I preordered an Amazon Echo when it was first announced early this year, and it turned up just over a week ago. Here's a few first impressions after using it for a week:
- Setup was very easy. Plug it in, download an app, connect it to the wifi network through that... Done.
- I like the look of it. It's a beautiful, if slightly stern, cylindrical monolith which sits comfortably atop a wooden box in the corner of our living room. - The curved black metal reminds me of what I liked about the Nexus Q.
- The voice detection is great: I can speak at quite low volume from the other side of the room and it hears me. I can be playing music loud, tell it to stop, and it hears me. Those 7 microphones Amazon put inside are doing a good job.
- I also like that I can speak naturally, without needing to wait for a response giving me permission to continue: less "Alexa... ... ... Play my news briefing" and more "Alexa, play my news briefing". It feels conversational.
- Addressing a plausibly human name feels good. I'm much more comfortable talking to Alexa than saying "OK Google", "OK Moto", or even "Siri". Fewer syllables than OK Google, too. If I had a friend IRL called Alexa, it might be a bit weird.
- When it detects that you've started talking to it, it responds by flashing its top-surface LEDs around in a circle - a great signal that you're being heard which doesn't involve interrupting the conversation (compared to the bleep that Google voice search uses for the same purpose, which can feel like a slightly assertive pause - software clearing its throat to let you know it's there).
- Those LEDs are also used as a progress indicator when it's looking up answers online, another useful hint that the tiny monolith is communing on my behalf. They stay lit whilst it talks to you.
- Responses seem blindingly fast - it seems to take less than half a second to find answers to most questions.
- It's (obviously) way faster to start talking to Alexa than it is to get my phone out and unlock it, or to raise my wrist to my mouth. Fast is better than slow.
- There's something nice about the Echo having a permanent place in the living room. I'm always addressing something (someone?), rather than speaking through a device to a being that's somewhere else, or everywhere, or nowhere.
- My lack of commitment to the Amazon ecosystem stops me from playing my music on the Echo - which is a shame, because I can imagine it'd be great being able to do so. I'm already wondering about the viability of syncing my Play Music library into Amazon.
- Fantastic if limited podcast integration: "Alexa, play my flash news briefing" starts a roundup of the BBC news and local weather. "Play the latest RadioLab" does just that. Beyond this, the search for podcasts isn't so great - I can't seem to find some of the more obscure ones I might want (e.g. A16z), and when I ask for them it seems that Alexa does a search across my music. Better search across podcasts please!
- The shopping list integration and reordering of supplies seems good, but I've not really tried it yet. As with the Dash project, I think the aim here is to have Amazon make decisions about when to ship items to customers and for it to control batching of them (versus today's world where we individually batch a shopping list into an order, so losing the benefit of any shipping that could be shared with other nearby customers).
- The companion app feels a bit poor: it's sluggish (I sit on a loading screen for too long watching a spinner when it starts), and crashes occasionally, and the first screen list of my recent searches feels more creepy than helpful.
- The app seems to list all the apps it integrates with (TuneIn, Pandora, etc). I can start a podcast playing from one of these (though having started it, I couldn't control volume from my phone - irritating) but this feels like a stopgap: it won't scale as Amazon add integrations, voice search across these has to improve.
- There's a tucked-away "Connected Home" menu, in which you can tie WeMo and Hue devices up to voice control. I've bought a few WeMo plug switches for our coffee machine and the DropCam which watches the cats whilst I'm away. Rigging them was super-simple. I'm already more inclined to tell my coffee machine to turn off than to bother flicking the switch. I may be abnormal here.
- Commands have a simple verbal acknowledgement: "ok". When you give a command and the Echo is playing audio, audio is faded out and in nicely.
- Why rig up the coffee machine? Real User Problem: leaving home, walking for 10 minutes, turning to each other and saying "did you turn the coffee machine off?"
- Related: I want to be able to talk to the Echo through my phone when I am out, and give her commands remotely.
- You can set up groups of devices and control them with a single name too. "Turn off the lights" etc.
- There's support for multiple Amazon accounts in there: I can invite other people to join the household, at which point we can have individual preferences for our flash news briefing, share a shopping list, share content, etc. Not tried this yet.
- Echo comes with a small remote control. I've not used it yet, but there's a nice nod towards the intended use there: it comes with a holder which is magnetized and attaches neatly to the kitchen fridge.
- Overall, I'm impressed. The Echo carves itself a really interesting niche; I'm sold on the notion of giving it a permanent space in my living room, and am looking forward to seeing where it goes beyond 1.0. I can imagine starting to use Amazon for lower-value items like washing powder, purely out of convenience.
The biggest weakness which worries me is the media tie-in to Amazon ecosystem; I should imagine they lag a long way behind iTunes and Play, and that new users are unlikely to switch to Amazon for Echo.
Observation when re-reading the above: I started out talking about Echo, but slipped into referring to Alexa and personalizing the writing (fixed). Nass and Reeves, take a bow.