The Amazon Echo is one of those products that the nerd community took to with quite a bit of excitement in 2016. There were no shortage of people prepared to give their take on the state of digital assistants, and Amazon’s Alexa, who is built into the Echo, seemed to impress people the most. So when Amazon put the Echo Dot on sale this Black Friday, I decided to take the plunge. I’ve been using the Echo Dot constantly for the last 3 weeks and have come to understand pretty well what it can and can’t do, as well as whether or not it fits into my life as my go-to assistant.
This product category is going to be huge
I have to be honest when I say that I didn’t “get” the appeal of these home-based voice assistants. I have my phone and my Apple Watch with me all the time, so I already have a digital assistant with me wherever I go. Why do I need one sitting in my house as well? It turns out the appeal is there, but I needed to own one for myself to truly get it.
This type of assistant works because it’s aways on, and it’s not tied to any one person. My wife and I use the Echo and it just works for both of us. My Apple Watch is always with me, but I have to raise it and start talking. It’s a tiny motion and wonderfully convenient, but being able to trigger Alexa without any physical action is maybe 2% easier. 2% isn’t a lot, but as humans we like to remove as much friction as possible. Because of this, there are things that I would normally ask Siri to help with on my Apple Watch that I now just ask Alexa to handle.
Additionally, my Apple Watch is mine not my wife’s, so she has no access to it. Likewise, our iPhones are tuned to our own voices, so we can only use our personal phones. This is great for making sure only one phone listens when one of us says “hey Siri” (usually works) but it’s nice to have something in the house that’s totally agnostic to who it’s talking to. Alexa is just as responsive to me as it is to my wife.
There are moments using the Echo that I fully appreciate that we’re living in the future, and that’s why I think it’s going to take off. You feel like you’re in a sci-fi flick sometimes when you just throw a question out there and a disembodied voice answers your question immediately. Amazon was first to market with this product category, but Google just joined in, and rumors point to Apple getting in the game next year. Here’s what the Google Home section has looked like at my local Target every day since Black Friday:
These things are getting into more than just nerds’ homes, and as we know Apple has a way of making product categories mainstream, so I’d expect to see these skyrocket if Apple releases one. But even without Apple’s help driving the market, Amazon and Google seem to be doing a pretty good job of pushing them on their own.
Amazon’s “far-field” microphones are no joke
The one thing that the Echo does better than any other voice assistant I have ever tried is that it just plain understands what you’re saying to it every time you speak. This is impressive for a few different reasons.
Right off the bat, it never misses its “Alexa…” trigger word. It always, always, always is ready to go as soon as you say the word. This is convenient by itself, but if you are familiar with the “hey Siri” trigger on the iPhone, you know that wondering if the device heard you and is listening makes it very hard to trust. When I say “Hey Siri…” I look down at my phone or Watch to make sure that it heard me before speaking. It usually does, but it has had enough issues that I don’t trust it implicitly.
I have never had very few instances where Alexa was not able to hear me ask it a question. I don’t have to say “Alexa” and then pause to look over and make sure she’s ready for my command, I just trust she is. The only times she has not heard me are when there is another noise, like a coffee grinder drowning out my voice.
The second part of this that’s excellent is that the Echo is very good at understanding the rest of my questions as well. It may not always have the answer, but it does always at least understand what I’m trying to get out of it.
The final huge advantage the Echo has over Siri and Google is that Amazon’s “far-field microphones” really do an amazing job of picking up your voice from a distance. We have our Echo in the kitchen, but we can trigger it from the adjacent living room, as well as the bathroom and even bedroom if we raise our voice a bit. It’s great because this is the sort of device you want to have everywhere once you have one. I could buy 3 of them and make sure I always have one right next to me, but the microphone’s ability to pick me up from far away makes that unnecessary.
“Alexa Skills” are (mostly) a joke
Amazon allows developers to create what they call skills and they are one of the things I was most exited to play with. I’m sad to say the skills available are mostly worthless.
