Amazon Echo: Fun, But Not Very Useful – Yet


Amazon Echo voice activated assistant
Usefulness
Functionality
Price

Summary


Echo is a fun gadget that doubles as an audio speaker and an automated assistant to handle small tasks. While promising, today it doesn't do enough to be meaningful as a productivity tool.

How would you like to have your own administrative assistant to help you research information and compile simple lists?  All done hands-free by saying commands aloud?

And when you’re not assigning or asking things, how would you like an audio speaker that sounds good, so you can listen to music in the background as you work?

Interested? Then you’ll want to check out the new Amazon Echo.

We tapped into the expertise of Brent Leary, industry analyst, who got an early look at the Amazon Echo. He shared his thoughts for this review.

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Key Amazon Echo Features

Amazon Echo is an exciting new device that in the future could change the way we interact with the environment around us.

Think of the Amazon Echo as a speaker that lets you listen to music — but one you can also talk to.  It answers questions and performs simple tasks such as creating shopping lists and to-do lists.

The Echo consists of two parts:

  • a combined speaker / microphone device, and
  • a software app.

The device is a cylinder-shaped speaker that stands upright. It’s 9.25 inches tall and just 3.27 inches across. The speaker is omnidirectional (it broadcasts out to all sides).

Around the top of it are seven microphones to pick up your voice from all directions.

Let’s say you want to know the weather. You simply address it by its name (“Alexa”) so it knows you are talking to it.

Say the word “Alexa.” Then ask something like, “What’s the weather in Atlanta?”

If the Echo is asleep, it will wake up. If it is playing music, it will stop and answer your question.

It can hear you across the room. Amazon calls this “far field voice recognition.”

Via your WiFi connection, it streams your request to the cloud where the Echo “brain” resides.

Within seconds, Alexa (equipped with a female voice) speaks the answers back to you — hands free.  The spoken answers also appear typed out in the app on your tablet or browser.

The Echo device works together with its cloud-based app connected to the Internet.  The app is what enables it to create a shopping list, for instance.  And it’s not just music you can add to your shopping list. You can add food, clothing or other items.  You can also create a to-do list.

The accompanying app can be used on the Kindle Fire, Android devices, and browsers.  You can use the app even when you’re away from the speaker device.

Amazon Echo app

Pros

The Amazon Echo is innovative and has a lot of positives going for it:

  • Echo is simple to set up.
  • Its voice recognition is good. You can speak naturally and it still picks up your commands.
  • Alexa’s speech sounds natural — not like a robot.
  • The speaker delivers nice sound output. With Bluetooth you can connect tablets and phones and listen to music services such as Pandora and Spotify through the speaker.
  • It comes with Amazon Prime and TuneIn integrated already.
  • It is relatively inexpensive.  It runs $199, but Amazon Prime subscribers get it for just $99 currently.

Cons

The biggest downside with the Amazon Echo is its limited usefulness — so far. Today, it’s really more of a consumer entertainment gadget that’s not all that useful for productivity:

  • For small businesspeople looking for personal productivity tools, it is likely to disappoint. Today, it’s limited mainly to looking up facts you can find online and creating simple lists.
  • It handles easy questions well, such as math calculations or queries about straight-forward facts. However, as the video below demonstrates, it can get stumped. Sometimes one word in the question makes a difference.
  • It would be nice if it were tied into recommendation engines like Yelp to get answers to questions about things like “best pizza places,” for example.
  • It would be nice to integrate music services like Spotify. While you can play tunes from Spotify over the speaker via Bluetooth, you can’t give Echo voice commands to play songs from your Spotify account.
  • Used as a speaker, it certainly has decent quality. But it’s not the best speaker on the market. High-end audiophiles will demand more.

Who Amazon Echo Is Best For

The Echo is for early adopters who love to be the first in their circles to try new devices. If you like experimenting with innovative gadgets, you’ll love the Echo.

And if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, you’ll especially like it because of the great introductory price. The following video by Brent Leary shows the Echo in action.

Amazon Echo shows exciting promise as a personal entertainment device / personal assistant.

But right now it is limited. Mainly you can use it as a speaker for cloud-based music and video sound. You use it to answer simple questions and create lists.

Echo doesn’t do much more than that — yet.

Amazon says more services and functions are coming. That may be quite soon, given that the device is tied to a cloud app that Amazon can easily update. Right now, though, it is not full-featured enough to be a productivity tool for your business (or for you personally).

Our star rating gives Amazon the benefit of the doubt that it actually will follow through with more services and smarts via the cloud.

Echo is one of those devices that, if we look back a few years from now, we may wonder how we lived without it. Echo is ahead of its time.

