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Amazon Echo: What is it?

Posted in Amazon, business, cloud computing by commorancy on June 20, 2015

Amazon EchoWhat is Amazon Echo?

It’s an approximately 10″ flat black cylinder with reasonable quality speakers, an led ring around the top, a voice recognition system and a remote. While that may seem a little simple, these are the fundamental pieces that matter.

If you’ve ever used a Roku, a smart TV, Amazon Fire TV or an Apple TV, then you pretty much know what Amazon Echo is (minus the speakers). Except, Amazon Echo is intended to be used with audio programs (i.e., news radio, podcasts, music, prime music, weather radio, audiobooks, speech synthesis for reading articles, etc). Anything you can imagine with audio, the Amazon Echo would be the perfect companion. What Apple TV is to movies, Amazon Echo is to audio programs.

In addition to the Alexa audio assistant (like Siri), with a web, tablet or phone app, you can completely control your Echo with the Echo companion app. There is so much that is required by the app, you really can’t get along without it. In fact, you need the app to hook up the Echo to the WiFi which also asks a series of questions about how it will be used. So, if you don’t have a phone, tablet or computer browser, good luck setting up your Echo.

And no, you don’t need to own an Amazon tablet. You can use an iPhone, iPad or any other Android tablet or phone. In fact, you can even use your computer’s browser. Because the Amazon Echo is hooked to the Amazon eco-system, you will also need an Amazon login and password. But, you likely already have this since you purchased the Echo with it. But, if you’re planning on giving it as a gift, the person you are giving it to will also be required to have all of the above. So, Amazon Echo is probably not the best gift idea for those who are not computer savvy or those who choose not to be connected. Remember that this is first and foremost a cloud player device. The faster the speed of the internet connection, the better Echo will work.

Is the Amazon Echo useful?

That’s a good question. If you’re someone who listens to radio programs or other audio programs like podcasts, then perhaps. Though, keep in mind there are some severe limitations in what you can do with the Amazon Echo. For example, the partners Amazon has chosen for its ‘audio channels’ are limited to Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Audible. So, like Apple TV has limited video channels, Amazon Echo also has severely limited audio channels. Because of the audio partner limits, you really get a very small selection of content. For example, if Amazon had partnered with Sirius radio, there would be a whole lot more programming choices. Or, for that matter, partnering with Muzak, Soundcloud, Rhapsody, YouTube audio, Last.fm or other audio partners, I would say there would be much more choices in audio. Until then, Echo is nice but somewhat a novelty.

Alexa vs Siri

Alexa clearly has a better voice than Siri. But, other than the voice choice, the functionality is about the same. Like Siri, Alexa has easter eggs, knows what she knows, but what she knows is very very limited. So, don’t expect to be able to ask Alexa complex questions. To activate Alexa, you simply say the key word ‘Alexa’, suffixed quickly by what you want her to do. For example, ‘Alexa, set volume to 5’. Alexa is always listening for the keyword. Once you say the keyword, Alexa will begin listening for your command.

Wording matters with your sentences or Alexa gets quickly confused as to what you’re asking. For example, there’s a difference between asking ‘Alexa, play Frank Sinatra Songs for Swingin Lovers’ or ‘Alexa, play Songs for Swingin Lovers by Frank Sinatra’ or ‘Alexa, play the album Songs for Swingin Lovers by Frank Sinatra’. The shorter you tend to phrase your request, the more likely Alexa is to do the wrong thing or become confused and do nothing. Echo sometimes hears a phantom keyword and activates.

There are many times when you ask Alexa to do something that instead of responding with ‘Okay’ or some affirmative voice response, the led ring at the top flashes in a ‘special way’. So, we’re left to try and decode the R2D2 led responses from the Echo. Instead, I personally believe Alexa should affirmatively or negatively respond to every voice command. Unfortunately, she doesn’t.

Oh, and no, there is not yet a way to change the voice to a male or some other alternative voice. Though, you can change the wake-up word. So, it doesn’t have to be ‘Alexa’.