The best skill by far in my opinion is Jeopardy J6, which is a mini Jeopardy game that makes perfect sense to play with a voice interface. I say “Alexa play Jeopardy” every day after work and she asks me 6 questions based on the episode of Jeopardy that aired that day. The questions are fair, and Alexa will scold you if you don’t answer in the form of a question. It works well, and is a bit of delight the Echo brings me every day.
The other skill worth playing with is IFTTT which lets you create your own functions without writing a line of code. The trigger is “Alexa trigger…” and then you give it whatever phrase you want. Because IFTTT is awesome, you can use this trigger to do just about anything you can imagine. I personally have ones that will send a notification to my phone and to add my todo list items to Todoist. IFTTT’s near limitless options means that if I think of something I want to add later, that should be a breeze.
Beyond these two skills, it’s been shockingly hard to find most skills worth a damn. You’re in luck if you want Alexa to tell you bad dad jokes or get drink recipes, but there are so many things the Echo seems built to do that it simply doesn’t right now. For example, there’s no good way to play podcasts on the Echo, as the existing skills are either poorly made, or don’t sync with any other podcast player.
There are Uber, Automatic, and 7 Minute Workout integrations that seem to be solid, but as someone who doesn’t use any of those services, they don’t do me any good. The 1-800-Flowers integration looks decent too, although I don’t think that’s something I want to do without a screen to see what the hell I’m ordering, and how much things cost.
Skills are something I was excited about up front, but have not gone back to after a bunch of terrible experiences. Maybe these will get better, but I think Alexa Skills make Apple’s Siri API look like the most amazing thing in the world by comparison.
Alexa is a great listener, but she could be smarter
Alexa shines at understanding my commands and questions, but she is not as amazing as I was hoping at always having an answer. The knowledgeable Alexa is referencing is vast, and certainly knows the answers to most things I throw at it, but it has not given me many “wow moments” where I was shocked by it’s breadth of information. If this was 2010 and voice assistants were still new then I’d be blown away, but Siri and Google Home have spoiled me to expect this sort of knowledge from these assistants.
Each voice assistant seems to have things that it specializes in, and Alexa’s specialty seems to be trivia. You can ask it questions about when people were born, how old certain animals live, and more, and it seems to know the answer more often then Siri does on my iPhone.
But where Alexa slips is in some of the things I use my assistants for most; sports.
Alexa gets the basics, telling me when the next game is for my favorite team, but it fails at almost anything more detailed than that. For example, asking “what is the Packers’ record this year” results in Alexa saying “hmm, I don’t know the answer to the question I just heard.” When asked the same question, Siri says “the Packers are currently 7-6” and displays a nice visual of the NFC North division rankings.
Alexa also is not as impressive at answering specific questions as I would like. It seems like she has answers for certain categories, but can not answer specific questions about them. For example, asking “what’s the weather look like today?” returns a nice summary of the current temperature, the high & low for the day, as well as the conditions. Great, but what if I ask it what the humidity is? It returns the exact same answer, which notably does not include the humidity. Asking “should I wear a jacket” returns the full weather report as well. She clearly understands these are weather questions, but is not able to parse out just the answer I want.
That said, Alexa gives great answers to the “is it going to rain/snow today?” question, giving you the odds of precipitation and how much you’re going to get. Siri for comparison, just says yes or no.
Because the Echo is a purely voice interface, the Echo either answers your question successfully, or or it fails hard, there is not much middle ground. Competing voice assistants Siri and Google Assistant have the advantage of having a screen as well (unless you’re using a Google Home, I suppose), so they can fall back to visual answers if needed, or even just a list of Google results if all else fails. This was surely a challenge for the Echo team, and they are doing an overall good job with getting as many answers as possible delivered via voice.
