Alexa, tell me what it's like to use the Amazon Echo
Four Verge staffers share their experiences
After a stint as an invitation-only beta, the Echo — Amazon’s oddball voice assistant and Bluetooth loudspeaker for the home — is now available to anyone who’s willing to pay the $179.99 asking price. We've already reviewed it, but in the eight months since it launched, the Echo has grown considerably with new capabilities, integrations, and connected home control. For the moment, Amazon shows no signs of slowing this train down.
Is it a gimmick, a marginally useful niche gadget, or something more? Several members of our staff have now set up Echoes in their homes; for some, it’s an idle curiosity, but for others there’s a genuine hope that it’ll solve some real-world problems.
Here are The Verge’s Echo users in their own words.
The foundation of the Echo is a ridiculously simple concept: it’s an always-on mic and speaker that connects to a cloud. It’s effectively Siri, disembodied from its iPhone. That’s it.
At first blush, that sounds alright, I suppose. I use Siri perhaps a few times a month, more often as a joke or a fleeting form of entertainment than anything else. ("What’s zero divided by zero?" is the jokey Siri answer du jour.) And when I started using an Echo a few weeks ago, that’s exactly how we interacted — only very rarely, and mostly as a curiosity.
At launch, Echo’s capabilities were relatively limited; it could play music off Amazon’s not-very-useful Prime streaming service, tell you about the weather, answer simple questions with answers readily available in Wikipedia or a calculator, and not much more. But the boundaries of Echo’s cloud-based brain are dynamic, and Amazon is scaling those boundaries very, very quickly — especially now that Echo is graduating from an invite-only beta to a product that anyone can buy.
In recent weeks, for instance, Amazon has added Pandora integration and support for controlling some popular connected home devices. Pandora may not be my music service of choice, but as an ambient source of jazz while I’m working, it’s an awful lot better than Amazon Prime Music. Granted, Spotify integration would be wonderful, and the rate at which the Echo is evolving behind the scenes gives me hope that we’ll get there pretty quickly.
But I also use Hue lights, which my Echo now controls. I have the good (and bad) fortune of living in a microscopic Manhattan apartment, which means I could afford to outfit my entire place with Hue bulbs. With the Echo, I quite literally don’t touch light switches anymore. "Alexa, turn off the living room lights" gets the job done. It’s one of those exceedingly rare, legitimate Jetsons moments.
And this is where I noticed the magic starting to happen: the Echo — and by extension, my home — is silently evolving, getting smarter. Meanwhile, I’m growing accustomed to talking at a nondescript black cylinder. We’re meeting in the middle. I no longer feel strange about issuing Alexa commands, and it no longer feels like an idle curiosity to do so. We’re growing and learning together. I now use it daily. It’s a transition that happened seamlessly, and I’m to the point now that I’d miss it if it were gone.
In retrospect, it’s crazy to me that Google didn’t randomly toss out an Echo-like "Google Now box" during one of its notoriously wild I/O keynotes at some point in the past several years. It seems like such a Google concept! But here we are: it’s Amazon, not Google, that just committed $100 million to grow voice technology and the Echo’s capabilities. I’ll be interested to find out what new tricks my apartment-with-ears learns over time.
The smartphone, having now fully made the shift from magic future box to commodity product, has given way to a restless search for the next trillion-dollar game changer. Some say it’s AR, some say it’s VR, some say it’s wearables.
Having lived with this Echo for a while, I can’t help but feel like the industry slept on another possibility altogether.
I’ve only had the Echo (a review unit) for a little over a week, so I haven’t gotten to the point that Chris has yet — it’s not an essential part of my apartment. But I feel like I want it to be. There are dusty, unvisited parts of my digital life that I’m revisiting for the first time in years because of the Echo. I’ve never wanted smart bulbs, but now I’m considering buying a set of Hue light bulbs. I’ve never bothered with TuneIn, but maybe the idea that I could get more nuanced news and music from it is intriguing.
More than anything, the fact that I’ve actually bothered to look at my Amazon music locker is telling. It’s one of those Amazon Prime services that I just plain forget exists. But Amazon’s streaming music library is so weak, I’ve looked at setting up my own playlists there. It’s just too bad that Prime Music is a threadbare service. Even so, it’s notable that Amazon has created every company’s dream gadget: a device that compels me to find a way to use that company’s other services. The team behind the Fire Phone must be beside themselves at the attention the Echo has garnered.
The fact that I’ve actually bothered to look at my Amazon music locker is telling
But what I’m actually excited about is Amazon’s just-announced initiatives to let any hardware developer make an Alexa-device and any software developer plug into it. The Echo is nice, but I want more. I want an Alexa-powered alarm clock (pour one out for the Chumby), a waterproof Alexa Bluetooth speaker in the shower. I want to holler questions and demands from anywhere in my apartment and have devices cater to my whims. I want everything listening, all the time.
Except, well, maybe I don’t? My fiancée has various nicknames for the Echo, none of them flattering: The Listener, Spy Tube, and That Damned Speaker. Yes, in theory it’s not listening all the time, only activating its connection to the cloud when it hears its command word. But I’m placing a remarkable amount of trust in the Echo’s security model, Amazon’s beneficence, and that the developers who make apps for it won’t be able to abuse it. I should be troubled by all the disturbing possibilities raised by having a listening device constantly connected to a giant retail empire in my home.
But I can reorder AA batteries for my Xbox controller by plaintively asking Alexa at the precise moment I’m digging through a junk drawer and realize I’m about to run out.
