It’s no secret that we, as a society, want to live in a world where we seamlessly talk to computers à la Star Trek. Nearly every futuristic Sci-Fi movie has been portraying computers with voice interactions for ages. Thanks to a few tech giants, we’re slowly on our way to making this a reality.
Now, talking to your Android phone is nothing new. In fact, you’ve been able to use voice commands with Android since Voice Actions were first introduced way back in 2010 with Voice Search for Android. This new capability allowed us to send messages, get directions, make phone calls, take notes, and listen to music just by speaking to your smartphone. If we fast forward about two years later, we’ll see the launch of Google Now and a drastically updated Google Search application that you’re all familiar with today. The new Google app brought on countless voice search capabilities that continues to grow and mature with Google’s ever expanding Knowledge Graph.
Today, I can talk to a variety of Android powered devices and even the Chrome web browser or Chromebook, and receive a plethora of information back in the form of voice responses and informative cards. Having the power of Google in your pocket or on your desk is a truly powerful experience.
When it comes to voice assistants, Google has their cleverly named Google App, often referred to as Google Now, Apple has Siri, and Microsoft now has Cortana. Amazon has been ramping up their content ecosystem for a few years now and has a handful hardware products with their Fire line of devices, yet the company was missing the coveted voice assistant, until now. The Amazon Echo is their answer.
Amazon Echo Hardware
Amazon Echo is a WiFi and Bluetooth connected cylinder speaker, coming in at about 9 inches high and 3 inches in diameter. On the bottom you’ll find a speaker grill, on top you’ll find a multi-colored LED ring, two hardware buttons, and there’s even a small remote. Inside the Echo you’ll find a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch subwoofer. Simply put, the Amazon Echo is a smart speaker, but it’s the brains that matter most here.
The LED ring is a nice feature too. During setup, the ring is orange, it’s blue while Alexa is actively working, and white when you’re changing the volume, expanding or shrinking around the top of the Echo. You can also manually adjust the volume of the Echo by turning the top ring, though it’s much easier to just ask Alexa to turn it up or down and watch her do her magic.
The two hardware buttons on the Echo are used for disabling the seven built-in always listening microphones and an action button that is used during the setup process as well as a manual prompt, telling the Echo to begin listening for a command. And speaking of microphones, the built-in microphones are the number one feature of the Echo, in my opinion. They hear you from across the room, with a normal speaking voice. It’s quite pleasing.
Amazon also includes a small remote, that resembles a Fire TV remote or a Nexus Player remote, which can be used in instances where Alexa might not be able to hear you. Outside of testing purposes, I haven’t used the remote control yet. For me the need hasn’t arisen.
Getting started with Amazon Echo
Amazon has nailed the setup process with their Echo, making it very easy and straightforward. After you plug in the power cord to your Echo, you’ll head over to Amazon or the Google Play Store to download the Echo companion app for Android. After you launch and sign into the app, your Android phone or tablet will then disconnect from your WiFi network and connect directly to the Echo. After you enter your WiFi credentials into the app, your Echo will connect to your WiFi network and you’ll have the option to pair your Echo remote, which is takes just a few seconds after pressing the forward button on the remote. And, that’s it. You’re done.
While your Echo is ready to go at this point, you’ll want to take a few seconds and set up additional services to use with your Echo for a better experience. For example, Amazon’s Prime Music is quite limited, so you’ll want to add iHeartRadio and TuneIn to you Echo. You’ll also want to go into the Echo app to configure your news sources (flash briefing), enable voice purchasing (kinda scary), and add information about your daily commute.
Now you’re ready to start working with Alexa.
Comparing Amazon Echo to the Google App
When it comes to comparing Alexa with the something everyone’s familiar with, such as the Google App, Google’s Knowledge Graph comes out on top, and that’s no surprise. Google can answer more questions, has conversational search, and integrates with more applications. That doesn’t mean that Alexa isn’t useful though. For the time, weather, sports scores, news, general inquires, and playing music, Alexa is great. Alexa works quite well actually, in most scenarios. Even though Alexa’s brains aren’t as well developed as Google’s, Alexa’s voice sure does sound a bit more human, less robotic, and is noticeably faster – that’s a huge plus in my book.
Interacting with Alexa reminds me of Apple’s Siri and not the Google App. She’s a bit quirky and funny, if you want to go down that route. You can tell her you love her, hate her, or even mute her by telling her to be quiet or shut up. She’ll tell you jokes, play rock, paper, scissors, and Simon says. Compared to Google’s offering, she’s got a lot more personality. Check out the video below and visit the our official Amazon Echo Forums for more Amazon Echo Easter Eggs.
Living with Amazon Echo: Pros and Cons
Amazon Echo’s secret weapon is by far the seven built-in microphones that are always listening, awaiting your command. Sure, an always listening microphone isn’t anything new, as the original Moto X from 2013 launched with this capability, the Amazon Echo however can hear and understand you from across the room, while speaking in a normal voice. This makes using and interacting with Alexa a much more pleasurable experience than the Google App, because she can hear you from across the room and even while music is playing.
