Amazon Echo: Did It Change My Life?

Amazon Echo Location
Amazon Echo in our home. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I’ve been an Amazon Prime member since December 25, 2011. I ordered my first Kindle that month, and the Amazon Prime membership tagged along with it. I’ve been very happy with Prime shipping ever since, and occasionally I use Prime Video or Prime Music. When the Amazon Echo was announced, I wanted to hop on the bandwagon right away and order one, but I waited a bit to see what others had to say about it. I also needed to consider the value-to-cost ratio. Would our family really use it?

On July 2, our Echo arrived, and our adventure began.

GeekDad Z recently reviewed the Echo and all the functions delivered with it, so I won’t repeat those. However, I’m pleased to report that I get an email about once a week announcing newly added features. For example, this week, Echo added support for three third-party developed skills: Crystal Ball, Math Puzzles, and StubHub. Crystal Ball is a fortune teller. You think of a yes/no question, and Echo will answer it for you. I wondered if the sky is really blue and when I tried it out, Echo said, “Maybe.” If you really want to know why the sky is blue, read GeekMom Patricia’s post. Math Puzzles gives you a list of numbers and asks you what the next number will be. I found this hard to do in my head, but fun if I got out a sheet of paper and wrote the number list down. You have to think fast before Echo times out. StubHub helps you find out what’s going on in your town this weekend or on a specific date. You have the option of going into the Skills category of the Echo app on your smartphone to decide whether to enable these new skills or not. Why not?

Now that I’ve been using Echo for 45 days, what do I think? I love to be in on new tech. The Echo certainly classifies, but is Echo really changing my life? Although I would order it again without hesitation, the answer, sadly, is, “No.”

The first few days, we were talking to Echo hourly, testing out her skills. She does a great job telling you the current weather, looking up interesting facts on Wikipedia, and setting alarms. However, you can do all of these things from your smartphone too. Eventually, the newness of talking to Echo instead of pressing a few buttons on my smartphone wore off. Instead of interacting with her multiple times a day, we were down to only one or two times a day, even missing days sometimes.

The kids love to ask Echo jokes. She has that feature built-in, and it can be a lot of fun. The developers even update her with new jokes on a regular basis. What happens though, is that my kids try to outdo each other and end up talking at the same time. Poor Echo is confused. It’s hard enough for the software to clearly understand one person talking in a normal voice. Imagine what happens when two or more excited kids start shouting multiple commands to the device at the same time. Of course, this is not a deficiency in just Echo. Any voice recognition device will have the same difficulty. You can train Echo to your voice, but I don’t think you can train her to multiple voices. And, there’s no good way to get her to isolate one voice out of many talking at the same time.

Primarily, we use Echo to set alarms. “Alexa, set an alarm for 5:15 p.m. today.” That’s a good reminder to go preheat the oven for dinner. If I think I might fall asleep before it’s time to pick up the kids from school, I can set an “end nap time” alarm. Alarms are a great way to manage my day. Echo will even allow you to set multiple alarms and timers. However, what happens is that sometimes the alarm goes off and you have no idea why. Seriously, one day it went off, and it took us 15 minutes to figure out why we had set the alarm hours ago. I have submitted a new function request to Amazon Echo Support asking them to allow a description to be added to the alarm. I would be tickled pink if the alarm went off and Echo said something like, “8:30 p.m. alarm—time for Joey and Johnny to get ready for bed.”

We were very hopeful that Echo would help us nag the kids with less involvement from us. We want Echo to tell them to go to bed, remind them to brush their teeth, wake them up in the morning, etc. Besides the alarms not providing a description, there’s also the problem of needing Echo in more than one location in the house. The current price for Amazon Echo is $179.99. It’s a serious investment to buy one of these devices, let alone two or more to give coverage all over your home. In our house, three would be about the minimum. We’d like one in our kitchen/family room area, the boys’ TV room, and the boys’ bedroom. The master bedroom would be nice too. We ended up putting the one we bought in our kitchen/family room area, where everyone in the house has good access to it. However, this prevents us from using it as an alarm clock or a kid-friendly reminder device.

Amazon Echo supports a wide range of home automation devices (lights and switches) including Philips Hue, Wink, and WeMo. You can turn your lights on and off with a voice command to Echo. This is a super cool feature, in my opinion. The only problem is that we invested in a SmartThings hub a couple of years ago, and Echo doesn’t support SmartThings (yet). We knew that when we bought Echo, and we still hope that SmartThings will get added. It’s either that or we’re going to have to buy a new hub with a price tag of $49 or more. For now, we use the SmartThings app on our smartphone to control our lights when desired. We use the switches to turn on/off outside fountains, Christmas lights, and to manage our primary entry door lock.

Then there’s the issue of music. Echo does a great job playing music and podcasts from Amazon Prime, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. When I’m in the mood, I’ll ask her to play something for me, and I enjoy it. The problem is that the music library I’ve been building for years is on iTunes. I think Amazon with Prime Music and Google with Play Music are nuts if they think I’m going to rebuild my library in their store. Not happening! Until I can play my iTunes music and playlists on Echo, which I realize will never happen, I’ll just keeping using the Bluetooth speakers we have in strategic locations around our house to play my usual music from my iPhone or iPad.

It’s great that we can engage Echo to help us whenever we want, but we’d also like her to engage us sometimes. For example, I have my Google calendar hooked up to her. I can ask her what’s on my calendar today, and she gives me an accurate response. What I really want is for her to remind me about certain calendar events a given amount of time before them. If I have a 9:00 a.m. dentist appointment, I want her to wake up at 8:00 a.m. and say something like, “Maryann, you have a dentist appointment with Dr. ABC at 9:00 a.m. in XYZ.” It doesn’t do me any good to get an email reminder on my phone; I may not see that in time. I don’t want the reminder to be reliant on my remembering to ask for my daily schedule. Right now, we use sticky notes on our primary entrance/exit door or our bathroom mirror to remind us of events that deviate from our normal routine. I’ve even put a sticky note on the steering wheel of my minivan, so that when I go to leave to take the kids to school in the morning I don’t forget to do something. Echo could remind me so much better!

As I said at the start of this review, if I had it to do over, I’d still buy Amazon Echo. I see huge potential in this device and others like it, and I love being on the bleeding edge of this new technology. Besides alarms with descriptions, I have submitted several other new function requests to Amazon Echo Support. I’ve asked them to let Echo act as a calculator. I want to say, “Alexa, what is 3 + 5?” or “Alexa, add $5.23 and $11.37.” I would love for Alexa to quiz multiplication facts to my 5th grader. I want Echo to ask, “What is 3 times 7?” and wait for a response. The new Math Puzzles skill is similar to this, so hopefully multiplication fact-quizzing is coming soon. We are just about out of that phase at our house, but we would still embrace that functionality. I’d also like Echo to manage multiple calendars in our household. It’s great that she’s hooked up to my Google calendar, but there are three other members of my home, and they all have Google calendars too. What about them? Is Echo an individual device or a family device? I need to be able to specify which Google calendar I want to check and to have a way in the Echo app to set up every calendar in our household.

For those who have trouble with the small keypad on a smartphone or TV remote, voice automation through Echo could be a real asset. For those who are really focused or for those who have trouble focusing, prompts and reminders from Echo could be very helpful. She truly could be a life assistant, as well as a home automator.

What’s your experience with Echo? What would make or break your decision to add an Echo to your home? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.