Alarms, ToDo Lists and Shopping

It is to be expected that you can shop for music through the Echo. So, if you ask Echo to play something that leads to samples, you can buy the song that’s playing. This will then be put into your library for future playback.

You can set up to 1 alarm and up to 1 timer. This means you can set an alarm for wakeup, but you can’t have two alarms. So, if you have a spouse or partner, you can’t have your own alarm and they have one set for a separate time. That won’t work, yet. If you want to time down two different things (important while cooking), you can’t do this either. It supports only one timer.

When the alarm or timer goes off, the audio noise it makes is limited to an internal sound only. Even though you have access to Prime music and radio, you cannot set the timer to use one of those audio sources. So… limited. There are also other limits.

There is a ToDo and Shopping list that you can ask Alexa to manage. You can say, ‘Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list’. When you open the Echo app, you will have your shopping list with you in the store. You can also remote control the Echo app as long as you have Internet on your phone. So, if you have a cat and you like to leave music playing, you can set up playlists, turn the volume up or down, change the music or shut it off.

Music

This is probably where the Echo shines its brightest. With its two speaker system, the audio is bright and vibrant. Not quite as nice as the Bose Soundlink Mini, but the sound is acceptably full and rich for the cylinder design. Unfortunately, it also has no stereo and it needs it. Amazon needs to offer a companion cylinder connected by bluetooth to offer full rich stereo sound. In fact, it could offer several BT connected cylinders to offer 5.1 or 7.1.

Beyond the sound quality issues, having access to Prime music is a necessity here. If you aren’t a Prime member, you really can’t take advantage of what Echo offers. If you do have Prime, then you get access to not only whatever you’ve purchased or uploaded to Amazon’s cloud player, you also get access to the full Prime music library. Still, Amazon’s Prime library is limited. It seems to have a lot of classic rock choices, but not all of it. So, while it has Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, it doesn’t have Supertramp, for example.

Though, Autorip is your friend with Echo. If you buy a CD with Autorip, it automatically becomes available on the Echo as soon as you’ve paid. However, if you purchase a CD at Target and rip it, you’re limited to 250 uploaded songs unless you pay Amazon an additional $25 a year for 250,000 song uploads.

Audiobooks

If you are a big Audible.com consumer, then you have a distinct advantage with the Echo. You can listen to all of your audio books right on the Echo. If your library is vast, you’ll immediately have a lot of content available to you. In hindsight, I should have been buying audio books when offered with my Kindle purchases, but I never really had any way to play them. With Echo, that’s changed. I will definitely consider audio books in the future.

Kindle Support?

In short, no. There is no support for Alexa to read back Kindle book content using Alexa. Alexa would be the perfect companion to the Kindles that do not offer audio voice playback. Considering this is an Amazon product and would be the perfect companion for the Kindle, the integration between Kindle and Echo is non-existent.

Audiophile Quality?

Definitely not. You’re playing streaming music here, in mono no less. So, while the Echo is great for podcasts, news and incidental background music, don’t give up your audiophile gear. Much of the music streamed from Amazon prime has the telltale mpeg haziness. Echo never skips or stutters while playing Prime or library music, so its streaming IO seems quite robust, but it just doesn’t sound high quality. This is definitely not to be considered an HD quality device as it clearly isn’t. So, don’t go into an Amazon Echo thinking you’ll be getting a high quality music experience. The music does sound decent, but it’s not anywhere near perfect.

Though, for news, podcasts and other spoken word programs, the Amazon Echo is perfect for this use.

Speech Synthesis and Browsing

The voice for Alexa sounds great most of the time. However, when reading back a synopsis Wikipedia article, she doesn’t always do a great job. While music is Echo’s strongest area, the article reading is easily one of Echo’s weakest. Instead, of becoming an audio web browser (which is what Echo should become), Alexa only offers page snippets of articles and then encourages you to crack open a browser or tablet and finish reading there. If Echo is going to do this, why bother using Alexa at all? If I can get better results by reading it myself, then Alexa is pointless for this purpose.

