Like a lot of people this Christmas, I was lucky enough to receive an Amazon Echo as a gift. For those that don’t know what this is, it’s basically a speaker with an internet enabled voice assistant that works in a similar way as Siri on your iPhone, or “Ok Google” is on your Android phone. So for example, if you want to know the weather forecast, you simply ask it and it speaks a response, rather than you have to type a search into Google or run an App.
The official blurb from Amazon is…
“Amazon Echo is a hand-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, answer questions, make calls, send and receive messages, provide information, news sports scored, weather and more. All you have to do is ask.
Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive sound. It has seven microphones and beam-forming technology so it can hear you from across the room — even while music is playing. When you want to use Echo, just say the wake word, “Alexa”, and Echo lights up and responds to your request.“
There are a few different Amazon Echo devices as follows:
Amazon Echo Dot (pictured above, currently £49.99) — The smallest and cheapest Echo that works exactly as the others. The downside to the dot is that is has a small and fairly weak speaker. It can however be connected to external speakers either by a physical wire, or via bluetooth.
Amazon Echo (£89.99) — This is the device I have. It has the same footprint as the Echo Dot but is a lot taller as it has a half decent in built speaker which makes up the bulk of the device.
Amazon Echo Plus (£139.99) — This is even taller than the Echo and the main difference is an in-built hub to help with smart home connectivity.
There are also couple of new devices that include screens but to me the beauty of the Echo is that it is all voice. If I wanted to look at a screen as well, I may as well just my phone…
So now you know what it is, and the different variants; here’s how I’ve got on with my Echo, what I’ve learnt so far, and what I think.
Let me start by saying that when voice assistants were first announced, I really couldn’t see the point of them. My initial thoughts were that as all smartphones have this type of functionality built in, why wouldn’t you just use your phone. Having used my Echo (or Alexa as the voice assistant is called) for about 3 weeks now, I do think it’s quite different and much more convenient.
If I’m at home and want to know the weather forecast, I now just say “Alexa, what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow” and have it read to me within seconds. Previously, I’d have got my phone out of my pocket, unlocked it, and run my weather App. Hardly difficult I know, but once you get used to voice, it does become the norm and is far quicker and more convenient than you might imagine.
So what are my main uses for it?
I’ve just looked at my history for the last week (The Echo has an associated App to change settings, view history etc, as well as a web based admin system) to see what I use it for most.
Music — This is probably the thing I’ve used it for most. I think I’ve listened to more music at home since I got the Echo than I have done in the previous year. I’ve always had a decent stereo system in my lounge but that is rarely used as it meant physically connecting my phone to the amp. I also have a bluetooth speaker but because it meant keeping it charged, switching it on, getting my phone out, connecting it via bluetooth, navigating to a music App, and then streaming the music, I didn’t think to use it so much. Now I find myself constantly listening to music as it’s so easy. I just walk into the lounge, ask Alexa to play something, and she does! I can either ask for a specific track (using Amazon Music), a particular artist, a genre of music (for example, house music), or even podcasts or the radio. Controlling the volume, skipping tracks etc is all done via voice too which works brilliantly.
Timers — If I need to set a timer if I’m cooking for example, I can just say “Alexa, set a 10 minute timer”. You can even name them and have multiple timers at the same time. So I can even have a timer for boiling potatoes, and another for cooking a joint of meat. At any point you can ask how long is left on each timer too. It sounds like a fairly dumb use of clever technology, but it’s actually really really useful.
Weather — As mentioned above, getting the weather forecast is super simple and useful via voice. As I’m both British and a keen motorcyclist, then the weather is important :)
My Calendar — I’ve integrated my calendar with my Echo which again is really useful and much quicker than using my phone/laptop. I can ask what is in my diary for tomorrow, or (really useful) on a specific date. So if my wife asks if we have anything on a particular day I just ask and it tells me. It also allows me to add calendar entries which works really well too.
Making notes — The Echo has its own built in note and list taking function. This works fine but I wanted to do something a bit more complex. I use Evernote for all my note taking so have managed to integrate Evernote with Echo. I did this using the fab service IFTTT (If This Then That) and there are a whole load of integrations for Alexa here https://ifttt.com/amazon_alexa . Now I make notes using Alexa which automagically appear in Evernote :)
If you have any home automation devices such as a Nest thermostat, or smart plugs, these can also be controlled with Alexa. This is going to be next additional to the system. So I’ll be able to walk into the lounge and say “Alexa, switch on the lamp” and it will magically illuminate :)
There are loads of other uses for the Echo, including childrens games (my 5 and 7 year olds love “the animal game” where Alexa guesses an animal by asking them simple yes/no questions), comedy questions and answers (ask Alexa to speak like Yoda!), looking things up on Wikipedia (again, great if you have children). A lot of these are built in as standard and there are plenty of other blogs and articles on the subject for “cool stuff to do with your Alexa”.
Another thing I like is the ability to add new functionality to your Echo. This is done by adding new “skills”, which can be done via the App or even by voice. New skills are being added all the time for all sorts of purposes. These range from checking flight times for an airline, to adding games like “Jeopardy!”. As my day job is running a software development company (Appware), we’re already looking to create our own Alexa skill as a bit of fun and a test of the development system for potential future projects :)
I have so far just got the one Echo in our lounge, but the microphone is so good (it actually has 7 different directional microphones!) I can control it from the dining room and hallway. You can however have multiple Echo’s in your house that are all linked together. This means that as well as the usual functionality you can also use them as an intercom between rooms, and also as speaker system throughout your home. You can have the same music playing everywhere, or have different music in different rooms.
So in summary, my initial impression is really good. After the initial novelty of asking it silly questions and figuring out what it can/can’t do wore off, I have continued to use it on a daily basis. As mentioned above, there are a handful of things I use it for consistently as it works so well for these things. For someone who was pretty sceptical about the advantage of voice assistants, I’m turning into a bit of a convert.