Have you ever said ‘ok google’ to your phone, tablet, or computer and waited for the audible prompt to let you know that Google is awaiting your voice command to only have your device not respond, because it didn’t hear you? I’m sure you have. Then, you’ve most likely would have taken a few steps closer to your device and tried again. If that didn’t work, you may have even then raised your voice so that the device can hear you, which can lead to voice recognition failures, because you’re yelling, having it fail yet again. I’m sure this scenario isn’t out of the norm for a lot of people.
We’ve all been there and that’s okay. Today’s phones and tablets weren’t meant to be listening for your voice commands from across the room. They’re meant to hear you from a few feet away. In that regard, the Google App, accompanied by an always listening microphone, works great and is extremely useful. When it comes to distance though, the Amazon Echo wins more often than not in tests with my Nexus 6. If there’s any background noise, the Nexus 6 can have trouble at about 10 feet or less, while Alexa normally pushes through with no issues. If there’s music playing, voice commands on the Nexus 6 are pretty much worthless, but Alexa performs just as she always would.
We know the microphones on the Amazon Echo are great, now how about the speaker? I’m not an audiophile by any means, but I can definitely recognize quality when I hear it. For $100, the Amazon Echo is a whole lot of speaker, able to fill the room with plenty of highs and lows. It’s definitely loud enough for my family and I and plenty loud enough for when the family is away and this guy needs a private jam session. Things do get a bit distorted at the max setting of 10 though.
Another weapon in Alexa’s arsenal is voice controls for music. You can tell Alexa to skip the song, play it again, play the next song, pause, resume, and even control the volume level, all with your voice. As someone who listens to countless hours of music on Google Play Music, this is a feature that I’ve wanted for years. Applications such as Tasker and Commander for Google Now can be configured to provide a similar, yet sub-par experience, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Even though Amazon Music is an inferior product, the voice capabilities alone keep drawing me back to the Echo for my music fix.
There is a supported workaround though. As I mentioned above, the Amazon Echo does have Bluetooth capabilities, so you can easily pair your Echo with your phone by saying “Alexa pair with my phone” to being the pairing process. Then, you can say “ok Google listen to [insert your favorite artist or genre of music here] and music will play from your phone, to the Echo. The best part, you can now control the music being played from Google Play Music, with your Echo. Just say “Alexa next song” and Play Music will skip ahead, etc. This does work great, though it’s kind of silly to use two device to accomplish with what would be preferably done on just one.
The Amazon Echo and Alexa have a lot going for them, however a few downsides do exist. Stating the obvious, the Google App is portable and continues to work anywhere with an Internet connection, such as every room in your home, outside your home, in the car, you get the picture. The Echo is a stationary device and can’t compete in that regard.
The largest downside to the Amazon Echo is certainly the ecosystem, as with all Amazon products. If you’re not fully embedded into Amazon’s playground, some features you’d might expect, just aren’t there or don’t work as you’d hoped. You can’t add items to your calendar or receive calendar notifications. You can create notes and reminders, but they’re limited to the Amazon Echo companion app, sadly not working with third party apps such as Google Keep, Evernote, or Trello. Even if you’re okay with using Amazon’s offering, the extremely basic functionality included in the companion app for notes and reminder are pretty horrible. For music, you’re limited to Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, unless you pair your Echo with another device, of course.
I’ve been living with Amazon Echo and “Alexa” for quite a while now and I have to say that I’m truly impressed with Amazon’s offering. I held off on my review for a while because I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just experiencing the honeymoon phase of a new tech gadget. I wanted to put Alexa through the paces as an everyday addition to my house and my life. My Amazon Echo has lived in a variety of places throughout my house, finally settling in a central location near my kitchen, breakfast nook, and family room.
It’s safe to say the Ross household has been assimilated by Alexa, being used by not only myself, but my wife and small children throughout the day. My five year old son often asks Alexa about the weather or has her play various Daft Punk songs or even Dubstep playlists (he gets his music tastes from me). I told my wife I’d be moving Alexa to the basement now that recent renovations for my office are complete, however she angrily told me that I was not removing her from the Kitchen and I’d have to order another one if I wanted her with me in the basement. She’s obviously a fan.
I’m a fan of the Amazon Echo too. However, being perfectly honest, if this connected speaker responded to “ok Google” and not “Alexa”, I’d be in connected device heaven. I already use the Google App non-stop and I’m heavily embedded in Google’s ecosystem for everything imaginable. I personally don’t like spreading myself across various ecosystems, but I’m making an exception for the Echo, because the Echo has a lot going for it and it’s going to improve with time. However, if Google or one of Android’s OEMs came out with a similar product, there’d be no need for the Echo and Alexa.
At this exact moment, is the Amazon Echo worth $200? Possibly. Is it worth $100? Most definitely. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, for $100, you get a great sounding WiFi and Bluetooth speaker that can be controlled with voice commands. What’s more, answering normal questions such as the weather, listening to the news, getting sports scores, setting timers, settings alarms, and getting answers to countless fun and interesting facts is a great experience for the price. This makes the Amazon Echo a great household companion.
I don’t play in Amazon’s ecosystem at all, but I still use the Echo daily for music, weather, quick searches, and every once in a while, a little bit of personality. Alexa’s capabilities are always expanding, just like the Google App, and she’ll continue to get better over time. If you want to purchase one for yourself, Prime Members can request an invitation to purchase one for $100, while non-Prime members will have to fork over $200.