Thursday, June 25, 2015

Amazon Echo Review - pretty cool

We just received our new Amazon Echo a few days ago. I signed up about 2 months ago for an invitation to Amazon's beta program, and finally received it, about 20 days earlier than Amazon's original estimated ship date. So far it has proven to be quite entertaining.

My 5 year old and 3 year old kids love playing with it, asking things like:
Alexa, tell me a joke!
Alexa, how much does the earth weigh?
Alexa, how old are you?
Alexa, play kids music!

We placed it in the kitchen, since the initial supported feature set seemed well suited for that location.

The music playback sound quality is pretty good. Not good enough for people who are crazy about bass response, but not bad. Certainly good enough for some background music in the kitchen.

It's always interesting to see what children do with technological products - in this case, I wish the Amazon engineers could watch my kids interact with it, especially on their first few days. After Alexa told a joke, they wanted to tell her "Alexa, that was funny!" - but Alexa is very input / output oriented - one input leads to one output, and the next input typically is isolated from the previous output. So most of the follow-on communications trying to continue the conversation results in "I don't understand what I have heard." Or ... in many cases, the word "that" gets interpreted as "add" - and Alexa says "Adding Funny to your shopping list".

My son tried to ask "what is 2 + 10 + 22 -4"  but that stumped Alexa. She can only do math on two numbers, not multiple numbers.

Alexa supports the ability to convert various units .Units conversion seems like it might be handy in the kitchen sometimes. Haven't used it yet other than asking how many teaspoons there are in a gallon. There are a lot of teaspoons in a gallon.

The ring on top that lights up, and controls volume when you turn it, is a pretty nice interface feature.

The voice recognition is far from perfect, and the questions or commands have to be in exact order to be understood. But the utility is undeniable - already my wife has been adding things to shopping list while doing dishes or cooking, it's very easy to play anything from our music collection that is synced to Amazon music.

The potential is incredible - if the newly released API and developers toolkit gets picked up by other establish internet of things products, this could really tie together home automation in a big way.

The companion app on your mobile device or logging into is the only way to view your todo list, or shopping list - there is no screen on the device.

With 7 microphones and a reasonably decent speaker, it could make an awesome speaker phone, especially if Amazon engineers included support for bluetooth HD voice. But for now, you can just play music from your mobile device via bluetooth on it like a bluetooth speaker.

Others have voiced privacy concerns regarding the sensitivity of the mic - but really the convenience outweighs any concerns at this point. You can always unplug it if you are really worried.

I like that it connects to 5GHz networks. But even on our 5GHz network, which gets 800Mbps+ on a Macbook Pro that supports 802.11ac - we still have glitches in the audio play back from time to time.

Our most common use case is starting up our Pandora radio stations, changing the volume, and stopping the music when we need to. As a hands-free music control device, it beats iOS 8's "Hey Siri" hands down. I'm hoping to see progress in iOS 9 - maybe Apple will have a comeback with integration with the Apple TV and a "Hey Siri" old iPhone laying around you can use like an Amazon Echo.

Right now it has no way to export audio that is playing back to an airplay device or other wifi or bluetooth based receiver, but it sure would be great if we could.

Overall, it's a fun toy - not essential, but fun. Great for spontaneously playing music, and it sure makes the kids giggle when it answers funny questions. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Why would it take to earn the coveted five star rating?

  • HD Voice Speaker phone option pairing with multiple mobile devices
  • Integration with Nest for controller thermostats in the house
  • Better voice recognition, and ongoing conversation voice recognition
  • Ability to store and play back notes for family members
  • Ability to playback specific important household information - like "what's our wifi password"
  • Integration with home audio devices - ideally airplay targets as an output selection
  • Ability to read epub books from an Echo app out loud - rather than confining book reading to Audible Amazon books only
  • Fix the glitchy audio playback that happens every once in a while

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