaker hears the name Alexa (you can change the wake word to “Amazon” if you have an Alexa in your house already), the light ring on top will light up in bright blue, and then it will spin while it thinks about your question. When it finds an answer it will speak the answer, or if it can't find an answer it will tell you that as well (and give you a Bing search link in your connected Echo app).
I've had a lot of fun playing with the speaker, and my family has as well. For the most part it's extremely easy and intuitive to use. Even my 4 year old son has now discovered that he can talk to “Alexa” and that she'll play some of his favorite songs for him. That's fun, right up until he starts blasting some children's song at volume 10.
Amazon Echo Specs
- Texas Instruments DM3725 ARM Cortex-A8 processor
- 256MB of LPDDR1 RAM
- 4GB of storage space
- Dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n
- Bluetooth 4
The device doesn't have to have an overabundance of on-board processing or storage because most of it's work is done in the Amazon Web Services cloud. The device only works when it's connected to the internet, so having WiFi is a must.
WiFi connected with no problem for me when I setup the device, and Bluetooth has worked flawlessly pairing with both my Moto X smartphone, and Nexus 7 tablet. Just say “Alexa, pair” and you can then find and connect to the Echo via your device's Bluetooth settings. When you're done playing audio to the Echo you can just say “Alexa, disconnect”.
Having Bluetooth means you can connect your Echo to essentially any audio source from your connected devices. That means you can play Spotify, your favorite podcasts, or any other app that may not be built directly into Echo, like Pandora, iHeartRadio or Tunein.
How Well Does The Echo Work?
So how well does the Echo perform?
Voice Recognition & Natural Speech
Voice recognition on the Amazon Echo works very well. It understood pretty much everything I said. The only times that my Echo had problems was when my son was speaking – and not speaking very clearly.
The speech coming out of the device sounds very natural, among the most natural sounding computer speech I think I've ever heard.
So far in my limited tests the Amazon Echo has performed well on things it's advertised to do. For the most part if you keep your questions to fact based questions – that don't get too overly specific, it tends to do pretty well.
For example, if I asked it what the height of Mount Everest was, or what the weather in my area was, it gave me good answers.
On the other hand when I asked for the score in the previous night's Minnesota Wild hockey game, it couldn't give me an answer (UPDATE: As of March 2015, sports scores have now been added to the Echo!). It's a bit of hit and miss at times, but I'm sure it will get better over time.
Amazon's Echo FAQ explains that some local information like traffic, sports scores and local business listings are not currently available in their search.
Echo can't yet provide services like traffic information, sports scores, or answers to current affairs questions. Stay tuned-we're working on these and many more, and will let you know as we add more capabilities.
Hopefully they'll add those items in a future update. (UPDATE: Traffic and sports scores are added as of March 2015!)
Other assistant related tasks like adding things to a shopping list, adding items to a do list, playing Amazon music or opening an iHeartRadio station – all worked as advertised. Integration with more apps should be coming in the future.
The app will allow you to do all sorts of things including change the settings for your device, listen to music from the connected apps, manage your to-do and shopping lists, do voice training for the device and more. The app synced with my Echo just fine, and all my queries appeared on the homepage of the app. It works as expected, but I'd like to see more available functionality in the app in the future.
The audio quality of the device is pretty good, but not great. It does get loud at it's highest volume, and has little or no distortion.
On the other hand the speaker does have a tiny bit of a “tin can” sound to it. Even with that, however, most non-audiophiles will find that the Echo sounds good enough to be enjoyable when listening.
Questions You Can Ask The Echo
You can ask Alexa any number of questions. According to the Echo help site you'll probably do best if you ask questions in the following categories:
- Triva: Asking questions about people, dates, movies, music and other triva will tend to give you a good answer.
- Education related queries: Spelling, definitions, calculations, geography and other education related questions should yield an answer.
- General information: Things like local time, nutrition information for certain foods and asking Alexa to tell a joke all yield an answer. You can also now ask for local sports scores and schedules.
