A little while ago, I got an Amazon Echo using expiring airline miles. I didn’t know much about it, and was skeptical about its usefulness at first, but now I’m a huge fan!
What Is It?
In one sentence, the Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled cloud-based music player with Siri-like capabilities. Basically, it’s a speaker with built-in microphones which listen for your voice commands such as:
- “Alexa, play music”
- “Alexa, play the Beatles”
- “Alexa, play dance music”
- “Alexa, play my new music”
If you’re wondering where the music is coming from, the primary source is from your Amazon Cloud Library. If you’ve ever bought an MP3 from Amazon, it’s stored in your cloud and available for playback using the Echo. You can also upload 250 additional songs for free and 250,000 songs for about $25 per year.
Or, if you want Amazon’s entire music collection at your disposal, you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for about $10 per month for non-Prime members and about $8 per month for Prime members.
In addition, Echo can play music from services such as Pandora for free, and I Heart Radio (which requires a paid subscription).
I personally don’t pay for any subscriptions because I have quite a few MP3 purchases from the Amazon music store which are on my cloud.
Alternatively, you can stream music from your phone or tablet using Bluetooth to your Echo. But, this is a bit more cumbersome and takes away from the convenience of the Echo, in my opinion.
The sound quality at low or medium volumes is quite good. It’s perfect for personal listening or for a dinner party. My biggest beef is that it’s monophonic (not stereo), but if you buy an Echo Dot (around $50), that has a stereo out which you can hook up to your own sound system. The regular Echo though does not have a wired audio output.
But, It Can Do A Lot of Other Stuff
The Echo has “Siri-like” capabilities where you can ask it simple questions and it will answer. Here are some examples:
- “Alexa, give me the news”
- “Alexa, give me the weather”
- “Alexa, tell me what movies are playing near me”
- “Alexa, what time is it in London, England?”
- “Alexa, who won the world series in 1953?”
- “Alexa, what is the speed of light?”
- “Alexa, set a timer for five minutes”
- “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list” (milk will appear in your Alexa app)
Amazon touts that you can use it to order a pizza or stuff on Amazon. Frankly, having it do any kind of transactions involving money is something I’m not ready to try yet!
How Well Does It Work?
One of the most amazing things about the Echo is its speech-recognition capability. I’d say it is 97% accurate as long as I’m speaking loud enough. Oh, and it will hear you even if you’re ten feet away or more, and even when music is playing. It’s pretty impressive and really works!
Setup and “Skills”
You set up the Echo using the Alexa app on your smartphone. The Echo temporarily acts as a Wi-Fi source, and you connect to it using your phone to enter the info it needs about your Wi-Fi network. The app lets you install “Skills” which give the Echo new abilities, such as playing Jeopardy, reading Bible verses, telling jokes, and lots of other stuff.
What I Use It For
I use the Echo primarily as a music player. You may be thinking, “well, I already can play music on my phone or computer”. So can I, but the Echo is just so damn convenient! I love to use it when I’m occupied with something else and don’t want to fiddle with my computer or phone. It’s great for when I’m working out, typing, or just lying down. I can play any music I want without having to get up or shift my focus from what I’m doing. It’s really fantastic!
I also use it to get the day’s news, to set timers (great when I’m cooking), to get the time around the world, and to get the day’s weather forecast.
You might be saying, “well, I can do that already with Cortana on Windows and Siri on Mac”. True, but I don’t keep my computer on all of the time. Plus, I just don’t like having my computer always listening to me. I know the Echo is a computer too, and maybe I’m being irrational, but it just doesn’t seem as invasive as having my OS listening to me all of the time.
I’ve also found Echo to be kind of a fun novelty party item, as people ask it random questions to see what it says. It can tell jokes and will sometimes respond to non-serious questions with amusing responses. Some examples:
- “Alexa. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot”
- “Alexa, tell me a joke”
- “Alexa, would you like to go on a date with me?”
My Echo has been really solid and never crashed.
The first few weeks I had it though, it had a serious problem of not shuffling songs very well. It would seem to shuffle the same 30 songs or so. It was baffling it would have such a bad bug in such a fundamental feature. But, luckily, after a few weeks it was fixed, probably by a software update.
Probably the biggest hurdle I see with using the Echo is the learning curve for the verbal commands. When I show it to friends, they ask it random questions and most of the time the Echo can’t find an answer. You have to put in some effort to learn which skills to invoke, rather than just asking questions. (I’m sure soon this will be overcome though).
Another issue is privacy. The Echo is always on and always listening for you to say “Alexa”. I’m sure Amazon says it’s not recording everything you say, but this is like almost every other Internet-connected device, it is susceptible to hacking. I’ve just accepted the possibility that I could be monitored as a fact of modern life.
Is It The Future?
If you’ve seen the movie, “Her”, the Echo seems like an early prototype of Scarlett Johanssen’s human-like OS. Of course, we still have a way to go, but the speech-recognition part is very solid. I think it’s only a matter of time before we are having natural conversations with these devices.
The Echo could be really helpful to the elderly and disabled. It could be a boon for blind people.
Should You Get One?
Before I got one, I never would have thought of purchasing an Echo. But, after using it for a while, I really like it, and definitely would buy one.
Is it a critical appliance in my home? Absolutely not. But, it’s re-energized my music library, and it’s become useful for doing other things especially when I’m occupied. I like it so much I’m thinking about buying an Echo Dot, which is a cheaper version which you connect to your own speakers, for another room of my condo.
Of course, the Echo is best if you already have MP3 music purchased from Amazon (like I do), or are willing to buy into their music subscription plan.
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What you get out of the Echo depends on how much effort you put into it. You’ve got to learn the commands that it responds to. If you’re willing to invest in other hardware, you can have the Echo turn on lights and control other appliances. If you’re into techy things and want to play with it, the Echo can be a lot fun and can do some cool things! If you’re not, and you want to ask it unstructured questions like you would a real person, it might disappoint.
What is your opinion of the Echo? What do you use it for? Leave a comment below! – Brian