Thursday, April 09, 2015

First Impressions: Amazon Echo

I received my early edition of the Echo, Amazon's voice-activated assistant, in the mail yesterday. I had signed up for an invitation several months ago, and purchased it on a whim in February for the following reasons:

  • I'm rarely ever on the cutting edge of technology, mainly because the cutting edge tends to have a disproportionate dullness for cost vs. utility.
  • I was curious to see if the Echo could truly become a central hub for daily activities as envisioned, or if the novelty would wear off immediately like an above-ground pool.
  • The $99 price point for Prime members was much more palatable than the full $199 price point, and is right about the point where I wouldn't feel guilty if it ended up sitting on the shelf gathering dust after the novelty has worn off (see also, Rebecca's Kindle Fire) or got pushed off of the kitchen ledge by a fat cat.

Setup of the Echo is painless, and even more streamlined than setting up a Fitbit. You must have WiFi available and Amazon assumes you'll have a smartphone for its (optional) Echo app, but thankfully there's a web-browser version for desktop dinosaurs like myself.

After 5 minutes of setup and voice training, the Echo sits there unassumingly waiting for a command. This is the point where you'll try all of the voice commands listed on the cheat sheet for lack of better ideas (like "Tell me a joke" or "Set a timer for 1 minute"). Voice recognition is impressive (less so when there's enough erratic ambient noise, like Rebecca clearing the dinner dishes) and works even ten feet away without any need to raise your voice. The integration of information lookup (like "How many ounces in a cup?" or "Wikipedia: Abraham Lincoln") is well-done although nothing that Siri hasn't done before.

Over the course of the night, the Echo batted about 0.7 for correctly understanding what we were saying and then responding in the correct context (you can see a history of your commands in the app and provide feedback about accuracy):

  • What is malbec? "Mulberry is a city in Polk County, Florida."
  • How do you spell Onomatopoeia? "Onomatopoeia is spelled: O. N. O. M. A. T. O. P. O. E. I. A."
  • What's the weather? (gave me the weather forecast for Sterling)
  • Play some dinner music. "Playing the Classic Rock Dinner Music playlist from Prime."
  • Play Car Talk. "Playing The Best of Car Talk podcast via TuneIn."
  • Play my Mark Ronson Pandora station. "Playing your Mark Ronson station on Pandora."
  • Like this. "Saving your rating on Pandora."

The Echo is much better at being a voice-activated music player, with direct access and control over your Pandora stations, Amazon Cloud stations, and free Amazon Prime Music. You can pick from your existing stations, create new ones, browse your music, or just ask the Echo to search for any artists or genres it knows about in Prime Music. I appreciated the sound quality from the Echo's hefty speaker, which wasn't as good as patching my laptop through an HDMI receiver, but was much better (and more convenient) than the over-treble associated with playing from a laptop alone. The Echo also has access to tons of radio stations and podcasts, and correctly streamed WAMU after I said "Play NPR". One downside to Pandora integration is that you can't skip the ads -- on my computers, I haven't heard an ad in years thanks to AdBlock.

It should also be noted that voice input is sent INTO THE CLOUD for command processing. Although you have to use a predefined wake word to activate the microphone (hopefully you don't have family members named Alexa or Amazon) and the device lights up when it's listening, there will always be a slight ick factor about knowing that your "bidness" is out in the world, and a potential for hacking or abuse down the road. This doesn't really bother me, as my fourteen years of daily blogging have already eliminated any possibility that I could run for public office without the added scandalous knowledge that Booty and I have long conversations about cat stuff. However, you should be aware of privacy concerns before you buy.

First Impression: A promising piece of tech, mostly for its musical potential. I'm still on the fence about whether it will remain impressive after the novelty has worn off.

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