Among my favorite queries for the Echo is “Alexa, tell me a joke“. With this query Alexa will return with any number of jokes that typically will make you groan before you smile. One site I read called it the “dad joke generator”.
For example, when I was making the video above I asked Alexa to tell me a joke. Alexa responded with this joke: “Why don't people eat clocks? Because it's too time consuming“.
Here's another example of an Amazon Echo joke from my Instagram account where I started tweeting out #amazonechojokes.
So what are some other interesting questions that I asked and was able to get answers to?
- Alexa, how are you? (I'm good, thank you)
- Alexa, when were you born? (I was released November 16th, 2014)
- Alexa, what is the meaning of life? (42 is a good approximation)
- Alexa, tell me a joke (see above for examples)
- Alexa, open the pod bay doors (I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. I'm not HAL, and we're not in space.)
- Alexa, what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? (That depends on if it's an African or European swallow.)
- Alexa, how any inches it is to the moon? (15,134,000,000 inches away.)
- Alexa, where are my keys? (I recommend retracing your steps)
- Alexa, count to ten. (Counts to ten..)
- Alexa, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck? (A Woodchuck could chuck about 700 lbs of wood on a good day with the wind at his back)
- Alexa, Simon says _____________ (Alexa will repeat whatever you say)
- Alexa, what events are on my calendar this month?
- Alexa, what's the score in the Minnesota Twins game?
- Alexa, re-order laundry detergent.
- Alexa, read War & Peace. (Begins playback of War & Peace Audible audiobook)
Amazon Echo Constantly Being Updated
One thing I've found about the Amazon Echo is that it is constantly improving, and the Echo team is constantly releasing updates making new services and products compatible with the Echo. Here is an ongoing list of updates and improvements.
UPDATE 1/30/15: Amazon just updated the Amazon Echo, and now in addition to controlling Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, you can also control playback for Pandora, Itunes and Spotify apps via Bluetooth. That means you can play, pause, skip or stop playback in those apps by voice control. In addition I've found I can control other apps by voice that allow control via Bluetooth. I was able to control my podcast app, Google Play music app and a couple of others.
In addition, you can now also have the Echo repeat whatever you say. Just say “Alexa, Simon says..” and then a phrase, and Alexa will repeat whatever you say. Should lead to lots of creepy fun – I can see myself sneaking into another room with the Echo remote, and creeping out my wife by talking to her in Alexa's voice.
UPDATE 2/27/15: Amazon just released another update and this time the updates have to do with game night. You can now ask Echo the following queries:
- Alexa, flip a coin. (Echo will tell you a randomized heads or tails)
- Alexa, rock, paper, scissors.(Echo will say either rock, paper or scissors. Randomized.)
- Alexa, roll the dice.( If your dice is missing, you can ask Echo to roll a dice, and it will give a random number 1-6.
For Dr. Seuss's Birthday, they also introduced these queries:
- Alexa, do you like green eggs and ham?
- Alexa, one fish, two fish.
- Alexa, why do you sit there like that?
- Alexa, what was the Lorax?
UPDATE 3/6/15: Echo will now give you scores and schedules for some of your local sports teams. Currently the scores will work for NBA and NHL scores, and they plan to have NFL, MLB, MLS, NCAA basketball scores soon. Ask questions like:
- Alexa, who won the Minnesota Wild game?
- Alexa, when do the Minnesota Timberwolves play next?
In honor of the passing of Leonard Nimoy, they have also added some Star Trek queries. For example, you can try:
- Alexa, live long and prosper
UPDATE 3/13/15: Amazon Echo has been updated to give you a traffic report, and to be able to tell you the best route to your destination.
All you have to do enable this function is go into your Amazon Echo app and enter your starting and ending addresses under “Settings/Traffic“. Then, ask Alexa “How is traffic?” to hear the report. Echo will then give you a report on current traffic conditions and what it considers to be the best route to get to your destination.
The only proviso is you can't ask for directions or traffic for just any destination, you have to manually set up the 1 starting and ending address in the Echo app. Definitely helpful for the commute in the morning!
