Monthly Archives: May 2015

A first look at Amazon’s Echo

After months of wait our Echo finally reached the Fontana household last week. As a Prime subscriber it was so inexpensive ($100) that I did not think twice about whether I needed it or not. It was just a fun thing to test. (note: it’s now back down to $150 for Prime Members, $200 else).

Here are my first impressions 10 days into it…

First, if you are not familiar with Echo, think of it of Jambox, meets Siri/Cortana, meets an embedded music player.

Now for more details…

The set-up is really simple and straight-forward, similar to the Chromecast one. You plug it in a power outlet, go to the Echo setup site, sign-up to your Amazon account, connect to the Wi-Fi network your echo broadcasts, enter your home Wi-Fi credentials and that’s it! Echo will then be online and you will control it from your browser (or Kindle Fire app) via the cloud and Amazon backend (see diagram below).


Now what can you use it for?

First, it’s a fairly good wireless speaker (hence my Jambox analogy) with really good 360 degrees microphone (it also comes with a wireless remote with microphone on it for when you’re really far from it. But so far at up to 5 meters it works great).

It connects to and plays your music library on Amazon (whatever your bought plus uploaded on Amazon cloud storage music service), Prime playlists, Pandora channels, TuneIn radio stations and iHeartRADIO. Just wake it up by saying “Alexa”, and then say “Play” and what you want to hear. My first attempt, just to make our youngest happy, was “Alexa, play Taylor Swift”. From that moment on she was hooked on Echo! (our youngest, not Taylor)

After 10 days this is by far (80%+) how we use use Echo the most. Just as an easy to use media player+speaker. Which is already really nice and worth the $200 current list price. You can also control and search music from the app or a browser if needed.

Other scenarios that Echo enables (as of May 1st 2015…):

  • Ask a random question: “What is Barack Obama’s age? “, “ How many people live in Washington state”, etc. It’s similar to what you would do with Siri or Cortana but – at least for Cortana- with an even lower success rate unfortunately. It’s a V1 product so let’s be patient here… There are also a few Easter eggs (such as “who’s your daddy”, but not as funny an answer as with Cortana) if you want too look for them.
  • Ask about the weather forecast or traffic on your commute
  • Ask about sport results
  • Ask Echo to tell a joke (another favorite of our youngest!)
  • Set a timer (only one so far)
  • Set an alarm (only one so far, and not possible to chose anything specific –like music- as an alarm sound)
  • Add something to a to-do list. A plain list you can print. That’s it. Not super useful alone, but potentially a nice back-up
  • Add something to a shopping list. It’s one plain list too so I don’t plan to use it to replace the current per-store list I maintain on a family OneNote, but it’s a nice add-on for when you hands are taken while making food and your don’t want to forget to purchase a missing item.

On the last one I finally understood what was in it for Amazon with Echo: under my shopping list item a “search on Amazon” was displayed on the web interface. I was able to click to get on Amazon’s search results, select, purchase and got it delivered for free (remember, I’m on Prime). Very smart move from Amazon! image

Following this I tried to purchase some music directly from Echo. It worked..ish. I finally was able to purchase it but it took me maybe 15 tries before I found the right way of asking for it. Still some progress necessary here though the concept is interesting (especially for Amazon top line). Nice little security feature: you can setup a pin through the web interface. Pretty useful if you have little kids at home I think.

The full web interface:image

You can also set Echo up as a channel. It’s brand new (and the channel is called Amazon Alexa, not Echo) and has some nice potential. However, for now, it only supports your Echo to-do and shopping list . For instance, each time a to-do is added in Echo, it can be added to your OneNote (or Evernote). Ditto for shopping lists. You can also trigger an email to be sent time you say “review my shopping list” on Echo. The full list of IFTTT triggers supported so far is:

  • Asking Echo what’s on your to-do or shopping list
  • Each time an item is added, edited, completed or deleted on your to-do or shopping list

Finally, Echo supports Bluetooth connections with phones, tablets or PC. Not only it’s a cool feature on its own but, if worse comes to worse, you can repurpose it as a Jambox-like device and stream music or anything from your device to Echo. One feature I’m missing though is the ability for Echo to support the headset Bluetooth profile to be able to use it’s amazing microphone array and good speaker as phone or Skype external speaker and mic. Something my Jambox can do.

A nicely done Echo demo video

Echo’s site: