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Life with an Amazon Echo

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Brandon Lyon
Brandon has over 12 years of professional experience developing software. He's also a designer & photographer with a degree in architecture.


Is it worth it to buy an Echo? In a word, yes! For me it was definitely worth it. I use mine on a daily basis.


Prologue & Privacy


At first, I was very skeptical about the Amazon Echo. In general, I don't like voice assistants. I don't like the idea that someone is always listening. On the other hand, I was already shopping for a bluetooth speaker, so I decided to order an Echo and see how it worked out.

Before I ordered an Echo, I made sure to read up on how it works and how private it is. Fortunately, Amazon has good documentation with examples on how to use it and what actually happens when you do use it. It only listens for the wake up keyword. There is a hardware button to disable the microphone hardware until you turn it back on. After it hears your wake command, it does query their server and record your voice, but the transmissions are encrypted. There is a good reason to save the voice recordings, but more on that later. Fortunately, they let you delete as much of your recorded history as you want. They even include a "1-click delete-everything" functionality. All of this allayed my fears enough that I purchased an Amazon Echo.

Developers take note: Amazon was rewarded with money because their developers documented something well!
 

First Impressions


Once I unboxed the Echo, the setup was instant. All I had to do was provide it with a Wi-Fi password and it was good to go. Since I primarily bought the Echo to be used as a bluetooth speaker, the first test I did was to have it play some music for me. It worked very well. It recognized strange band names and started playing without a fuss. It could still hear my voice commands over the music ( or any other source, like a TV or phone call ) as long as the volume wasn't overly loud. I asked Alexa to set an alarm and a timer for me, start a grocery list, and start a to-do list. I did all of that just with my voice and with no trouble. It was great!
 

Features I love 


  • They did a great job with the microphone. It rarely has trouble or misunderstands me. If Alexa can't understand you, she tells you why (or at the very least, gives you an error sound).
  • The speaker quality is nice. I enjoy listening to classical music on it. You probably wouldn't want to use it for bass-heavy music, though. For everything else, it's a good speaker considering the price.
  • I use mine all of the time in the kitchen, garden, or garage. I can ask Alexa to do things for me without stopping what I'm doing and cleaning my hands (timers, shopping-list, to-do list, calendar, etc).
  • There is an app that works well or you can use a website to access your Echo.
  • The voice command fuzzy logic works well. It's good at understanding commands I meant to say without me saying the exact syntax that it's looking for. Yay for synonyms!
  • The voice commands are very intuitive. "Play Vivaldi on Pandora" for example, is exactly what you think it would be. "Volume up" is a synonym for "increase volume", as is "turn up the volume".
  • When you ask Alexa to do something, it records it. This ends up being an important feature. If, for example, you asked her to add something to your shopping list, she will do that. The problem is, what if she misheard you and now you have gibberish on your shopping list? Because the request audio was recorded, you can playback what you said and you will then know what you asked her to add to your shopping list!
  • The Echo keeps a record of what you ask it to do. It also makes it really easy to correct any mistakes that Alexa made when carrying out those requests. Just open the app, click on the button for "was this incorrect?", and type in the actual request you made. Alexa will learn and your request will be corrected.
  • Alexa always repeats back the command you just said. In retrospect, this seems like a no-brainer, but it really is an important functionality. If she didn't do so, then you might not know if she successfully did what you asked her to do.
  • There is an LED ring around the top of the speaker which lets you visually determine the Echo's state at a glance. If the microphone is off, then it's red. If it's actively listening, then the LED is solid blue. If it's processing, then the blue LED moves around. If it's passively listening, then there is no LED ( so you aren't always blinded by LEDs ).
 

Tips and Tricks 


  • When talking to a voice assistant like Alexa, pretend you're talking to a person. Give them a second after saying their name so that they're ready and listening to you. In real life, you wouldn't start talking to a person right after saying their name; you would make sure you have their attention first.
  • Unless you intend to use the feature frequently, turn off "purchasing by voice". It's on by default. In a rare case of misunderstanding, Alexa once tried to buy something when I didn't ask her to buy anything. Fortunately, cancelling the order was one easy voice command away.
 

Other Notes 


  • You may be asking yourself what makes this different from Siri, Cortana, or OK-Google. What differentiates it is the fact that the device has a fantastic microphone and it works seemelssly without a phone or computer.
  • While the echo is tied to your Amazon account, you can easily switch accounts that you're logged in through. If your friend comes over and wants to listen to their Amazon cloud music, then they can do that by switching logins using voice commands.
  • The Echo team is constantly adding features to the speaker over time with invisible system updates. Since I bought mine, they added Pandora integration, Audible audio-book playback, calendar functionality, home automation, IFTTT support, and more.
 

The Future


I see the Echo as a fantastic first step into the future of home automation. While it does none of this now, in the future, I can see it doing so many things: controlling home appliances, the home theater, home security, conference calls, initializing user preferences, etc. I REALLY want to see them add a way to control my fireTV using an Echo. The possibilities of voice are endless if a good microphone and a good software brain are behind the scenes managing it all. They are already working on a developer SDK so that you can build your own Echo apps or include Echo functionality within your own app.



It feels like I'm talking to the ship on an episode of Star Trek.

 

Conclusion


To conclude, I feel like this really is the future. It feels like I'm talking to the ship on an episode of Star Trek. You don't have to be a foot away from a microphone - you just talk to the air in your house and it responds appropriately. 

So, is it worth it to buy an Echo? In a word, yes! For me, it was definitely worth it. I use mine on a daily basis. I needed a bluetooth speaker anyways and the price was right. I intend to purchase more Echoes. I've easily gotten my money's worth from hands-free assistance while working in the kitchen, garden, or garage with dirty hands. I never thought I would say this, but I look forward to our voice-assistant home-automation future!
 
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Expert Comment

by:Brenae Noack
Thanks for sharing, Brandon! We have an Xbox One and I am shocked how often I use the voice commands- I rarely use the controller. Sounds like Amazon Echo has a better handle on some of the voice command technology, I still struggle a bit with the Xbox.
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Expert Comment

by:Mikkel Sandberg
I was a little skeptical of this, but after reading such a positive review I think I'll look into it. I also wanted to look into the fireTV, and I agree that Echo support on this device would be awesome.
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Expert Comment

by:Brian Matis
This does sounds pretty cool. I'm rather interested, but I'm also way into using Apple Music. Do you know if there's a way to stream from an iPhone to the Echo?
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Author Comment

by:Brandon Lyon
I don't have anything Apple at home so I wouldn't be able to test that. It's my understanding that you can use it for rudimentary bluetooth iTunes controls like play, pause, and skip.
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Expert Comment

by:Yashwant Vishwakarma
Nice one Brandon.
Voted Yes :)
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