Editor’s note: For you last minute shoppers, here is a gift you might want to check out. But be sure to read our other gift ideas.
A Multi-Purpose Assistant
Imagine having a digital assistant in the house that doesn’t require using a keyboard or learning to use a tablet, computer, or smartphone—an attentive digital assistant within earshot that could open and read a book, provide a weather report, access recent news updates, play music you like, help spell a word for a crossword puzzle, or convert tablespoons into cups for a recipe you’re putting together. Is that really too much to ask or hope for? Say "Hello!" to Alexa, the digital assistant built into the Amazon Echo! She might become your new best friend or the hardest working member of your household!
Basic Design and Setup of the Echo
The Amazon Echo is a deceptively simple looking device. It is a glossy black cylinder approximately 10 inches tall, 3 inches wide, with an AC power cord that plugs into a wall outlet. The top of the Echo has two indented buttons: one for power and one to turn the microphones on or off. The top of the Echo rotates right or left to increase or decrease the volume.
Inside the Echo is a speaker that will fill a medium-sized room and several microphones to hear your voice from any direction. A remote may be purchased separately but seems unnecessary. At it’s most basic, the Amazon Echo is a talking cylindrical speaker that connects to the Internet.
In order to set the Echo up initially, there must be a WiFi Internet connection available, and someone must have access to a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Setup requires connecting to the Amazon website to synchronize the WiFi settings in the Echo and to enable the various settings, profiles, and Skills to be used by Echo. Amazon calls the apps that may be enabled on the Echo, Skills.
It is worth noting at this point that, although the initial setup requires using a computer or mobile device of some type, once the setup is complete, Echo is usable completely by various voice commands. The initial setup is all completely accessible by following the voice prompts from the Echo after plugging it in and downloading the Alexa app from Amazon.com. Once the initial setup is complete, there is no need to use a computer or the app unless something is being updated, such as a new feature. After setup, everything is done with a voice command that begins by using the wake-up word, "Alexa." For example, asking the question, "Alexa, what’s the weather today," will result in Alexa responding with the day’s forecast in your area. You will get an extended forecast by asking, "Alexa, what’s the weather forecast for this week?" Responses from Alexa are surprisingly fast, and her voice is very pleasant. Alexa’s voice is one of the most human-sounding of all the digital assistants available.
Echo Can Be Synchronized with Alexa
By using the Alexa app, the Echo can be synchronized to a user’s Pandora streaming music account, Amazon Prime music library, Audible.com audio book library, and Google calendar to provide customized content. So, for example, the Echo will begin playing continuous music selections from musician Elis Paul with the command, "Alexa, play Elis Paul on Pandora Radio." To increase the volume, turn the top of the Echo clockwise or simply say, "Alexa, turn up the volume."
Alexa Works with Google Calendars and Appliance Switches
One of the most recent features is the integration of the Quick Events Skill with the Google Calendar, making it possible to add a calendar item completely by voice. To do this, Quick Events is enabled in the Alexa App, and a Google Calendar is setup as the user’s profile calendar. This needs to be done only once from the Alexa app to get the feature started. After it is enabled, Alexa will record a calendar event, by voice, using the command, "Alexa, open Quick Events." Then, follow her prompts to add a calendar item. Once the item is entered, users may review their calendar by saying, "Alexa, what’s on my calendar today [this week, this afternoon, etc.]."
In addition to the calendar, Alexa provides a limited range of other practical tasks, such as creating and maintaining a to-do list, shopping list, setting an alarm or timer. The Echo may also be configured to work with some appliance switches, such as the Belkin WeMo smart switches or the Phillips Hue smart luminaries. This means that once configured, users may turn on and off certain appliances in the house using a voice command, "Alexa, turn off the fan," or "Alexa, turn on the bedroom light." This feature would require the additional purchase of appliance switches to work with the Echo.
Echo, Alexa, and the Internet
Although the Amazon Echo is connected to the Internet, its access is limited to what is available in the Skills or understood from voice commands. Users, at the moment, cannot send and receive emails by voice or open specific Web pages. That said, however, a great deal of content from the Internet is available by enabling the various Skills. For example, the Echo will not take a user to the Huffington Post website for news, but with the HuffPost Skill enabled through the Alexa app, a user may read headlines by saying, "Alexa, open HuffPost." Headlines are read one at a time, and users may choose to hear more of an article or move on to the next one by following the prompts.