19 Comments ▼

19 Reactions

  1. What *would* make the Echo useful would be an interface into my communications matrix (possibly using matrix.org code) so that it/she can filter my multitudonous traffic channels in real time in order to sift out the really important things that Ned my attention – just like a REAL personal assistant!

  2. I am an early adopter. I received my Amazon Echo on Friday November 28. Out of the box, I had no issue in setting this device up. The device has limited capabilities that I do hope Amazon will address soon. For example, I asked Alexa sitting the Mississippi St. And

    • Edit… Mississippi game about the score and Alexa could not tell me. I went straight to my phone and asked Google, and Google responded with the current score. The voice commands are hit it miss sometimes. Playing Prime Music is easy, but I think I would like a service such as Google Play integrated so that the music selection is wider. I don’t buy much music. If additional features are added, this will be an awesome device.

  3. uh…. did you even try the device? from this article, obviously not.

    • Anita Campbell

      Erik, did you watch the video? Brent Leary, who provided the expertise for this article, recorded a video in which he is using the Echo device. Scroll down and watch the video that is embedded in the article, and your question will be answered.

      – Anita

  4. Aira Bongco

    Good and unique design for a speaker but it needs more oomph to be able to sell and get the attention of people who are already bombarded with a lot of options.

  5. I heard on a radio show that Echo transmits all conversation it hears to the Amazon cloud-not just your commands-making it a full time spy bot on all of your activities…

  6. This is exactly what I am looking for. I’m a mid-50’s tech hound. I loved being an early adopter B.C. – before college, two kids in right now. So these days I wait for version 2.0 and the inevitable price drop.
    We also have strict mealtime etiquette – no cell phones at the dinner table. But we have very lively dinner conversation, and questions always come up – ‘how much did 1888 summer temperatures go down after Krakatoa erupted’ would be a recent example. And if I want to grab my phone to look up the answer, I get shouted down for breaking the rules. Also, my daughter likes doing her homework at the kitchen table, listening to music from the speaker of her iPod. I am a prime member awaiting my invitation for the echo @ $99. At this price, the gadget is hard to resist – if one is looking for a real-time on-line reference librarian; and an easy, decent-sounding bluetooth speaker

  7. What I got from this article is that it’s not worth buying (right now). Buying for future upgrades is pretty useless at this point. Who knows if it’s weeks, months, or years before they program all that functionality in? by that point, either the echo2 will be out or the price will drop from the $199 MSRP anyways.

  8. When I first saw the Echo I wanted it RIGHT AWAY. As a Prime member I asked for an invitation. I could hardly wait to buy one. However, as MUCH time has gone by without an invitation I am wondering if I even want one at all. Had they sent me an invitation right away I would have bought one. Now I think I have saved myself a hundred bucks.

  9. I’d like this one to have. Very unique speaker. It’s very intriguing. But it’s really hard to purchase. My friend is getting this one next week.

  10. I have the Echo now for a couple weeks. We use it mostly as a voice controlled radio. Which it does a good job of. I ran across this article while looking for things to do with it. It is a good bluetooth speaker as well as having it’s own built in streaming based on Prime music, Pandora Radio, iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio for local stations. between these choices I can usually find the music I want and they let you upload 250 songs of your own free. For a fee they will house your whole music collection if you want. It does a fair job of answering trivia questions or searching for them if it doesn’t have the answer handy. Results are shown in the included app. She will read the top news stories but that feature is not all there yet.
    I would not have purchased a $99 voice controlled radio no matter how good it is. I bought it because it has a lot of potential. It does let you add stuff to the two lists in the app. A to do list and a shopping list. Neither are connected to anything but he app. I use the voice activated timer/alarm a lot. I would like to see some smarts like when you say Hi instead of just saying Hi back the device should be able to do a preset task or list of tasks. Same with goodbye or anything like that. If it could connect to my phone as a headset that would be better than as just a speaker. That way I could talk to Cortana through the echo. There is no windows phone echo app yet. I am using a tablet for the app right now.

  11. I got the Prime $99 and it was worth that for a boy toy. But it’s pretty limited. Now, it’s starting to play songs requested, most of the time, twice…and it finds obscure versions. I’m NOT going to pay Amazon $25 a year to store my entire iTunes library; it should be able to play them from my iMac over the wireless network. I’m sick of this Amazon vs. Microsoft vs. Apple vs. Samsung pissing contest!

  12. I shop for a 50 year old lady with ALS. After years of our sharing book recommendations, she told me she no longer could read books because her arms and hands no longer work. She had been a voracious reader. We got her a subscription to Audible. Now the Echo reads to her all day. I can’t keep up with her!

    She also tells Alexa her shopping list and I log in and get it each week. And of course uses it to find out the time when it is too difficult to turn to the clock.

    Alexa has changed her life.

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