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Amazon Echo, Revisited

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Last year (by a few hours), I reviewed Amazon Echo (read the review).

The Echo is an odd device that doesn't seem to sit any existing category of consumer electronics. It is a digital information assistant like Apple's Siri, Google's "Okay Google", or Microsoft's Cortana. However, it isn't designed to be portable. It also wasn't released with a large base of knowledge. It is still far, far behind of the those Big Three phone platforms.

Instead of being portable it has very good speakers and microphones. It's always listening for the key word, "Alexa" that tells it to pay attention to the next command. I've had it work from over 30 feet away when there are no other distracting sounds.

When I last reviewed the Echo, I was one of the first people to receive it. It couldn't do too much more than play music. And the music was mostly limited to Amazon's Prime library. It has Bluetooth, so I could pair it with my phone and run music through that. It works fine, except when you do that Alexa (the Echo) becomes kind of dumb. I can't tell it to find the Aerosmith MP3s on my phone and play them.

You could do a few other things such as tell Alexa to set a timer or add an item to a shopping list. (Unfortunately, the shopping list wouldn't work with Wunderlist, where I keep my lists).

In short, the Echo could do quite a few different things, but nothing particularly great. I bought in because I liked the concept and put some faith behind Amazon's engineers being able to expand what it can do.

Since that review, Amazon has sent me regular updates of what they've added. Here's a few of them:

  • Sports scores - This was kind of a no-brainer. I'm almost surprised it didn't launch with them.
  • Traffic information - You have to set up your standard commute online first, but then you can simply ask, "Alexa, what is the traffic like?" Since I work from home, this isn't particularly useful to me, but it could be handy for a few people.
  • Link Your Pandora account - This was a big one for me because I listen to Pandora more than my own music collection of MP3s.

I want to expand on that last one a bit. It is so much easier to ask Alexa to "play my Pandora" station than in it is to use any app. When I use the Amazon Fire TV Stick in my bedroom, I have to turn on the television, switch the source to the TV stick, and then navigate to the Pandora application. While the Fire TV stick has other advantages, score a win for the Echo for playing my music as soon as I can think about it.

These are all small changes to things that the Echo could do out of the box.

There's one more big addition that has come about since my original review. The Echo can actually controlling items in your home.

For example Echo now works with Belkin's WeMo Switch to allow you to turn on and off appliances. That might not be the most exciting thing in the world, but has been the basic building block of home automation for years.

The other thing that Echo can do is work with Philips Hue Lightbulbs. These bulbs are clearly for the "early adopter" audience. The bulbs change colors and can even sync with shows like 12 Monkeys on the Syfy network (which you should definitely catch). It's out of my budget for the novelty, but it would be interesting to see my room's change lighting with the action of my television. The Red Forest on the show was freaky enough without my whole room turning red.

The Echo can't change the colors of the light bulbs right now. It is limited to turning them on and off and dimming them.

Again, this isn't super-exciting, but it is baby steps. I don't think locking and unlocking doors is too far away. If you have a lock that is wifi enabled, I would expect it to be coming down the pick any day now.

What I'm really hoping for though is for Alexa to read my email to me as I make breakfast. (If you are concerned about the privacy risk here, there are ways that it can be implemented without that issue.) I'd like it to work with my calendar. Tell me what appointments I have when I ask and add appointments when I tell it what to add.

If the Echo can work with my Pandora station there should be no limitation to working with my other accounts. Maybe in 6 months, I'll be writing another review to tell you about it.

Last updated on June 2, 2015.

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