Amazon’s Echo is a good listener but a wretched assistant

Never has the gap between a flawless technology experience and a closed ecosystem loomed as large as the gap between the Amazon Echo and the Ubi personal computer. While Amazon’s Echo works beautifully and is a gorgeous cylinder that is ready to hear and (attempt to) obey my every command from pretty much anywhere in the room, it fails because its abilities to connect with a variety of web services are very limited.

Meanwhile, the Ubi, a voice-activated computer that is older and, yes, much more painful to use, wants to do the same thing. Like a teenager, though, it isn’t adept at listening to my commands, sometimes awkwardly interrupting my conversations, and its music playback is not nearly as graceful as the Echo’s.

But what the Ubi lacks in technical ability it makes up in a democratic willingness to try to control a variety of web services via If This Then That, SmartThings and others. If you combined Ubi’s openness with Amazon’s grace and technical acumen — provided by the powerful speakers inside the Echo and the seven-mic array that pics up your voice from across the room — you’d have the perfect voice-activated digital assistant.

Instead, I paid the [company]Amazon[/company] Prime member price of $99 (it’s $199 for non-Prime members) for what is basically a voice-activated timer, task list and way to access my Amazon Prime music library. The Echo also answers questions via a Bing search about 70 percent of the time it’s asked, although some basics — such as my requests to convert a temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius — proved unintelligible to the Echo (you can see that in the screenshot below).

Echo recognized requests from half a dozen people, including two children, although my daughter is having a hard time with Echo because she can’t always say “Alexa,” the wake word we use for the device. (Sadly, you only get two options for your wake word: Alexa or Amazon, but a spokesperson from Amazon says it will add more wake words over time.) You can’t change the search engine, so you’d better love Bing.

How it works

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Before I get too deeply into my review of the Echo, let me pause to explain how it works and what it can do. The device is a little under nine inches tall and is about the diameter of a wine bottle. It has a ring of lights at the top that acts as an indicator, showing it has heard your command, and can be turned to raise or lower the volume. As electronics go, it’s elegant enough to sit in a visible place in your home. Mine’s on my kitchen counter and I can talk to it from just about anywhere in my downstairs living room, dining or kitchen area.

The Echo also comes with a remote control that you can stick to a surface via a magnet or double-sided tape. The remote reportedly comes in handy for communicating with the Echo in noisy environments, but I’ve found it’s most helpful for fast-forwarding songs that I dislike since my home is rarely noisy enough that the Echo can’t hear us. Using the remote for this is faster than saying “Alexa, skip this song.”

When you open the package, setup takes less than 10 minutes and requires you to go to Amazon’s site to download the Amazon Echo app to your Android phone. The app lets you customize things such as your zip code (so Echo can get weather and news for your area), plus specify important elements such as purchasing preferences.

The app uses the card format you may recognize from Google Now.
The app uses the card format you may recognize from Google Now.

For example, the automatic purchasing was turned on when I got the device, which meant that I could just tell the Echo to buy Taylor Swift’s album and could have it in my music library immediately. Thankfully, I don’t have one-click ordering turned on, and as added protection against my eight-year-old’s love of Top 40 songs and instant gratification, I also added a PIN number I need to enter before making a purchase.

You can use the app to see what the Echo heard when it misses your verbal request, and to check your Shopping or To Do list. It’s also where you can go to create multiple profiles so you or your partner can share a single Echo but have multiple To Do lists. I’ve found the app to be a good place to troubleshoot when the Echo gets things wrong. It is also popular in our house since we occasionally ask the device for the Spanish translation of an English word, and the translation goes into the app because Echo doesn’t know how to speak it.

What works, what doesn’t

Like any new tool, the Echo takes a bit of getting used to. I imagine in a few weeks it will have completely supplanted a few items in my home, such as the egg timer. I like the timer setting, although the alarm is a bit quiet. I use it for cooking, but also for keeping track of time — “Alexa, set a timer for 4 pm.” I also like asking it to tell me the time since we can’t see the clock from our living room couch.

We’ve been adding things to a shopping list though Echo, although we don’t use that as our master list yet for the weekly run to the grocery store. We also haven’t tried out the feature to let our daughter bring up webpages on her Kindle Fire tablet for schoolwork, but I’m looking forward to that. The idea is that she can say “Alexa, search tornadoes on Wikipedia,” and the page will come up on her Fire Tablet.

We dislike the Echo’s Amazon-centric worldview. My family spends plenty of cash on Amazon each month, but our lives are managed via Google calendars and our entertainment is on Netflix, Spotify (mostly consumed over a Sonos) and Hulu. Our home automation runs the gamut from Philips Hue bulbs to a Nest and Chamberlain garage door opener integrated with SmartThings and IFTTT. I’d like to bring those devices and services into the Echo. Amazon does have integrations with TuneIn and iHeartRadio, and I would expect to see more integrations coming since the brains of the Echo are hosted in the cloud and can be updated over time. Amazon’s spokesman does note that other Amazon products have an SDK and that Amazon does want to hear from developers about what they want to do with the Echo, so there’s some hope out there, although Amazon is a company that is known to build proprietary versions of existing open source platforms.

Is the Echo a Jambox rival?
Is the Echo a Jambox rival?

The Echo also acts as a Bluetooth speaker playing music via Spotify, Pandora and other services via your phone, so people considering a Jawbone Jambox might consider Echo instead. It sounds as good as the mini Jambox, although it’s not as adept with the bass. You have to control playback via the phone, not via your voice.

Why not add…

Since Amazon is clearly thinking about ways to build devices that push them deeper into the home and gather more data, there are ways to make the Echo more robust and yet unique enough that Amazon can truly make it an essential gadget in many homes. Here are some things I’d like to see, beyond the ability to control more web services:

  • Expansion packs for languages, so I can query for vocabulary or questions in other languages.
  • Home automation control so I can integrate it with my Nest, Hue lights or SmartThings.
  • A safe mode for my kid, so she can’t purchase anything, but also so she can’t inadvertently play music or send websites to her Kindle Fire that she shouldn’t. Ideally, this would be based on voice recognition.
  • A way to link two Echoes together and sync them, the way you can with a Sonos music player in party mode. As speakers go, these sound pretty good, so some people might use them all over their house instead of investing in multiple Bluetooth or Sonos speakers.

The end game

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As a consumer and Amazon Prime member already, I’d pay $100 for the Echo because I’m old and having voice-controlled access to Amazon’s Prime Music streaming service fits my musical tastes (long live the 90s!). Plus, I like the list features and have a chunk of my music on Amazon’s cloud already. If I weren’t a Prime member this would be a much tougher sell.

If I hated the existing Prime Music offerings, I wouldn’t buy the Echo unless I already bought my music on Amazon and kept it in Amazon’s cloud, or if I were a big user of TuneIn or iHeartRadio. But I do see the device as a unique, well-done offering from a technological perspective that could put Amazon deeper into people’s homes if it manages to open it up a bit more.

I like the Echo and find myself looking for more ways to interact with it, and hope those come along in the near future. If Amazon is really a company hell-bent on getting more data to sell me more physical and digital goods, then the Echo can gather a lot more data about a lot more devices if Amazon wants to let it control more things. So both from a selling-more-Echoes perspective and a business-strategy perspective, my hope is that we see Amazon open Alexa up.

And yes, I did say that again.