Overall, Alexa is definitely smart, and is a worthy competitor in the voice assistant game leading into 2017, but I certainly don’t think it’s worlds better than the other major players out there. It seems like Alexa gives better, more complete answers to questions, but she gets stuck more often than Siri or Google.
The Echo Dot does not need an attached speaker
The Echo Dot is smaller than the full sized Echo, and every other review I saw of this device seemed to imply that part of the cost cutting was due to the fact that it did not have a speaker and needed to be plugged into a speaker you had lying around.
This is not the case, and the Echo Dot works just fine on it’s own. It has full volume controls on its top so you can make it as loud or as quite as desired (there is also a button to block the microphone to have it just stop listening entirely). The built in speaker does not sound great, but it gets the job done for everything short of listening to music. It technically will play music, but the sound quality is woefully low. I’d sooner just use my iPhone’s built in speakers before using the Dot.
There is a 3.5mm headphone jack on the back so you can plug it into the speaker system of your choice, but it’s by no means a requirement.
Alexa users are also treated to special deals on Amazon.com when they shop through the Echo. There are usually a couple dozen deals you can find online, and the deals only work when you order through the voice control on your Alexa device.
For those who are just casually looking for a deal, you can ask Alexa “show me your deals” and she’ll present 2 options from that day. I have said no pretty much every time, but I said yes once, and got it on camera.
That not only added the item to my cart, but actually completed checkout and used my default credit card and shipping address and gave me 2 day Prime shipping. Incredibly smooth!
Smart home stuff
I currently don’t have any smart home stuff to test the smart home capabilities of the Echo Dot. I hear from other people that the Echo does great with this, but I unfortunately can’t confirm this. Expect a follow up in the new year after I get in the smart home game a little more aggressively.
Alexa vs Siri vs Google Assistant
This is what everyone wants to know, and the answer is a little hard to nail down. Check out the video above for an overview of some of the types of questions I ask my devices to see how all 3 assistants respond. My conclusion is a bit of a cop out, but I like having multiple assistants in my life, and no single one is the best at everything.
Alexa shines at weather, trivia, and for home automation, and feeling like it’s simply always available. That “always available” point is huge, as I find myself asking Alexa first for most questions I have. No, it doesn’t know everything, and it gets stumped more often than I would like, but it’s helpful far more often than it’s not.
There is nothing more frustrating than a voice assistant who doesn’t hear you, and despite Alexa not knowing quite as much as Siri and Google (in my queries, at least), simply knowing that it’s going at least understand what I’m asking it goes a long way to making it feel more reliable. It turns out I’m more forgiving of an assistant that does less, but doesn’t make me repeat myself.
The Amazon Echo Dot is a great purchase if you are looking to get in on this voice assistant train. It’s clearly still early days for these products, which is why the sub-$50 Dot is a great way to get in right now without breaking the bank. Even if you only use it for a few tasks, it’s so convenient that I think it’s worth the money even if you use it to set timers and ask the weather before you leave in the morning.
At its best, the Echo Dot makes you feel like you’re Iron Man with your own personal Jarvis. Despite my criticisms, the Echo has enough of these moments that has endeared it to me. I said this a few days after getting my Echo Dot:
The Echo gives me that “I’m living in the future” more than anything I’ve used since the original iPhone.
— Matt Birchler (@mattbirchler) November 29, 2016
I still stand by that enthusiasm. The Echo Dot is a very strong technical device, with a smart AI assistant built in. In the end, I think the Echo succeeds as a proof of concept for having an always-listening assistant in your home. Smartphones brought us the smart communicators we were promised in Star Trek, and this is the anthropomorphized smart home we’ve seen in everything from Iron Man to Minority Report to 2001 to a million other sci-fi stories.
I’ll probably end up getting Apple’s version of this when and if they release theirs, but in the meantime the Echo Dot is a fantastic addition to my home. Much like when I bought the original Pebble (RIP) watch, I know this is not the epitome of this technology, but it’s a bit of tech that I never want to live without again.