Having lived with Amazon Echo for two weeks, I now feel qualified to give my verdict. I’ve read so many reviews raving about Echo that I feel somewhat at a loss because currently I don’t particularly rate it – I would certainly add some caveats to any advice suggesting you should cough up a hundred and fifty quid to buy one.
The Good Stuff
Amazon’s Echo is nicely engineered, available in white or black (get black, fingerprints on white won’t look good) and the device won’t look out of place in any house.
It’s great for voice recognition and very rarely fails to wake up when you invoke the “Alexa” command, even when there’s background noise or the TV is playing.
Even without access to the new Amazon Music Unlimited which is coming next year, there’s a fair selection of music to listen to and you can connect your Spotify account should you wish. You can also listen to a wide selection of radio stations though the TuneIn skill which is enabled as default.
Sound quality for music is definitely above par although not quite as good as Sonus. If you’re looking for a background music source it’s great, if you’re one of those people happy to spend out a couple of grand on Bose speakers then you already know the Echo isn’t for you.
Echo is brilliant for acting as an expensive egg timer and can easily link to your Google calendar to notify you of your appointments on request. It won’t be reading out your emails or text messages or doing anything useful other than add items to your To Do list or Shopping List in the companion Alexa app.
Echo’s lack of Skills
Echo ships with 3,000 skills which you can enable to add functionality. Don’t be fooled though, most of them are US based apps and those that aren’t are spam apps (Do you really need to ask Alexa when you last fed the damn dog? The dog will happily tell you when it’s hungry!)
There are perhaps a dozen UK based skills which you conceivably might want to enable. National Rail to check the train times, Just Eat for food deliveries, Uber to order a taxi and a couple of newspapers you can add to your daily news fix (which Amazon insist on referring to as your ‘Flash news briefing’).
Even these apps haven’t made me happy though. Uber don’t operate in Thatcham and Just Eat has some of the dodgiest local Indian and Chinese restaurants and not a lot more.
Alexa Technology Integration Problems
If you’ve seen the adverts for Echo type devices they’re all about controlling your home. There are limits however and to do anything you’ll be investing in British Gas Hive, Philips Hue or similar devices and it’s going to cost you. For Hive, to control my central heating, a few lights and a couple of power points the bill would come to just over five hundred quid.
The big disappointment is the realisation that I’m not going to be able to control my TV any time soon. Yes I could power it on through Alexa and Hive, but that just applies power and leaves the TV in standby mode. Somehow the TV needs to be switched on and an HDMI input selected. A set top box needs to be powered up and then a channel selected. There are ways to do this with IFTTT technology combined with an infrared blaster, but this isn’t something for those that aren’t very tech savvy – it’s certainly not an out of the box solution.
Alexa is dumb
I could forgive the Echo’s lack of skills and the expense or impossibility of turning my house into a smart home if she was useful in other ways. The problem is that Alexa, the name for the Echo’s assistant, is simply a bit stupid.
For instance I can ask Echo what traffic on my regular commute is like, but I have to have previously entered the post code for my commute into the Alexa App. I asked Alexa how long it would take to get to Manchester and she told me it was 148 miles as the crow flies but she couldn’t say how long it would take to get there as she didn’t know how fast I was travelling! It’s nothing like asking Google who will happily figure out a driving route, give you an ETA and make the route available on your mobile ready for when you set off.
Alexa is also pretty poor at finding basic information for you. She can tell you how tall the Eifel Tower is, but she can’t tell you who designed it, where it is, how you’d get there or what the opening times are – all stuff that we’ve been conditioned to expect a search engine to instantly answer.
Amazon’s Echo simply doesn’t operate like even a basic search engine and nine times out of ten will respond with an apology that she can’t answer that or at most that she’s sent a Bing search query to the Alexa app ready for you to click. The problem is that rather than open the Alexa app to retrieve the Bing search query, I’ve probably already given up in frustration and simply said “Ok Google” and asked my Android Smartphone for the information Echo failed to supply.
The Alexa App is unpolished and needs work. Whenever you open it you have to scroll past a number of recommended spam apps that no one is ever going to install. There’s no voice search or voice input, no way to hide US based apps and only see apps useful in the UK.
The people that will benefit most today from Amazon Echo are those who would appreciate a device to play their music and probably live in London. If you live out in the sticks Just Eat, Uber and Underground won’t be much use to you and there’ll be a good chance you don’t even live near a railway station so you won’t bother putting in your regular train journey as you don’t have one.
As a relatively good music device (plus a few extras such as reading out the news) Echo is a nice device but hardly worth the money. It feels like a beta product, a well designed elegant device but lacking in software, unpolished and not really ready. The big disappointment is that you can’t use it as an intelligent voice internet search engine.
Buy an Echo if you like cutting edge technology and want to play with it. Don’t buy one if you expect it to change your life because the chances are that today it won’t.
Perhaps history will look back at Amazon Echo not as the bleeding edge of voice control in the smart home that it purports to be, but as the innovator and first to market device which spurred competitors to create better, smarter, more polished and more complete devices that might actually do something useful.