Late at night on Christmas Eve, Amazon Claus dropped off a mysterious gift at our house. It was raining and the box was a mess of wet cardboard. I opened it up and was pleased to find the box was simply black with no markings of any kind. It was perfect to slip under the tree as it was.
The wife didn't know what it was... for that I was thankful. She is not a fan of my electronic gadget purchases (remember “You bought a $60 Ball?!?!”). I could only imagine what she'd say about this.
"This", of course is the new Amazon Echo. This reviewer explains it best as a "Tower of Siri." It's not really Apple's Siri, since it is Amazon, but it is kind of like Siri. You ask it stuff and she answers it or performs the task.
Since this functionality comes for free with any major smartphone, I could only imagine how the conversation would go when I said that I paid $99 for it. I prepared myself with arguments based around how it would help our sons develop speech as he's just starting to really pick up a lot of words at 27 months.
However, a strange thing happened, something that never occurred to me. My wife LIKED the Amazon Echo. I needed no explanations or defenses.
In my opinion it is perhaps the most interesting technology since the tablet. Quite honestly, I find it more interesting than tablets were when they were introduced. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I have degrees in computer science and linguistics. Amazon Echo combines both of those disciplines with its speech recognition and its syntax and semantic parsing of instructions.
Unfortunately, right now the Echo is very limited in what it can do. It answers simple questions like "What's the weather?" You can ask it to define or spell words and get answers. However, the most useful thing thus far for me is the access to the Amazon Prime's Music library. I simply tell her to play Aerosmith and I get Aerosmith. I tell it to play The Doors and I get The Doors.
The downside is that the music is only as good as Prime's library. I tell it to play Weezer and it played one song before quitting. It would be great if I could hook in other music sources such as a library stored on my computer or even Pandora, but neither of them is available yet.
The technology isn't perfect either. I asked it to play Liz Phair and it proceeded to look for a music "list" called "fair." It couldn't find that. I worked around this by asking it to "Play music from the artist Liz Phair." That worked much better. When I don't have the television on, it picks up my voice from 20 feet away. When I have the television on, I can be 5 feet away from it, and it won't hear me. I'm hoping this gets improved over time.
The Echo has been reviewed by a few technology sites and most say that the speaker is nothing special. I don't have top of the line JamBoxes or Sonos systems in my house. I'm not an audiophile by any definition, but it sounds good to me. My wife didn't have any complaints about the sound either.
I'm hopeful that there will be an application that I can run on the computer that controls my television. It would be great to tell Alexa to play certain movies or switch channels. It would also be great if it could control the NEST thermostat in my house. I think this integration will come, but it will take a little time to iron out all the partnerships.
I've read a number of reviews of the Amazon Echo. They are all over the map. Some say that it is a solution looking for a problem. Others say that it is "a perfect 10" such as the ZDNet review I mentioned above. I think both arguments have merit. Currently, Echo is limited, but what it does, it does extraordinarily well.
As much as I hate to admit it, so much technology complicates our lives. The complexity has seemed to give it more points of failure. Every new gadget seems to require a learning curve. Amazon's Echo is fairly unique in that it strips away complications. Except in rare cases (such as the Liz Phair one), I don't have to think about how to get it to do what I want. I simply ask it to pause or resume music. I never looked up whether these commands would work... I just tried them and they worked.
I'm not sure if you should buy it or not. If you are an Amazon Prime member, I say it's certainly worth the $99. I think you'd nearly pay this for the quality of the speaker itself. If you are not, and it is $199, I'd say that it early adopters will probably like. The general public might want to wait until it can do a few more things.
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