Review: Amazon Echo/Alexa

Standard

This Christmas has been something of a revolution in the Tribe household. Prior to December 25th, our household had very little which was internet enabled outside of phones, gaming consoles and laptops. The television is a plasma dinosaur, the stereo has an analog radio tuner in it and is the size of a slab of beers, and the lights require moving to the wall and flicking a switch to activate.

Then came the Amazon Echo. I had bought it for my wife as she had been keen to get one for a while. It was Christmas so I bit the bullet and bought the second generation Amazon Echo. If you are unfamiliar with this device, it is essentially a Bluetooth enabled speaker with a digital assistant built in.

Amazon Echo

The setup was an absolute nightmare. Here are my tips:

  • If you are in Australia, make sure you shift your account over to amazon.com.au first. I had already shifted mine but my wife had not. This was only a problem when I tried to add myself to her household. Esoteric messages and a bit of configuration later all was good.
  • If you are looking to share content through the household option, this is not yet supported in Australia. Yes, all the heartache of the previous step was for naught.
  • The device is effectively a single user device (I’ll elaborate a bit more on this later). Whoever is the main user, they are the person who should download the Alexa configuration app to their phone during set up. I initially set it up with my phone and then tried to shift it across to my wife’s. A few hours with support and a couple of factory resets and we were good again.
  • The Amazon Echo is similar to Android devices in that there is one ‘first class’ user and multiple ‘second class’ users. In the case of the Echo, additional users are set up as voices in the primary user’s Alexa app. Once this is done, the additional users can download the Alexa app, log in as the primary user and then select who they really are. This being said, there is no strong differentiation in content. For example, if Amazon has access to the primary user’s contacts, everyone has access. Similarly, while you can add an Office 365 account to Alexa for appointments, this is the primary user’s account which, again, everyone has access to. You cannot add multiple Office 365 accounts, let alone differentiate them by user.

However, once setup was done, things were smooth sailing. I got 14 days free access to Amazon Music which had everything I could think of (ranging from Top 40 through to Prog Rock 70s band Camel.) What’s more, the more we used the Amazon Echo the more we saw value. All those little nuggets of information we would usually look up on our phone, we can simply ask Alexa. Examples include:

  • The current time in another timezone
  • When it is sunset (the time our house becomes a device-free zone until dinner)
  • Random trivia (do fish have nostrils?)
  • The latest news
  • The weather outside

You can also use it to make calls via Skype (untested as I write this though) and for those who have installed the Alexa App on their phones and logged in as themselves (via the primary user) you can call them through the Alexa app even when they are away from home.

There are also ‘skills’ (read as ‘apps’) which can be added to the Echo. While the variety in Australia is woefully limited compared to the US, there is still enough to be useful. So far  have added:

  • ABC world News
  • Domino’s Pizza
  • Cocktail King
  • The Magic Door (a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure storytelling app for children)
  • RadioApp

The way you speak to Alexa (the assistant in the machine) is not completely natural. but you do get used to it. For example, for some of the skills you need to say “Alexa, open <skill name>” first before it will realise it needs to employ that skill. For example if I ask “Alexa, how do you make a Negroni?” it will suggest using the Taste skill, even though Cocktail King is activated. To get the recipe I need to say “Alexa, ask Cocktail King how to make a Negroni”

Finally you can speak to Alexa through the Alexa App on your phone. In one case, I had added the Diabetic Connections Podcast skill to Alexa but, given the content was of limited interest to my family, I asked, through my phone to play the latest podcast. Sure enough it came through to my phone and, with the headphones plugged in, my family were none the wiser.

Echo Dots

With the Echo downstairs and my desire for us to stop shouting up the stairs to summon our children, within 24 hours of setting up the Echo, I had bought two Echo Dots: one for each child’s bedroom.

Echo-Dot-3

These have exactly the same brains in them as the Amazon Echo so they can be used standalone. However, through the Alexa app, you can make them part of the same ecosystem meaning you can use them as an intercom system throughout the house. Also, they support commands such as:

  • “Alexa, tell Orlando’s room that dinner is ready”
  • “Alexa, tell Claudia’s room it is time to go”
  • “Alexa, tell Orlando’s room it is time to wake up”

All with their own special audio touches.

Some Hacking

It has only been a couple of days so I have not had time to get up to too much mischief but here are a few things I have discovered:

  • Amazon Echo is compatible with IFTTT so if you want to trigger IFTTT when you issue a command to Alexa, this is not a problem
  • Amazon Echo is also Smart Watch friendly. When I played the podcast, controls appeared on my Smart Watch. This also happened when I played music through Amazon Echo
  • If you go through the Alexa App, it demands you have a Spotify Premium account before it will connect Spotify. You can get around this by pairing your phone to the Amazon Echo (“Alexa, pair my device”). Once your phone is paired, anything you run on the phone e.g. Spotify will have its sound come out of the Amazon Echo.
  • If you get yourself a Bluetooth stereo receiver (basically a Bluetooth receiver which plugs into the audio input of your stereo, it is fairly straightforward to get a dinosaur stereo like mine to become Echo’s sounds system.

Next Steps

The next step is to make the house a little more internet aware. I have ordered a WiFi plug from eBay for around AU$12 (roughly US$10) and I will see if I can link it to the Echo and have Alexa turn things on and off. For example, I could set up my slow cooker and then, halfway through the day while at work, tell Alexa, through the phone app to turn on the plug and initiate the cooking of dinner for that evening.

Conclusions

While setup was a nightmare for me and there is little in the way of an instruction booklet for the device, now I have experimented with it for a couple of days I am really happy with my purchase. The main reason for not going with Google Home was the lack of support for Office 365. This being said, the ability to only add one Office 365 account through the app makes that differentiator small in hindsight.

Amazon suggest they will continue to improve the device and, as I upgrade the appliances in my home over time I expect the benefits will also multiply e.g. linking Amazon Prime to a smart TV.

If you are looking to take the plunge, my recommendation is to do so. The devices, especially the Dots, are very inexpensive and the previous (second) generation ones are being sold for a song by Amazon and retailers such as JB-Hifi. If you want to go really cheap, you can buy the Echo Input which is the brains of an Echo without a speaker where you simply plug it into an existing speaker.

If you have any Echo hacks, please post them in the comments Winking smile

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