“That’s OK,” I continue, “Alexa, I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
“Now playing samples of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
This is the first conversation I had with Alexa, a personal assistant built-in to the $199 Amazon Echo (about £125, AU$230), a cylindrical wireless Bluetooth speaker developed by an experimental e-commerce giant.
After spending a week with it in my home, it’s clear that Amazon Echo is something you don’t know you want until you have it, and something you don’t miss until it’s gone. Which is surprising, really, when you consider that its primary function – a Bluetooth speaker for music – is actually pretty subpar.
The main attraction is the always listening, always-connected AI, Alexa. She can understand everything from music requests (a feature that works better if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber) to basic trivia. Alexa can give you a morning news briefing and even add items to your shopping or to-do lists, which can be found in the accompanying Echo app.
What Alexa can do is slightly limited at the moment – don’t try asking about specific historical, sports, entertainment or political events. But focusing only on what it (she?) can do right at this moment devalues the product and, more importantly, Amazon’s grand, invite-only experiment.
If I didn’t know what I know about portable Bluetooth speakers, it’d be easy to mistake the Echo for a portable dehumidifier. It’s all matte black exterior and 9.25 x 3.27 inch cylindrical shape gives it the kind of camouflage you’d expect from an appliance.
Another difference between the Echo and other portable speakers is that the Echo isn’t exactly portable. It needs to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi at all times. (Which, considering the six-foot power cable, can be a bit of a struggle.)
And this decision makes sense when you give it some thought. How could an always-on microphone hear you if it runs out of power? It couldn’t. Moreover, how would it send your voice to Amazon servers without a connection to the Internet? Again, not going to happen.
Sure, it’s a hassle to always be connected, but Wi-Fi networks are a dime-a-dozen in 2015.
On top of the cannister are two buttons, mute and listen, while the top ring rotates to raise or lower volume. If you’re worried about regular controls (play, pause, forward and backward), don’t. The Echo comes with a traditional remote identical to the one that comes with the Amazon Fire TV, or can be controlled from your phone via the Amazon Echo App.
Speaking of, the app isn’t the most fleshed-out companion app I’ve ever used, and can feel pretty barren in comparison to the Amazon Fire TV storefront. I found a few of the selections relatively useful – controlling radio stations via the app is painless compared to asking Alexa to do it – but the design looks and feels like it certainly wasn’t ready for release.
Along the bottom of the Echo is a 360-degree speaker grille that gives it some surprisingly room-filling sound along with a small, white Amazon logo.
While the Echo can crank the volume, the quality of the sound near its upper and lower limits leaves a lot to be desired.
Testing took place in two environments: my small, 12 x 14 ft bedroom and much larger 20 x 15 ft living room. The confined space, as you might expect, benefitted the quieter volume levels and completely muddled anything above 7. Given enough space, sound only faltered at the highest levels, 9 and 10, but Alexa had a tougher time picking up commands. At least the balance around volumes 4-6 were spot on.
Any other Bluetooth speaker with these kinds of problems would’ve been grounds for a failing grade. But the fact that Alexa not only needs to produce a lot of noise, but be able to hear over it as well, is good reason to cut it some slack.
Streaming music selection
Now that I’ve sold you on its music-playing capabilities (not), you’re probably thinking, “but gee, what can I play on it?”
The Echo supports TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Pandora and, if you’re a Prime subscriber, Amazon Prime Music.
The first two require syncing registered accounts to your companion app, and can be activated by some very round-about voice commands. (“Alexa, play Foo Fighters on iHeartRadio.” “Would you like me to add a Foo Fighters station to your iHeartRadio account?” “Uh…yes?” “OK. I’ve added it.”)
Most of the time though, Amazon Prime Music is Alexa’s go-to media app. If the song isn’t available on Prime Music – and trust me, two out of three songs are not – then Alexa will play a sample from the Amazon Music Store instead. Decide you like what you’re listening to? Buying the song or album is as simple as saying “Alexa, buy this song,” and confirming the price.
But, if all else fails or you don’t feel like re-buying songs you’ve paid for on other services, there’s one last-ditch effort to get your music: Amazon will actually allow you to import 250 songs to the cloud from your personal collection for free. This may not sound like a lot, but for those of us with one or two go-to playlists, it compensates for any slight inconvenience it caused to add them.
When it works, Alexa feels like the talking computer sci-fi has been dreaming of for the last 50 years. Conversations can happen in informal language and queries are picked up by natural cues instead of awkward syntax. Both “Alexa tell me about razors” and “Alexa, what is a razor?” lead me to the same answer, and feel completely natural when said out loud.
I’m sorry Nick, I’m afraid I can’t do that
At this stage however, Alexa’s knowledge base is limited. Asking something like “Alexa, who’s the best player on Real Madrid?” or “Alexa, who’s the Green Bay Packer’s quarterback?” won’t turn anything up. Amazon provides a work-around in the Echo app, allowing you to perform a Bing search on every interaction, but in the time it takes to pull out my phone and find my question in the app, I could’ve easily used Google or, you know, asked Siri.
Another hurdle for the Echo is that it’s not dialed in to my email, cell phone contacts or calendar in the same way Siri or Cortana are. Ultimately this means no sending voice messages to friends or modifying my schedule for the day. This is something the competition does so well it’s almost second nature, so to see no attempt to take this on from Amazon was disheartening.
Alexa, as an AI, feels more like a fun parlor trick that I could show off at a dinner party, rather than a full-fledged personal assistant like the other two. What’s there is solid and fun, and hopefully the functionality for everything else comes sooner rather than later.
In almost every scenario I can think of, the Echo, and by extension Alexa, are more of a novelty than a necessity. They’re not practical tools to get work done, and even as a standard Bluetooth speaker failed to pass an aural test.
The upside is that for $199 ($99 for Prime members) it’s not the most expensive novelty I’ve ever purchased. As I stated earlier, I really can’t see myself going back to a run-of-the-mill speaker after spending so much time with the Echo.
Amazon has its work cut out for its AI team, as there are still dozens of areas where Siri and Cortana run circles around Alexa. It’s not fair to expect that Alexa knows the answer to obscure pop-culture questions, but I think it’s reasonable that Alexa should know what’s on my calendar for the day.
If you’re paranoid of Amazon always listening-in on your conversations or content with the one know-it-all AI you already own, the Echo really isn’t worth the price of admission. But, if you’re ready to take a step into the connected home and are willing to ride out a few bumps on the way, you’ll find the Echo a nifty way to unwind with some music at the end of the day.
Editor’s note: We’ve reached out to Amazon about UK/AU pricing and availability details, and will update this review when we know more.