Instead, Alexa should provide full 100% article reading. Read me news, wiki articles or, indeed, any other page on the web. If I ask Alexa to browse to Yahoo News, Alexa needs to be able to read article headlines and let me choose which article to read back. Literally, Echo should become an audio based web browser. Echo should set the standard for audio web browsing so much so that Yahoo and Google optimize their pages for audio browsers much like they are now doing for mobile devices.

Kitchen Use?

Echo would be the perfect companion in the kitchen. Tablets and other touch devices are no where near the perfect device in the kitchen. They get dirty and must be touched by dirty or wet hands.  Echo, on the other hand, is the perfect hands-free kitchen companion. ‘Alexa, how do I make Beef Stroganoff’. Seems like a simple recipe request, but no. Alexa has no knowledge of cooking, recipes or anything else to do with kitchen chores. This seems like a no-brainer, but Amazon made no effort here.

Problems and Crashing

After having unboxed Amazon Echo, it had already crashed within 10 minutes of using it. Not the app, but the actual Echo. The app lost connectivity to the Echo until it had rebooted. Though, I have also had the app crash. So, this first incarnation of the Echo is a little beta still. I’m guessing that’s why they cut the 50% off deal with those who were invited to pick them up for testing. Though, when the Echo works, it does work well.

Improvements

The Amazon Echo could benefit from a number of improvements including:

  • Battery backup
  • Full audio web browsing
  • Games (i.e., chess, checkers, etc)
  • Better interactive integration between Echo and its companion app
  • Satellite interfaces (to use Echo in every room)
  • Stereo audio / Multichannel audio (using multiple cylinders)
  • Audio playback to stereo BT devices (i.e., headphones and speakers)
  • Speakerphone
  • Remote control of Amazon devices
  • Check status of Amazon orders
  • Recipes and general kitchen helper
  • Alexa reading Kindle books
  • More audio channels such as:
    • Sirius Radio
    • Police Scanners
    • Custom podcast URLs
    • SoundCloud and similar sites
    • YouTube Audio
    • Last.fm
    • Spotify
    • MySpace Music
    • Amie Street
    • A much bigger selection of Internet radio stations
    • Archives of pre-recorded news broadcasts

Limitations

This first incarnation of Amazon Echo is quite limited. Echo has about 1/10th of the feature set you would expect to offer a complete experience. For example, it should become an audio web browser. Audio is the next evolution in browsers. Sitting at a computer watching a screen is time consuming. But, using an audio web browser, you could browse the web and work on other things. It’s easy to listen and still focus on other tasks. We do it all the time.

In fact, Alexa needs to be imported into every Amazon device including the Fire phone, Fire tablet line and every other interactive device it makes. While Alexa needs to be on every Amazon device, the use case of Echo and all of the audio channels should still be limited to the Echo.

So, while Alexa exists and works as well as Siri, Alexa is simply the input and output device on the Echo out of necessity. The functionality of the Echo needs to firmly focus on all aspects of audio communication including podcasts, dictation, news programs, web browsing, audio books, cooking, music and more. Alexa shouldn’t be overlooked as the home helper, but not strictly on the Echo. I know that Amazon is planning on expanding the Echo to supporting home automation through such phrases as ‘Alexa, turn on the light’. But, that requires a home automation system that interfaces with the Echo. There are probably other uses just waiting to be explored.

In fact, if Amazon were to put Alexa on every device, you could have a unified Alexa system throughout your home. So, each device could learn the types of things you do regularly and share that among all of the Alexa systems. So, if you frequently ask for a specific type of music, Alexa could offer recommendations for new playlists.

Overall, it’s currently an okay device. Out of 10 stars, I’d give it 4 stars. Amazon compromised just a little too much in all aspects of this device to make it truly outstanding. In fact, Alexa should have had white LED lights on the unit so that it could illuminate the room. It also needs a battery backup so you can still use some of Alexa’s basic functions, like the alarm clock, if the power goes out. The next incarnation of the Echo will likely make up for its current shortcomings.

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