What Is the Amazon Echo?

amazon echo
image: Amazon

I’ll admit it: even as I was asking my Amazon rep if there was review product available for their new Echo, I didn’t really understand what the device was. A voice-activated, omnidirectional… speaker… thing?

When the Amazon-emblazoned box arrived on my front porch and I tentatively began removing my Echo from its packaging, things were still a little fuzzy. There was a tiny, bookmark-sized foldout with the setup instructions, an AC cord, and the Amazon Echo itself, a nondescript black cylinder that rather reminded me of the monolith from 2001.

I plugged it in on my kitchen counter, downloaded the companion app, added it to my wireless network, and linked it to my Prime account. There was a number of suggested “things to try” included in the Echo’s scant paperwork, but I was skeptical. “Alexa,” I began, using the Echo’s activation word, “play Geto Boys.” Its light ring spun to life in response.

Given that A) the name of that particular group eschews the traditional spelling of “ghetto” and B) I might have the slightest bit of an accent, I was a little surprised when my Echo politely answered in the affirmative and began playing selections from Houston’s Fifth Ward Posse available via Prime Music.

That experience, as straightforward as it was, is really indicative of the Amazon Echo‘s overall design and interface. That’s what the device does: it surprises the user with its simplicity.

Within the last couple of weeks the Echo–which my family has taken to calling Alexa, for obvious reasons–has become easily integrated into the household ecosystem.

The quality of sound produced by its central speaker is easily on par with the pricey, single-purpose Cambridge Audio Minx Go I typically use for music playback, and, should I find that my Amazon library lacks the artist I’d like to hear, I can switch to a Pandora station or even connect my iPhone via Bluetooth–all using voice commands. Similarly, I can check the appointments on my Google calendar, hear NPR and BBC top stories from TuneIn, or get a quick weather check by simply talking to the device.

echo speaker
image: Amazon

As an example, I can access my “Flash Briefing,” the Echo’s name for your preferred slate of news updates, by asking for it by name, or by any number of variants–“Alexa, headlines”; “Alexa, news”; “Alexa, news brief.” This use of more varied, natural language, as opposed to the narrowly prescribed key terms employed in other voice-activated doodads, truly makes all the difference.

And, like any new gadget, when I think I have a handle on all the Echo can do, I discover more options. Realize that I need eggs while in the middle of cooking breakfast? Alexa can add it to my shopping list. Trying to plan my morning commute? Alexa can give me traffic and travel updates. Need to setup an alarm or reminder? Alexa’s got me.

I’ve spent the last several years migrating (practically) all my planning, lists, and entertainment options onto my smartphone, and, if anything, the Echo is a pleasantly streamlined variation on that theme. Plus, if I’m looking for a lost bit or trivia, trying to simplify a definition for my kids, or want to check Wikipedia for some additional information, Alexa can help–and without a lot of the miscommunication or deliberate language that comes with dealing with Siri, my previous electronic companion.

The Siri comparison is inevitable, and it’s certainly warranted. Alexa is like Siri for your home, and it (she?) responds effortlessly to all household users–even children.

My daughter’s new favorite phrase seems to be “Alexa, tell me a joke.” And Alexa always obliges. The selection of riddles, my son would be quick to point out, is much less robust, but he still finds many other things to inquire about.

My boy’s an interesting case study because, as a high-functioning autistic, he sometimes struggles with language. When he asks about which ocean is “most popular” as opposed to, say, a more objective attribute like biggest, Alexa doesn’t understand, and she says as much. This gives him pause to rethink what he’s asking and how it’s being asked, which is a skill we continue to work on in person-to-person conversation.

There are a number of Echo features that I haven’t explored yet. Alexa can play Audible, but most of my audiobooks come from the local library system. She can give you sports scores and schedules, but hockey season is still months away. She can control some smart home devices–specifically WeMo, Philips Hue, and Wink products–but, sadly, mine are on an incompatible Z-Wave system.

She can also re-order certain Prime-eligible products from my Amazon shopping history–a feature that frankly, as a struggling impulse shopper, terrifies me.

echo apps
image: Amazon

So where does all that leave us?

Well, to go back to the titular question, what the Amazon Echo is depends a lot on your family’s unique needs and habits. At $180, it may be a little too pricey for spontaneous purchase, but if you’re a Prime subscriber (and I always recommend that everyone subscribe to Amazon Prime) that’s looking for a music streamer and/or virtual assistant and/or smart household gadget with a voice-controlled interface that properly functions without having to augment your normal, conversational cadence into something… well, robotic, Alexa just works.

Review materials provided by: Amazon

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