The latest new gadget in our household is the Amazon Echo. “Alexa” has been a part of our lives for the last month. She lives in our kitchen, on the island next to the sippy cups and tissues. At first our one year old thought we were crazy, voice commanding the air, but now even our toddler seems to be okay with Alexa’s existence — or relatively unphased by our commands to the invisible person in the room. It was almost alarming how quickly Alexa became a staple – reminding me of the Spike Jonze’s movie Her about a man (in the future) who falls in love with his operating system.
We really had zero expectations for Echo, other than we figured it might be at worst another bluetooth speaker that was pretty easy to move around. As active Amazon Prime members, we got a pretty great discount on the Echo and received it relatively quickly. If you’re not up on what Amazon Echo is all about, it’s pretty much Siri for your house as well as a bluetooth speaker. It responds to voice commands, yet also comes with a remote. You also have to download the Amazon Echo mobile app to set it up and extend the features. So, here’s what I can share about Echo this first month:
- Weather reports. Seeing as I have to dress a toddler every morning, I ask her daily what the weather is. It’s nice that I don’t have to chase down my phone in a three-story row house to do this.
- Grocery list. At first, I was hesitant to abandon our GroceryIQ list (a native mobile app), but it works similarly. You can say, “Alexa, add hot sauce to the shopping list” and it appears in the Echo app and perfectly syncs with the app/list on my husband’s phone.
- Music – This is a primary function of the Echo, however – this is also on the Con list. You can access Pandora playlists and if you upload your songs to Amazon, you can access your song library. The first 100 songs are free, but after that you have to pay an annual fee for Amazon to host your song library. I believe its $25 a year – a pretty reasonable price really. I’m holding out in hopes they may have a partnership with Spotify in the future, but it’s probably highly unlikely considering Amazon’s Prime Music services. Still, I’m a morning listener of NPR and it’s nice to listen to it without having to hunt down my phone.
- Timer – setting a timer with a voice command is a really helpful function in the kitchen.
- Calendar – Echo syncs with your Google calendars, which is great for the household. I can ask Alexa when my next appointment is or what my schedule looks like for the day. I haven’t tried to sync it to my Outlook calendar yet, but the functionality exists. How convenient would that be to set appointments? Another con here though because Alexa can’t SET appointments yet, she can only give you a summary of what’s already on your calendar.
- Awesome customer service. My husband and I contacted support on a couple of items out of curiosity. We had asked Alexa to play, “Wheels on the Bus” for my daughter. Alexa heard, “Wheels on the Base.” Within hours, we received a personalized email by a support person with a great sense of humor. The support person laughed and said, “Thanks to you I’ve had ‘Wheels on the Bus’ stuck in my head all day long.” He assured us that Alexa is always learning. She’s learning our accents too, so when my Missouri drawl comes out, she’ll be used to it. Our nanny is also foreign, so it’s great that Alexa is used to her voice commands now too.
- More in the works – future possibilities!
- It has to be plugged in. It doesn’t hold a charge. You can’t take Alexa to the beach and use her as a speaker. This is the #1 complaint I have.
- You have to upload music to the Amazon library. (Complaint/concern mentioned above.)
- Geolocation services – my sister (who also recently received her Echo) tried to find out what the closest food delivery service was and Alexa couldn’t help. Being able to provide more assistance via Google and geolocation would be a nice added feature.
- She can’t read me my horoscope of the day. Same with answering random questions like, “When is Game of Thrones on?” or “When was the Declaration of Independence established?” I think this is largely because she can’t access Google. She will direct you to use Bing in the Echo app. Because having Echo in the kitchen is such a useful, central location, it would be great if she could provide easy recipes when prompted.
I would say the other main concern of anyone these days is privacy. It’s a little scary to think just how much data Amazon has on my household at this point. As all of us rely more and more on Google and Amazon these days, it’s hard not to worry about the what ifs of voluntarily giving away this kind of personal information freely to a service like Amazon.
Still, while Echo is still in its infancy, there’s a lot of promise here as we continue to see what technology (Apple HomeKit, anyone?) is developed for the home ecosystem.