"Tunein Radio," is another source of Internet content that the Echo plays. Tunein provides a great deal of NPR programming, local radio stations that also broadcast on the Internet, and independent podcasts. These programs may be played by using the Alexa app on a computer or mobile device and sending the audio to the Echo speaker or by asking Alexa to play it using a voice command. If, for example, a user wanted to find the technology podcast "Cool Blind Tech," opening Tunein in the Alexa app under Settings would offer the ability to search for the podcast using the search box. Type "Cool Blind Tech" into the search box, select it from the results, and press the play triangle that appears. The podcast will begin playing through the Echo. On the other hand, you can use a voice command by saying, "Alexa, open Cool Blind Tech from Tunein." Using this same method, there are many other podcasts to play on demand, including the most recent version of PBS Newshour, ABC News Radio, BBC Radio, ESPN, and much more.
Alexa performs best when given the specific name of a particular program or podcast, so it may be helpful to look through the list of programming available from Tunein on the Alexa app. Also, even though Alexa does a remarkable job of voice recognition overall, there are times when several repetitions are necessary. For example, the request, "Alexa, play Cool Blind Tech on Tunein," resulted in this from Alexa during the review, "OK, you want to listen to Cool Blind Attack. Is that correct?" Which, of course, was not correct!
Using Echo as a Bluetooth
Another convenient feature for those who are mobile device users is the ability to use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker for another device. To do this, make sure Bluetooth is enabled on the device you wish to use then say, "Alexa, pair my Bluetooth." The Echo will then appear in the list of Bluetooth devices available for pairing on your mobile device, where you may select it from the list of available devices. The Echo has good sound quality and makes a convenient, external wireless speaker.
Alexa Is a Great Source for Entertainment
For audiobook readers, the Amazon Echo may be synchronized with an Audible.com account so that books in the user’s Audible library are streamed to the speaker. "Alexa, read my book," reopens the book you were last reading, right where you left off. To date, the Echo seems to have acquired a growing hodgepodge of Skills and applications to suit a diversity of interests. Alexa can provide Bible quotes and passages with the Bible App. You could, for example, say, "Alexa, open the Bible App," then ask for the quote of the day or ask that a specific verse be read.
Alexa is by no means all serious! There are a number of trivia games, Fantasy Football, Knock Knock Jokes, several skills offering quotes from different sources, a skill that reads Haiku poems, a Magic 8 Ball app that answers questions, and even psychotherapy sessions with Alexa’s sister Eliza! The psychotherapy sessions, while not rated very highly by reviewers, nonetheless, had members of my family howling with laughter at some of the questions and responses Eliza provided.
Privacy Controls with Echo and Alexa
One final observation that has been pointed out by numerous reviewers of the Amazon Echo during the past year is the always-on microphones. The microphones are listening all the time for the "Alexa" wake up word. You will notice, if you look, that each verbal command you make appears in the Alexa App, where it is recorded and converted to text. This enables Alexa’s responses to be very quick, but it is also worth asking the question, "How much of our daily conversations are recorded in the Echo, and what privacy concerns does a device like this create? Like the history of websites visited in a Web browser’s history cache, our past questions to Alexa can be erased in the Alexa App. It is worth noting that the microphones may be turned off when the Echo is not being actively used by pressing one of the buttons on top of the Echo. The light ring will change color from blue to red when the microphones are off. Just remember to turn them back on before you ask Alexa the next question!
A Great Device for Non-Computer Users
At $179 from Amazon.com, the Amazon Echo is an amazingly simple way for a non-computer user to access some of the content on the Internet, such as streaming music, informative podcasts, and news and weather on demand. Skills like Tech Crunch and HuffPost that provide headlines on demand, and Linkboard, which will search for news about a particular topic, are examples of rich, updated news sources, accessible with simple voice commands. For computer or tablet users, on the other hand, who may have multiple ways of getting the same information, the Echo’s ease-of-use and the convenience of getting information with a simple verbal request will make it very compelling and a lot of fun to use. The Echo has gathered together enough content providers and Skills in the one year it’s been available to make it a solid household appliance that will get used regularly by every member of the household. Invite Alexa over, and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without her!