UPDATE 4/2/15: Echo has been updated so that it now natively supports the music service Pandora. So you can now ask questions like:
- Alexa, play a Pop station on Pandora
- Alexa, create a Pandora station for [band name]
- “Alexa, pause” or “Alexa, skip/next”
- Alexa, thumbs up/down
Alexa now supports sports scores and schedules for Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer (In addition to scores and schedules for the NHL, NCAA and NBA). You can ask things like:
- Alexa, what was the score of the Seattle Sounders game?
- Alexa, when do the Minnesota Twins play next?
UPDATE 4/8/15: Amazon just released an update that enables you to use the Echo to control home automation devices, specifically WeMo and Hue products. After connecting your device you'll be able to ask Alexa to do things like:
- “Alexa, turn on the hallway light”
- “Alexa, turn on the coffee maker”
- “Alexa, dim the living room lights to 20%”
- “Alexa, turn on the electric blanket”
- “Alexa, turn on the outdoor decorations”
Of course the things you can ask it to do will vary by which devices you have. Devices that are currently supported include:
UPDATE 5/14/15: Amazon just released an update that allows you to order your favorite Prime products by voice:
Just say “Alexa, re-order laundry detergent” — Echo will search your order history and can order the item for you using your default payment and shipping settings. If Echo can't find the requested item in your order history, it may suggest an item for your approval using Amazon‘s Choice, which picks highly-rated, well-priced, Prime products.
I'm not sure how much I will use this feature, but it's one more feature added to the list!
UPDATE 5/29/15: We finally have support for a feature that I've wanted since the beginning – support for Google Calendar via Echo! So what are some things you can do with the new functionality? You can ask questions like:
- “Alexa, what's on my calendar today?”
- “Alexa, what's on my calendar tomorrow at 9PM?”
- “Alexa, what's on my calendar Saturday?”
- “Alexa, when's my next event?”
To get started you just have to add your Google account via the Echo app's settings tab, and go from there. I added my account and then asked Alexa what events I had on the calendar this month. She responded accurately and reminded me about a Chiropractor appointment this week and my anniversary and son's birthday later this month.
Adding your own events via voice, and other functionality, will hopefully be added over the coming weeks according to Amazon.
UPDATE 6/5/2015: A lot of people who listen to Audible audio books (also an Amazon product) were sad that Audible wasn't supported on the Echo, it seemed like a perfect marriage. Now, it is! From Amazon:
Listening to audiobooks from your Audible library is easy. Here's how:
- Start any book you own with “Alexa, read [Audible book title]”
- Resume the current book you're reading by saying “Alexa, read my book.”
- Control playback with “Alexa, go back/forward.”
Echo also supports Whispersync for Voice, which allows you to seamlessly switch between reading and listening with your eligible Kindle books. You can read on your Kindle, tablet, or smartphone and then continue listening on your Echo, right where you left off.
Echo Will Lead To Family Fun
We've been having a lot of fun with the Amazon Echo at our house.
When the Echo first arrived, my wife said she couldn't imagine that she'd ever use it. Later that night I was putting my son to bed upstairs and I could hear her asking the Echo to play music from one of her favorite artists downstairs. She's been converted by how fun the Echo is to use. You say it, Echo plays it!
My son is no different. He's been having a blast playing his favorite songs. The only problem? I'm not sure yet of a way to lock him out – he tends to turn the volume up as high as he can by saying “Alexa, louder!”, and the Echo is plenty loud when it's turned up.
I've been using the Echo every morning as I eat my breakfast, I ask it for a flash news briefing and it gives me the news of the day from NPR, ESPN and other sources. Handy.
I've been impressed with the Echo and how well the voice recognition works. While it still needs a bit of work in the number of questions it can answer, that is steadily getting better over time. The Echo's speech sounds very natural, and it's easy to start thinking that you have adopted a new member of the family when Alexa starts talking.
If you're able to get Alexa at a reduced price price of $129 like it was for Black Friday, I'd highly recommend buying the Echo, and maybe even still at $179. It's well designed, sounds good and will lead to a lot of family fun.