There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are fine talking to appliances and those who think it’s stupid. I’m in the first group, my wife’s in the second. So she wasn’t keen when I brought two Amazon Echo devices home.
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An Echo is a combination microphone and speaker that’s always connected to the internet and ready for your verbal commands. I got a regular Echo (about the size of a pint glass) and the smaller Echo Dot (the size of an ice hockey puck).
But Echo is just the device, it’s Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa that makes it useful.
Alexa can respond to various requests, from giving you weather and traffic updates to telling you terrible jokes. You can expand Alexa’s repertoire by downloading “skills” via the Alexa app on your phone.
Skills range from TV guides to games and also allow Alexa to connect to compatible appliances. I added a skill to control my WiFi-connected lights. I could say “Alexa, lights 50%” and the lights in my living room dimmed to half brightness.
Alexa also offers “Flash Briefings”, a customisable daily news and information rundown. I added the Radio New Zealand skill to get local news broadcasts. Alexa can play music too, via Amazon Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and other streaming platforms (but not Apple Music). You can request a song, playlist, or even a genre (“Alexa, play me some 90s music”). Because this is an Amazon service, Alexa can play audio versions of your Kindle e-books.
Annoyingly, there’s no master list of “invocations” (the phrases you use to command Alexa). The app suggests some, but mostly you’ll get there through trial and error.
Alexa has flaws, as do the Echo devices she occupies. Glitches include a lot of false positives – responding when not called for – and sometimes struggling to hear your command, especially when music or TV is playing, meaning you may have to repeat yourself.
When she was called for, Alexa didn’t have issues with what we said, but how we said it. My wife and I found we altered our speech patterns when talking to Alexa. We talked slower and changed how we framed questions so we’d get better answers. In a way, rather than learning from us, Alexa was training us to talk to a robot. Natural pauses in speech are interpreted as the end of a sentence, so you need to talk quickly and fluidly. My wife put on a British accent at times, which seemed to help for some reason.
I had to speak louder for the Echo Dot to pick up my commands and it gave the worst sound. If you want to play music through it, I’d recommend investing in a good Bluetooth speaker to connect to it.
My main problem was syncing my Amazon account. These Echo devices were set up for Australian Amazon, while my account, like many people’s, is connected to the US. So while the Alexa app would sync, my phone contacts and location wouldn’t. My Alexa also had an American accent rather than an Australian one. If you have the same issue, you can change your Amazon account’s location via the website. It’s simple and your purchases will be moved over.
I soon found myself wishing I had more devices connected to Alexa. It felt futuristic telling a robot to vacuum the house, or to play music without pressing a single button. Even my wife has come around to the idea of having a virtual assistant on call.
Amazon Echo $150
Amazon Echo Dot $70
First Looks are trials of new and interesting products from the perspective of our product experts. Our lab-based tests offer truly objective product comparisons.
The Amazon Echo and Echo Dot were loaned to the writer by Amazon.
By Hadyn Green
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