My experiences with the Echo (I’ve been using one for slightly longer than Dieter, but not as long as Chris) are similar to my colleagues'. (You could even say many of my sentiments echo theirs.) But I’m not as bullish on it as they are, simply because I’m not willing to bend my life around it to make it most useful. Neither is my wife, who is home the most and would potentially benefit the most from the Echo’s features.
I don’t use the Echo to play music simply because, as my colleagues have already noted, Pandora is terrible and Amazon’s Prime Music is even worse. This could change if Amazon added support for Spotify or Apple Music, but given Spotify’s commitment to its own Connect service and Apple’s general approach to working with others, I’m not optimistic that the Echo will ever support those. The Echo can be used as a Bluetooth speaker, but that requires pairing each device individually to it and, frankly, takes the whole novelty out of using the Echo. (A few days after I placed the Echo in our kitchen, my wife asked when the Sonos speaker that used to be there would return because it was too much of a hassle to play the music she wanted to listen to with the Echo.)
That leaves the Echo to be primarily an assistant for me. I can use it to turn off the Philips Hue lights in my office, which is admittedly cool, but only marginally more convenient than just tapping the button in the app on my phone or watch. I can ask it what the weather is going to be like, but by the time I’ve done that, my phone is already alerting me to the day’s weather, and I didn’t even have to ask it to do so. I can ask it random trivia, but that’s also something I can do with my phone almost as easily, and the novelty wears off quickly anyways. I could reorder items I’ve purchased from Amazon Prime with the Echo, but I’ve yet to do so because, aside from diapers, which are already delivered to me automatically through Amazon’s own Subscribe and Save program, I don’t really buy the same things from Amazon over and over.
The one thing that I was really hoping to use the Echo for was managing my family’s shared groceries list. Apple’s Reminders works really well for this: my wife and I can share a single list on our phones (I can even sync it my Android phone with a couple of apps) and we can add items to it with Siri. But adding things to our list while my head is in the pantry or refrigerator by just barking commands at Alexa would be even easier. Amazon advertises the ability to sync the Echo’s shopping list with iOS’ Reminders, but it relies on a hacky IFTTT recipe that has worked far less often than it has failed for me.
Then there’s the premise of using the Echo entirely with your voice. In my home, where I share space with a noisy toddler and almost as noisy infant, voice commands sent to the Echo are either frequently interrupted or misinterpreted by others in the house as conversation with them. (Anyone who has an inquisitive toddler knows that anytime you open your mouth, they want to be a part of the conversation.) Amazon could do some things to make using the Echo without your voice easier, such as making one of the two buttons on it pause music with a single tap, but right now all I can do is change the volume or pull out my smartphone.
Voice commands sent to the Echo are either frequently interrupted or misinterpreted by others in the house
There are points of brilliance with the Echo: the voice recognition is often accurate and it’s able to give responses more quickly than smartphones. (I’ve also found the ring light to be charming, especially how it is brightest in the direction where a voice command is coming from, almost as if it’s looking at you.) There’s a lot of potential here (and as Dieter noted, Amazon’s recent announcement of allowing third-party devices access to Alexa could result in some really interesting and potentially more useful things), but I can’t shake the feeling that a similar product from Apple or Google would work better for me, simply because I don’t want to convert my entire life over to Amazon’s inferior services.
Amazon has been aggressively updating the Echo since its debut late last year, and if it continues doing so, the Echo we have in six months could be wildly different than the Echo we have today. If you’re the type that is happy to be a beta tester of sorts, the Echo can be a fun little novelty that isn’t prohibitively expensive. But as a life-changing device, it’s not quite there yet.
I love my Echo, but it’s a hazy, bittersweet love defined by a sense of inevitable doom. I am in a May-December romance with a digital assistant, and we’re probably not going to stay in touch when it’s over.
What the Alexa is, more than anything, is a killer proof of concept. Turns out having a computer that stays in one place waiting for spoken commands is a terrific idea. And the execution is great. The Echo’s directional noise-canceling microphone is excellent; the little trick where the LED ring on top follows you around the room as you speak is delightful. The voice recognition is solid. About the only hardware flaw in the Echo is the speaker itself, which is a little flat and muffled. But it’s fine; it’s at least as good as the cheap iPhone speaker dock we’ve kept in the kitchen for years.
But as soon as you get past the hardware to software and services, the Echo reveals itself to be a good idea awaiting great execution. Prime Music only has a million tracks in its streaming library, compared to 30 million for nearly every other service, so it’s just missing a bunch of stuff. (I like the Echo so much I almost paid $24.99/year to upload my old iTunes library to Amazon’s locker service to improve the selection, which is a terrible use of money.) The Echo iPhone app hasn’t been updated for the iPhone 6, and is really just a web wrapper that doesn’t quite work right, so the whole thing feels sloppy. And, most damningly, the Echo doesn’t know the difference between me and my wife, so it’s far less useful to her because it’s so deeply connected to my Amazon account and other services.
But it’s the relative weakness of Amazon’s services that kind of doom the Echo: you can see Apple or Google or Microsoft releasing a similar product that more seamlessly connects to their more-dominant ecosystems. It would be wild if Apple put Siri in the next Apple TV and AirPlay speakers around the house could connect to it, like a next-generation hybrid of Jarvis and Sonos. Google Now is begging for an Echo-like implementation. And Microsoft’s Cortana is brilliant but begging for a signature product; Windows Phone just isn’t going to cut it.
I don’t know if any of that is going to happen; it might not. But I do know that I keep bumping up against the Echo’s limitations in a way that suggests this relationship will burn hot and bright until it burns right out.