Every year for Christmas, Megan usually gets me one tech toy to play with. This year, it was Amazon Echo. While Amazon's initial announcement ad was hokey and cheesy, the actual product is a lot of fun. After having it for nearly two months, how am I liking it?
It does pretty basic things very well. Once you set up Echo with the companion phone app, it does a great job customizing to your own needs. Megan and I both use it in the mornings to check the weather forecast and get the news. Most of the news is read to you by NPR instead of Alexa's voice the whole time, while sports news is delivered by ESPN radio, giving top highlights of the day prior and even scores of your favorite teams that you set within your app settings.
The weather piece is fantastic. We both get up and walk/run every morning with the dog and it's great to just say "Alexa, what's the weather like?" and know whether or not to add an extra layer before going out the door.
I also love that it works in conjunction with Pandora. This is probably the feature we use the most. The app connects with your Pandora account and saves the last playlist you listened to. So when I walk in the door from work, all I say is "Alexa, turn on Pandora" and I can start unwinding with Rat Pack radio, refreshing beverage and a book until it's time to start making dinner.
A few other fun apps include:
- You ask Alexa to read the verse of the day or even specific books of the Bible, syncing up with the YouVersion app. I much prefer using this on my phone, mainly because I haven't figured out how to get the YouVersion app out of the King James version on the Echo yet.
- Ask the Bartender
- If you want to make a favorite cocktail but don't know where to start, the "Ask the Bartender" skill is useful. Let's say you're watching The Big Lebowski and feel like making a White Russian, you just say "Alexa, ask the bartender how to make a White Russian" and she'll start reading out the ingredients and instructions to make one. It's not a feature I really use but it's a fun party trick nonetheless.
- I love trivia and this is a fun way to keep your mind sharp. After asking Alexa to play Jeopardy, you receive six new questions every day to answer. And yes, you have to answer everything in the form of a question.
- Asking other questions
- While it's not perfect, I love asking Alexa random things to see what what the response is. Kind of like Siri, there are little easter eggs hidden for different questions. I even went as far as asking her why farts smelled bad and received a very well-thought out scientific explanation.
A Cool Hack: Syncing Echo with Todoist
If you use other smart home appliances (we don't) or are a heavy user of IFTTT for automating tasks, Echo does wonderfully. You can connect your Amazon Echo account to your IFTTT account and automate several tasks.
One in particular is it's recipe for Todoist. All I have to do is say "Alexa add _____ to my to do list" and that item will be added to my Todoist account....which syncs up with my cell phone, desktop app and Microsoft Outlook app. So if I remember something out of the blue at home that I need to do, all I have to do is say the item and it's synced up everywhere. That little hack has come in handy more than once.
The not-as-great parts
Like with any voice-controlled AI, it's not perfect. Alexa doesn't always understand what you say or have an adequate response for some simple tasks. Even for finding out sports scores, you have to be very specific in how you ask about a team's schedule. As specific as "Alexa, what time do the Atlanta Falcons play football today?" You eventually get used to it but I'm sure the technology supporting voice recognition here will improve with time and software updates.
This product is also pretty useless without Amazon Prime. You can't really get the full benefits of this product without having a Prime account. If that's a deal breaker for you, you may be better off just using Siri a bit longer.
All in all, I've really enjoyed using Amazon Echo. It's a lot of fun to have around, pretty handy most of the time, and will only improve with time.
What are some other features that other users like? Any skills I should look into downloading onto the device's app?